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Anonymous Reviews Can't Be Trusted

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Compared to the average commenter on the Internet, amateur hotel and restaurant reviewers are consummate professionals, if not even helpful sometimes. Sure, you'll get the occasional pretentious foodie who'll give your favorite place one star because they didn't like the way the valet guy looked at them, but overall sites like TripAdvisor (TRIP) or Yelp (YELP) -- which has recently forged relationships with both Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) -- seem to do a pretty good job of providing a consensus on most visitor's experiences.

But they're not, according to Buzzfeed, because certain review-based sites are increasingly being flooded with fake reviews written by either the business itself or by third-parties the establishment hires to write for it.

A group of Cornell computer scientists decided to sniff out fake reviews from legitimate ones by analyzing six sites -- Yelp, TripAdvisor,, Expedia (EXPE), Priceline (PCLN), and Orbitz (OWW) -- and their results were not encouraging. They found the amount of phony reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor have been steadily increasing since 2009, to the tune of a 6% fake rate for TripAdvisor and 4% for Yelp (the other four have plateaued at 2%). If that doesn't sound like much, consider there are 60 million reviews currently up at TripAdvisor, meaning you're reading about 3.6 million fake ones.

And, according to recent studies, we are not very good at detecting the scam artist's work. So the Cornell crew came up with a genius plug-in they call Review Skeptic which, they say, analyzes "language models to spot fake reviews with nearly 90% accuracy." While perusing TripAdvisor, labels will automatically pop up declaring each review as either "suspect" or "real," leaving it up to you to believe what you want.

One of the reasons that make Yelp and TripAdvisor so susceptible to fraudulent reviews is because they intentionally make it easy to post reviews, as opposed to creating hurdles like proof of stay that may lead to more honest postings. But the ease is part of their successful model, the companies believe.

TripAdvisor's director of content integrity, Andrew Marane, says, “There's real value it not limiting who can express their opinion about their experience based on how they paid for it or where they booked it.”

So as far as user-based Internet reviews go, it's still the Wild West out there, and there's no sheriff in sight.

(See also: Microsoft Uses Apple's Techniques to Battle Google)
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.