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Monique Keiran: Treat online reviews with skepticism

This week, the Royal B.C. Museum opens its doors to the local community.
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The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

This week, the Royal B.C. Museum opens its doors to the local community. In return for a cash donation, residents and visitors can tour the museum’s galleries, travel back to the province’s early years, and view one of the world’s best collections of West Coast First Nations art and artifacts.

Some weeks ago, online travel-booking company announced that the museum ranked first in the company’s Top 10 Canadian museums for 2014. The museum was also confirmed as a Travellers’ Choice winner, a position it has enjoyed for several years. The awards are based on reviews and opinions posted on the online site by travellers.

TripAdvisor announced its news on Nov. 18. That is also Canadian Museums Day. Marking the date with the announcement created synergies for TripAdvisor, the museums being celebrated, Canada’s museum industry, the travel and tourism industry, the online-booking industry, and people who share their opinions online.

But, in another sense, the timing was unfortunate.

Just two weeks earlier, CBC’s Marketplace called into question the legitimacy of online reviews as a guide to a business’s reputation.

The investigation exposed an industry devoted to faking online ratings and reviews, and creating phony reputations for businesses, services and products.

Many consumers rely on online reviews when making purchasing decisions. The better the reviews, the more likely they are to decide to eat at a particular restaurant, hire a certain contractor, buy that computer from a certain company, or book a room at a particular hotel.

For companies, positive reviews often translate into more business.

In the report, the Marketplace journalists created a concept of a trendy food truck. They built a website, Photoshopped a bunch of pictures to make the concept appear real, and created a video.

Then they searched out online-reviewers-for-hire who, for not much money, fashioned a reputation out of nothing for the fake business.

In tracing the investigators’ path, I found I could purchase 500 YouTube views for $4.99, 150 YouTube Likes for $24.99, and so on (all U.S. dollars). If only I had a video posted on YouTube. On YouTube, I even found videos instructing me how to make fake YouTube views.

Another site offered 1,000 real followers — as opposed to fake followers, perhaps? — on Twitter for $13, and 100 retweets for $10. Facebook Likes, Shares, Friends and Comments can also be bought in bulk.

Of the three online restaurant-review sites that the Marketplace report monitored, only Yelp filtered out some — not all — of the fraudulent reviews. Google and UrbanSpoon caught none that were posted for the phoney business, despite their published (online) policy prohibiting phoney ratings and despite being told the food-truck business was a fake.

The television report did not feature TripAdvisor. However, in 2012, the company was outed for its high number of false positive reviews made by owners, associates and employees of hotels listed on the site of their own hotels, and of false negative reviews of the competition. The fake-ratings problem prompted the company to begin filtering reviews.

Now, I’m not saying the Royal B.C. Museum’s 1,608 Excellent (out of 2,251) reviews on TripAdvisor are not legitimate. It is a very good museum, with some spectacular collections.

Considering the above-mentioned shenanigans, the museum’s measured response to the Nov. 18 announcement is reasonable. Online rankings and awards might indeed help to boost its visitor numbers — especially among tourists.

However, the Marketplace report and other damning studies of the trustworthiness of online reviews show that such ratings, as with all things online, need to be viewed with a touch of skepticism and considered within larger contexts.

In any case, the TripAdvisor rankings would form just one small component of a complex public relations strategy employed by the museum to attract visitors.

Offering admission by donation at the start of every new year is another.

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