~ Reverse engineering of online customer reviews ~
By slappy and sem (slightly edited by fravia+)

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Published @ http://www.searchlores.org in late May 2007 | Version 0.01

~ Reverse engineering of online customer reviews ~
By slappy and sem


During our research phase slappy and I found several interesting and quite promising papers which led to many further aspects that should be taken into account or be inquired more in depth. So at some point we needed to decide whether to keep gathering information and expanding the paper to the point where it would have enough loose threads that it will never be finished or tie several knots and wrap the paper up to get it out. This is the result of our efforts, hope you enjoy it.


Online reviews can be found on nearly every site that sells things. The reason is to improve the perception of the product. In comparison to general marketing the main advantage is that it is a cheap and easy way to do this, since everyone may post their opinion and the only thing that needs to be provided is a medium. This doesn't mean general marketing is dead, reviews work on a different, more personal level as you will see.

Naturally, companies have a big interest in selling their goods. So when a correlation between good reviews and a rise in product sales becomes visible one comes to think of what can be done to get more positive feedback. And since writing a review is technically allowed for everyone, the idea of creating reviews isn't far fetched.

Let's take a look at the scenario of a review feature. In general there are three roles that can be taken.

  • The manufacturer
    He produces goods and wants to sell them. Because it is convenient and cheap he sells his product through a widely known online shop (e.g. amazon).
  • The online shop
    This role is the man in the middle with all sales that take place through the shop. The shop provides a public and presumably well known and frequented site on the net where people buy goods of the different manufacturers.
  • The customer
    He is the end user, the one that buys the product. The decision to buy is what all this fuzz is about.
  • Let's have a closer look at these three and start with the online shop. What can be said about these places?

    First their interest is in making sales, as every sold item is a gain for them. What the manufacturers offer to the customer doesn't matter so much as every sale provides income. On the other hand they do want to improve overall sales as this is what counts for them. Their resource is their publicity as this is what determines the amount of visitors who will eventually buy things.

    This is why manufacturers also sell there and not only on their own sites. The trick is to immerse the visitor in the site, to give him a feeling of a known and controlled environment (generally people like the feeling of a surrounding where they think nothing bad can happen, but that's another story), which provides a service to them and also is giving feedback to their opinions. Mostly the feedback is not about appraising the customers opinion but to make him feel in control. By giving the option of writing reviews the user is put "in control" to some extent. Not enough to have him worry too much about the consequence of his actions, but enough to make him feel that what he does, does matter. And in a way it actually does. Good reviews may persuade others to buy, bad ones may discourage others from buying. Interestingly Microsoft actually advises midsized businesses to employ customer reviews on their sites [1], as this would be beneficial for their sales. Their site has some intersting points.

    Next let's take a look at the customer, the person what all of this is about... oh well it's probably more about his money, but you catch my drift.

    As said before the user needs to be put into an environment where he feels nice and comfortable. Giving him a means of reading experiences of other people with the product, he'll get more involved and get a better "feeling" for the product and also improve his ties to the service as he gets "uncensored" information. This whole theme is part of the "word of mouth" propagation that also takes place in every day life and - matter of factly - behaves quite like it[2]. The user thinks that the reviews he's reading are authentic since they were written by another "user" who is just stating his point of view which may be a pro or contra opinion. This gives the user a (sometimes not so) slight prod in the direction of buying the product or not.

    The last one on the list is the manufacturer. He must take care that his products will be sold more often than those of any competitor. For him it's all about optimizing his assets. Focusing on the reviewing theme there is a clear signal coming through to the manufacturer, better reviews translate into more sales. The solution could be to either improve the products by taking the information which can be gleaned from the reviews, or generating good reviews on their own.

    Let's get back to the review theme. So the question is "why do people write reviews?"

    While looking for texts about why people do write reviews doesn't give any fast results, asking google for people's opinions about it does.


    In summary these are the reasons:

  • They have strong emotions about the product (either good or bad)[3]
  • They feel the need to be helpful or improve things (either for other customers or to the company by providing information about how they think it would be better)
  • Empowerment, the feeling of having some way to influence things
  • Along the lines of empowerment, the ego-boost of writing something that someone might actually read and find helpful.
  • As you can see most reasons to engage in review writing is about emotions. It's a basic human need to communicate and to feel accepted and this is what positive reactions or even their thoughts about their reviews do... but we digress.

    Influence peddlers

    Several techniques are utilized by the shills [4] to manipulate peoples views. The following elements differ in levels of personal interaction and targeted audience. They are listed in order of growing personal interaction.


    As of today only the most gullible people fall for that kind of crap. It lives by the sheer amount of messages posted everywhere, mostly regardless of context and topic. There is no personal level from which the communication operates even though there were and still are several attempts to give a touch of a personal message to it. This is done by a style of writing which tries to create emotions (fear and curiosity are the ones used most) in the victim without actually addressing any substantial information. An example for this is the "you won xxx$ !" notification. In terms of manipulating customer reviews this isn't much of an issue but more of a nuisance since most spam is easily recognized by the absence of any information about the product and shameless exaggeration of its greatness. By the way, many positive posts of normal users are subject to this definition of spam.

    Opinion makers

    They turn up every now and then, especially when a product is taking a beating. Then they try to tell that the product isn't so bad and actually is the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread. Well you get the point. Most of the time (e.g. when actual discussion on a product is possible) they stay around for a few posts to support their statement and then leave. Many of those are not much better than the average spammer and just keep writing their appraisals. A difference to the spammer is that those people have a slight contextual grasp of the average opinions where they post. Mostly they don't bother to read all of the opinions before they post which is part of the reason they are detected quite quickly. In general they speak good of their product which they claim isn't theirs and try to sublime the credibility of critics or ridicule their doubts. Some more inclined opinion makers tend to improve their initial trust-base by supplying additional "personal" information [10]. People are generally more inclined to believe a supposedly "real" person than some strange nickname. Another scam to improve credibility of faked reviews is to publish them under the name of a known / prominent person. Many people tend to let their guard of critical thoughts (if there's any) down when reading opinions from so called "experts".


    Although they don't fit nicely into the active manipulators of users they should be mentioned. Companies or marketers which give away free sample products or pay money to people who happen to have a way of broadcasting their opinion to many people. Mostly this happens with writers of highly frequented blogs. The idea is to rely on something that most people are subject to. When given a present, many people tend to feel the need to return the favor. Even more so without an obligement to do something in return. So the hope of the "gift-bringer" is to earn a few favorable words in public in trade for his free product. When calculating the return of investment this pays much more than paying for advertisments.[12]


    As with the secret agent kind of sleeper, this fellow is someone who behaves normally and integrates himself into the community until his time is due. Until then he works to become a trusted member whose opinion and statements are taken as a good lead by other members. When his time has arrived the mission is to plant beneficiary comments about a product without "blowing his cover". This does not only lead to imminent improvement of preception but may also result in further gain by additional word of mouth propaganda as other members might actually take the point of view presented by the sleeper.

    To perform this in a profitable manner the sleeper has to be active in several forums at the same time. This idea is actually practiced [5] but requires people who are capable of handling multiple personalities and topics and have some social engineering skills in order to work properly. The way of the sleeper presented above is the "ideal" way of how this theme should work. Luckily efficiency is reduced by shortage on qualified personnel willing to do this and the requirement of fast results with short integration times.

    The real world

    Until now you might have wondered if you should, or not, take my word for this, and asked youself if this isn't a paranoid view on the online shopping theme. So here are a few things to see for yourself.


    Take a look at the top reviewer on amazon. As of today this is harriet klausner with 13723 reviews. On first sight there is nothing that catches the eye, but doing some math raises questions. Lets suppose she has been reviewing for amazon the last 5 years.

    13723 book reviews
    2744.6 books per year
    52.78 books per week
    7.54 books per day.

    For the sake of argument one could say that she might be around 40 years old and read all her life. Assuming she remembers all the books she has read and assuming again that she actually tooke the time to write a review for every single one of these books, this would mean a reduction of her ratio to ~1 book every single day of her life. And if that doesn't look suspicious to you how about this:

    Between 2007-04-26 09:16 and 2007-04-27 15:26 her review count increased from 13723 to 13736. That is the impressive amount of 13 reviews all submitted within one hour. All except one of the reviewed books were published in April 2007. By the way her stats around the 20th of february of this year was 13282 submitted reviews. This means 441 reviews within 66 days. So the average quote is 6.68 Reviews per day. What d'you say? Would you trust her? :-)

    On a related matter there are also authors who choose to hold their quarries on amazon [7] and [8]. So they also use the reviews as a tool to manipulate the potential buyers, even if their primary intention isn't the thought of manipulating others but to take revenge on the other one. Anyways the result is the same.


    Although you might at first think different, what eBay employs as a "reputation system" is nothing else than a review based system. The only difference is that not the product but also the vendor (and also the buyer) is "reviewed". Scams are commonly known incidents by almost every user. And you can see that there are several people who try to reduce the risk of people being fooled [9]. Although the actual deals are in this case more along the lines of general fraud, the "building of trust" to have the user take the bait is performed by manipulating the reviewing system.


    Here's an example of the usage of forums (which can take quite the same function as the general review service) to improve the perception of the main target audience, as those will surely influence others to also buy their product (see sleepers) [11].

    If you care to look for it, you'll be able to find lots of smaller and not so small schemes all around these reviews, blogs and forum landscapes.


    Actually we planned on going deeper into the matter of how shills operate and try to manipulate people but this would be more a topic for a paper of another scope e.g. as an extension to the trolling lore.

    I hope you found some interesting hints and thoughts. That's all folks.


    [1] Microsoft's advice on online reviews
    [2] [PDF] Draft: Exploring the Value of Online Reviews to Organizations
    [3] [PDF] Study: Everyone's a Critic: a Qualitative Study to Investigate the Perceptions and Attitudes towards Book Review Websites...
    [4] Wikipedia definition of a shill
    [5] A post about guerilla marketing, hiring sleepers / opinion makers
    [6] A rant about amazons review scheme
    [7] An example of authors taking influence on the competition
    [8] Another example of authors taking influence on the competition
    [9] A short text about the issue of reputation faking on ebay
    [10] An article about credibility of movie reviews on the net
    [11] A blog entry about nvidia using shills
    [12] Another blog entry about bloggers being paid to create content

    (c) sem / slappy 2007

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    (c) III Millennium: [fravia+], all rights reserved, reversed, reviled and revealed