Consumer reviews are an important part of our online shopping experience, whether we're window shopping for a new espresso machine or looking to book a hotel for an upcoming vacation. You know when reviews aren't helpful, though? When companies pay writers to post fake glowing reviews and five-star ratings. Skirt the issue by reading reviews across multiple Web sites; it's not the same crowd on every travel review site, for instance. And it's also good policy to give a little less credence to the most extreme reviews -- the very highest ratings and the very lowest ratings may contain interesting bits of information, but it's the average reviews and ratings that will tell you the most common complaints and compliments about the product or service.
If you think you can spot a fake review nine times out of 10, think again. Researchers at Cornell University found that we're only able to identify fake-positive reviews about 12 percent of the time, so chances are good you'll fall for a fake one of these days. But those same researchers have taken what we can't do and created software that can: In fact, it's 90 percent accurate in spotting fake reviews [source: King]. What have they spotted about reviews that we can borrow to evaluate them better? It's subtle, but the difference is in the key words used in the reviews. Real reviewers, are most likely to include words such as "small" and "bathroom" in their reviews, for example, whereas fake reviews often give themselves away with more marketing-friendly words like "my," "vacation," "hotel," and "experience" [source: Ott].