Whether you're looking to buy a new netbook computer or find a nice hotel for your next vacation, or anywhere in between, there's probably a Web site or blog out there with reviews about the particular type of product or service.
Such evaluations used to be the province primarily of professional reviewers, who typically were journalists writing for magazines or newspapers, often specialty publications in which readers could have confidence that the reviewer had in-depth experience with the subject matter.
Now, in the age of the Internet, anyone can post reviews online, whether they're a rank novice or seasoned expert. This democratization of reviewing, which generally is a good thing, has inevitably created the temptation with some ethically challenged companies to "manage" the review process by giving incentives to people who post positive evaluations.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently jumped into this fray again, on the side of consumers who expect to see honest reviews. It ruled that its "truth of advertising" principles apply to online user reviews.
Earlier, in 2009, the FTC issued new guidelines against fake online reviews and fake blog posts that create the impression that they're from ordinary people when in actuality they're written by people paid by the company behind the product or service or by the company itself.
In August of 2010, in its first case dealing with these guidelines, the FTC ruled against a public relations firm in California that was planting good reviews online on behalf of its clients. The wheels of justice do turn, if slowly.
The clients of this PR firm were mostly developers of games for sale at the Apple iTunes store. The PR firm was paying users of these games to give them top ratings, with these users not disclosing they were being paid. One way of looking at this is that these users were being bribed. Another way is that their evaluations, as a result of the users being paid, changed from reviews into ads.
The FTC wants the same advertising disclosure principles that apply to the offline world to apply to the online world as well. The New York Attorney General has also involved itself with this issue.
It's obvious to many people who peruse online reviews that cases like this are far from isolated. The FTC and other regulators are hoping that their involvement will send a message out there that if you cheat like this, you may get caught.
Some bloggers have expressed concerns that their free-speech rights may be curtailed. Bloggers in some cases receive products or services for free so long as they write about them, an ethically gray area. Often, bloggers wouldn't be able to afford to test such products or services otherwise. On the other hand, free access to a product or service creates an incentive to write a positive review about it, even if this is just a subconscious thanks.
The FTC, thus far, is indicating that its priority is with those who are being paid money to write positive reviews online without disclosing this.
In the meantime, here are some tips to keep in mind when reading online reviews to help you separate the wheat from the chaff:
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.