If some of the online reviews of certain businesses' goods and services seem to be too good to be true, you may be right. Many of them are fake reviews placed by companies trying to game the system, researchers say.
Review sites are becoming targets for '"opinion spam"—phony reviews created by sellers to hype their own products and dump on the competition. The problem is that human beings are usually lousy at identifying deceptive reviews.
But researchers at Cornell University may have good news. They are developing computer software that's skilled at ferreting out bogus reviews. Their software was able to pick out 90 percent of deceptive reviews in a batch of 800 reviews of Chicago hotels.
In the process, the researchers uncovered some key features to help determine if a review was spam and even discovered evidence of a correlation between the linguistic structure of deceptive reviews and fiction writing.
"While this is the first study of its kind, and there's a lot more to be done, I think our approach will eventually help review sites identify and eliminate these fraudulent reviews," said Myle Ott, a Cornell doctoral candidate in computer science, who presented the work the annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics on behalf of his fellow Cornell researchers.
Ott cautioned that the work so far is only valid for hotel reviews, and for that matter, only reviews of hotels in Chicago. The next step, he said, is to see if the techniques can be extended to other categories, starting perhaps with restaurants and eventually moving to consumer products. He also wants to study negative reviews.
"Ultimately, cutting down on deception helps everyone," Ott said. "Customers need to be able to trust the reviews they read, and sellers need feedback on how best to improve their services."
Review sites might use this kind of software as a "first-round filter ," Ott suggested. If one particular hotel gets a lot of reviews that score as deceptive, the site will know to investigate further.
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