Online user review seeding

Trawling around the net today, I stumbled across this MobileCrunch article on user review seeding. It’s about a company I know, Reverb Communications. The gist of the article is that they are advertising as part of their services the ability to seed user reviews on iTunes. It’s presented in this article like – oh my god, can you believe this is happening, these guys are so horrible!

Having been in meetings with Reverb (for work that was pro bono, so I’m not partial), I’ve actually found them to be one of the better PR/marketing agencies I’ve worked with. So for me to see them getting beaten up for what is a fairly common practice makes me mad.

At the same time, I don’t want to defend the practice! Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of book publishers, game publishers, and PR/marketing agencies. I’ve been aware of online user review seeding happening – with both negative and positive reviews – in a handful of these companies. I personally find this to be a questionble practice, but many just see it as a way to do free marketing. So it’s important to recognize that it is occurring. It’s not too dissimilar from “street teams” that travel to bars and tell people how great a certain model of digital camera, or car, is. This is also questionable, and pretty inexpensive.

It’s surprising to me how many people in the article’s comment thread are surprised by the fact that this is occurring. I just assumed everyone knew it was going on. The practice makes individual user reviews less valuable, and the aggregated scores more valuable. It’s a lot harder to spoof 1000 reviews than it is to spoof two or three.

Re-reading what I just wrote, I remember how mad I was the first time I found out someone was seeding user reviews. I was pretty pissed too, because it seemed to break an unwritten trust rule of online user reviews. But I always used to treat the Internet like it was a special place, removed from some of the practices of the real world. It might have been once, but now it’s actually pretty much the same. In good and bad ways.

Gads, I sound like I’m scolding “get your head out of the clouds” or something. 🙂 I’m the last person who wants to do that, I’m an idealist at heart. But I find myself balancing it with realism more often lately. Maybe that’s what happens as you get older. I wish I could trust everything everyone says online, but it’s just not realistic.

What’s important is for people to understand why someone is saying a particular thing – and this is an important skill everywhere. That positive user review? The user might be from the developer’s family. That commercial bashing the public policy option for U.S. national healthcare? Might be paid for by an insurance company who fears that they will be forced to charge less for their insurance policies. That politician advocating for funding for a bridge in their district? The district itself might not actually need it, the politician might just be trying to curry favor with a small group in order to get voted into office again.

I trust a comment or review from my circle of friends much more than I do from people or companies I don’t know or can’t easily evaluate the background of.

“If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is”, “Your mileage may vary”, etc. 🙂