Aug. 27, 2012 at 7:07 PM ET
An article in the New York Times about a man who produced thousands of book reviews on Amazon for pay has attracted widespread attention, not just because of the unscrupulous behavior of its subject, but because of the unpleasant truth it tells about online reviews: tons of them are fake.
In addition to the hard evidence provided by Todd Rutherford, who charged $99 per review (or less if you bought in bulk), the Times' writer cites one scholar who offers another dire assessment. Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that fully a third of all online reviews are fake. Of course, telling the fake ones from the real ones is no easy chore, especially since almost all were written by actual humans.
What does this mean for people who use such reviews to guide their purchases, be it a book, laptop, or exercise ball?
Considering the number of bad reviews for well-regarded classics like "The Great Gatsby" and "Moby Dick," one can't always take a negative evaluation at face value. But positive reviews, like those Rutherford and his organization produced, are far more likely to be fake.
Perhaps the best course of action is to actually examine the reviews themselves for critical acumen. Regular critics, professional or not, may not always share one's taste, but they take their work seriously.
David Streitfeld's widely shared article has the rest of the story on Rutherford's short-lived review empire.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.