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Are Anonymous Online Reviews More Trustworthy?

The days of flame wars and trolls may be numbered. And user reviews may be the worse for it.
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The days of flame wars and trolls may be numbered. And user reviews may be the worse for it.

Recently Google changed its policy for app reviews on the Google Play Store: If you want to say something about an Android app, you now have to use your Google+ account, which tells the world who you are.

Google didn't say why it made the change. But according to researchers, while the move will likely reduce fake assessments, it may hurt user reviews more than it helps.

People will be less willing to post reviews, especially negative ones, said Yaniv Dover, an assistant professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. With more employers looking into an applicant's online activities, people are much more aware of how what they say online can reflect on them in the physical world.

An anonymous review can't be easily tied to an established online identity like your Facebook or Google+ profile, and the anonymity gives reviewers more freedom to say what they really feel, Dover said.

Google's not the only one moving in this direction. Many sites, such as CitySearch, CNN and Vimeo, offer the option to use your Facebook login before you can comment — which means that all comments you make can easily be tracked back to you. People don't want prospective employers seeing them express negative opinions, Dover said. They also may worry that an employer can learn too much about them, like that they play a lot of video games.

While there's little benefit to reviewers, there's an advantage to Google, according to Billy Pidgeon, an analyst with social research firm Inside Network. "Keeping reviewers in the Google+ network keeps data inside the network," Pidgeon said in an email to TechNewsDaily. "This will give Google data on what types of users like which kinds of apps and this can be used for marketing and recommendation algorithms."

Anonymous reviews on the Web open up the chance for fakes — praise planted to bolster sales, or put-downs to harm a competitor. Dover was one of the lead researchers in a study that looked at ways to tell if a review was fake and how much fakery was going on.

The study used TripAdvisor, a site that allows anyone to create an account and comment about hotels, and Expedia, which allows reviews of hotels only from people who have purchased the hotel room through the site. The study showed more sham reviews on TripAdvisor, but the amount of fibbing was low enough that it didn't affect the overall value of the reviews.

Other groups are working on technology to sniff out apocryphal reviews. A team of computer scientists at Cornell University developed a model to evaluate "deceptive opinions" by searching for key phrases and found that the problem is growing. Both the Cornell and Dover teams found that making people purchase something before posting a review reduced fake reviews because it costs the reviewer more — in terms of time, effort and actual cash. [See also: Computer Program Spots Fake Product Reviews ]

While fake reviews may temporarily skew the rating of a specific app, they don't diminish the overall value of user reviews. Dover said that crowds tend to regulate themselves. In the case of apps, if a bad one gets 10 bogus positive reviews, more people will download it in the short term, but disappointed users will post negative reviews to offset the fake ones.