Oct. 13--Not everything you read online is true, or maybe even accurate.
But when consumers are busy or unfamiliar with an area, online reviews can be a useful source.
Experts and area businesses say user-generated review pages are not only helpful to consumers, but they're effective marketing tools for businesses. However, active pages also can open businesses up to poor reviews that can hurt them, and bogus reviews can mislead consumers.
Sam Bradley, an assistant professor of business at Alvernia University who teaches marketing and has done research on online reviews, said sites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon and Angie's List can be beneficial for various reasons.
"People trust word-of-mouth promotion more than any other form of communication," Bradley said.
But they shouldn't all be trusted. A 2012 report by the research firm Gartner concluded that between 2 percent and 6 percent of online reviews are fake or deceptive and predicted that will increase to about 10 percent by 2014.
Last month, the New York state attorney general's office ordered 19 companies to clean up its online review practice and pay fines totaling $350,000 to settle charges of manipulating online reviews for websites such as Yelp and Google Plus.
The crackdown arose from an undercover investigation in which officials created a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn and asked search engine optimization firms that work to increase a company's online presence to help with marketing. The result was the companies hiring writers from various countries to write fake reviews.
However, there is value for consumers in reading accurate reviews.
According to the Gartner report, about 31 percent of consumers use online reviews because they find the opinions of a person more credible.
Adam Cocuzza, owner of Say Cheese Restaurant and Cheese, West Reading, said he places a lot of emphasis on digital marketing and he checks his online ratings daily. But he does have reservations about how more people tend to post negative comments than positive ones.
"We live in a free world, and everyone thinks they're a critic," he said.
Bradley said the observations of business owners are accurate. He said people will typically tell three people about a good experience, whereas they'll tell nine people about a bad one.
"People are more disposed to complain about a bad experience," he said.
Judy Henry, owner of Judy's on Cherry, 332 Cherry St., said this is what makes it more challenging for small businesses that may not have the time and resources dedicated to monitoring and encouraging people to fill out reviews.
"The only thing you can do is to try and get people who have positive reviews to flood your website with those things," she said.
At Piazza Honda of Reading, 915 Lancaster Ave., Julie Wall, Internet manager, said the business takes a more proactive approach in contacting people to ask if they were pleased with their experience, then referring them to dealerrater.com.
Dealerships can pay to have negative reviews removed from dealerrater.com, but Wall said Piazza Honda of Reading doesn't do that.
Bradley said it's important that businesses have a well-rounded review for a consumer so they feel they aren't being manipulated. A few negative reviews can actually do some good in gaining trust as well as helping the business.
"User reviews can also be useful in improving a business," Bradley said.
This is one of the goals of the Abraham Lincoln hotel, Fifth and Penn streets, which promotes its Yelp page on its website.
Robert Lepore, senior vice president of Dallas-based DePalma Hotel Corp., which manages the property, said that as the hotel undergoes renovations, online reviews serve as a reference for what people thought about the hotel and what the areas of improvement were.
"Yelp is like a focus group," Lepore said. "We encourage people to tell us about their experience."
When potential customers look at reviews, Bradley recommends thoroughly considering the reviewer, the content and the site they look at.
Henry said thorough research is important if customers use online reviews.
"If you choose to use social media as a yardstick to make decisions as a consumer over who to patronize, you need to look at the overall picture," Henry said.
Contact Amy Friedenberger: 610-371-5066 or email@example.com.
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Original headline: Online reviews can be useful -- if they aren't phony
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