We’re all aware of the power of positive endorsements, whether it’s in the form of a Facebook “like,” or a simple thumbs up. That's especially true on the Internet, which is often the first place many of us turn to when searching for research on products and services. But should you trust user reviews and other online reviews?

Often, a review on sites such as Amazon.com or TripAdvisor can sway a shopper who isn't sure whether to make a purchase. According to a survey published in 2015 by market research firm Mintel, 70 percent of respondents 18 years of age and older said they seek out opinions from user reviews before making a purchase online. And a majority of them said they would pay more for a product or service that has positive online reviews.  

But online reviews aren't always as innocent as they seem and savvy shoppers should be skeptical of what they are reading. The reason? Some of those endorsements aren't actually written by other consumers.  

The department-store and e-commerce chain Lord & Taylor, for example, reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission this month over charges that last year it deceived consumers by paying for publicity in the guise of objective editorial content. That included a company advertisement masked as journalism in Nylon, an online pop culture and fashion publication.

Lord & Taylor, the FTC said, also paid so-called influencers to wear, tout, and write about the products it sells without revealing to the public that they were compensated for the testimonials as required by the FTC. These influencers posted Instagram pictures of themselves wearing the same paisley dress from the Design Lab collection, but failed to divulge that they had each been given the dress as well as $1,000 to $4,000 dollars in exchange for the endorsement.

Though illegal, the campaign proved highly effective: The dress sold out quickly. 

Fake endorsements—whether ads posing as articles or user reviews posted on websites—have long undermined consumers and created big headaches for e-commerce websites. Last year, for example, Amazon filed a lawsuit against more than 1,100 people accused of posting fake product reviews on the site.  In 2013, Edmunds.com, a site consumers turn to for car research, sued a marketing company that placed fake online reviews about car dealerships on sites such as Yelp and Google+. At TripAdvisor, fake reviews about topics such as hotels and restaurants became such a problem that the company employed a large staff dedicated to eradicating them.

Tips to Detect Fake Reviews

The lesson for shoppers online: When a “friend” extols the virtues of stylist, the tiramisu at an Italian restaurant, or the white-glove service at a particular hotel, be aware that the gushing might be payback for freebies. Here's some advice to help you to avoid being duped:

  • Be skeptical. It’s often impossible to know whether the strangers who write the reviews have actually used the product or if they are simply shills. A useful review by a user might be able to tell you that the towels you’re considering buying aren’t the shade of white advertised. But a glowing review of those towels should raise your suspicions.
  • Check the reviewers. Root around sites with user reviews to find out exactly how the publishers manipulate, filter, and use them. Look for signs that they have systems in place to publish and monitor the reviews. OpenTable, a site that allows people to book tables at restaurants, says that its Dining Feedback program is "designed to limit participation to only those who actually dined at the restaurant, as indicated by the status of their OpenTable reservation."
  • Seek wisdom in numbers. Don’t rely on any one review. Read multiple reviews and opinions from sources that have proved credible in the past and look for patterns. 
  • Don't play Sherlock Holmes. Consumers are often advised that they should be truth detectives and scrutinize reviews for signs of fakery. But becoming an expert isn't easy. A few years ago, when Cornell researchers asked undergraduates to determine which of the 800 user reviews for 20 Chicago hotels were phony and which were real, the students showed no ability to do so.