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Better Than Google

Fake! Fake! Fake!  What am I talking about? On-line reviews, of course, and they are more common than you might think.  Researchers estimate that 10% to 30% of reviews posted on line are absolutely fake.  Where do you find these fake reviews? You find them on Yelp and Trip Advisor, Chow Hound, Amazon, wherever people can post an anonymous review.  Who is doing it?  Business owners who want to counteract bad reviews, or who want to post a bad review about a rival.  People may be posting a review of a place they've never stayed at, or eaten at to be malicious, vengeful, or they just have too much time on their hands.  Whatever the reason is, they are very hard to catch. Companies such as Amazon do their best to weed out the most obvious fake reviews, but they still slip in.
What can you do?  Be a critical reader and thinker.  Read the review carefully, and exclude the ones that are too gushy, or too harsh.  I recently wrote a deservedly negative review on TripAdvisor concerning a dreadful motel I stayed at.  Other people had posted bad reviews, but the one posted right after mine was glowing.  I was suspicious that they had such a wonderful experience at this flea bag, and questioned whether this reviewer had even stayed there. I think it was a false review, designed to counteract my unkind, but truthful post. 
In answer to the question, can user reviews be trusted, Consumer Reports posts this warning: User reviews can be enormously helpful, but you should be aware of certain caveats when reading them. Remember that Consumer Reports doesn't control the information posted by consumer reviewers. We hope those sharing their opinions actually own the items, but we can't verify this. There's also chance a manufacturer or retailer has submitted an opinion in order to promote a particular item, and that opinion may not be as honest as you would like. If you think that someone is writing inaccurate or misleading reviews of a product, you can bring it to our attention using the "flag this review" link under the review.  In essence, Consumer Reports is warning you to trust these reviews at your own peril.
They also include some helpful tips to keep in mind when reading on-line reviews.

People are likelier to review what they strongly like or dislike than something they find simply satisfactory.
Even the most thorough reviewer may lack the context that comes from extensive side-by-side tests.
Some reviewers may be especially hard on a product or use it incorrectly.
Some may inadvertently praise or pan the wrong model.
Users and manufacturers may try to skew the results by intentionally posting biased reviews themselves or through others.

These tips can be used in evaluating any on-line review sources, not just Consumer Reports. While it can be useful to check on-line reviews, do it with a healthy dose of skepticism, and don't base your decisions entirely on them, especially when making a substantial purchase.

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