Reviews – Signed by Anonymous (2017 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

I enjoy reading customer reviews of products and services. Frequently the comments are valuable. Some people write very well and articulately explain their personal take on their purchases. Others lack writing skills but are able to communicate that they were really pleased or disappointed with the vendor. Of course a product review is only one part of the total picture. Sometimes I find it useful to consider the opinions of others prior to a purchase, and on other occasions I deliberately ignore the crowd and decide what to buy on my own.

And when I peruse reviews on the internet I notice that some are signed by the author while others are anonymous. To me, a signed review makes a better impression, and I give it more weight than comments coming from a person who chooses to remain nameless. But I am aware that there is a school of thought that claims anonymity is a good way to get to a person’s true feelings. According to this view someone who does not have to reveal who he is has no fear of being criticized and, therefore, is more likely to express his authentic opinion.

Having people review, rate, or vote anonymously is certainly warranted in special cases. But full disclosure of identity is usually the better way to go when products and services are being evaluated.

Consider what makes a review worthy of your attention. There are two main factors – the person has to be qualified to do the rating, and he has to be motivated to express a sincere opinion.

Qualifying a reviewer means there is some way to assure that he has actually bought and used the product or service. In an attempt to court customers by trickery, some unscrupulous merchants post fake reviews on their websites that proclaim their products are superb. Even worse, there are reports of merchants posting counterfeit negative reviews on their competitors’ websites with the intention of driving business away. Apparently there are companies that will do the dirty work for merchants who want to game the review process by fraud. For a price, they promise to load positive reviews on their clients’ site and nasty comments on web pages of their rivals.

An obvious way to reduce fake review mischief is to require proof that the rater is qualified. At some level this implies that the identity of the rater is known. Cautious companies only post reviews of people they have invited to rate a product – that is, their confirmed customers. The merchant may or may not know how particular individuals have rated products, but the identity of the rater is captured.

Notice that qualifying customers is parallel to what is done in general political elections. Voters may use a secret ballot, but there is a public record of who participated.

Turn now to the second issue. Raters should be motivated to express their sincere opinions. What could get in the way of this requirement? Reviewers might be afraid that they will get in trouble or be embarrassed if others learn their evaluation. And reviewer fear can discourage them from expressing their true feelings. In the political realm this is the rationale for secret ballots. If a person does not have to reveal how he votes, he cannot be intimidated. Parenthetically, this is why there is a controversy regarding secret ballots when company workers decide to join or reject a union. Those who want to put pressure on workers need to know whom to target. And the secret ballot is an obstacle to bullying.

I teach courses for MBA students at a graduate school of business. Every semester students at the school are urged to complete online ratings of classes they are taking. The school goes to great lengths to emphasize that the ratings are anonymous. Apparently the administration is concerned that teachers might inappropriately reward students for good ratings or punish them for critical reviews. Anonymity is designed to minimize this possibility. Here a case can be made that nameless reviews are sometimes appropriate. Incidently, in my courses students give me signed ratings of my performance after each class session. Their anonymous online ratings and their weekly signed evaluations are nearly identical.

So an important issue is whether there is a realistic possibility that the reviewer will unfairly reap rewards or suffer harsh consequences if he signs his evaluation with his real name. If you rate a product or service – either positively or negatively – and the vendor or readers of the review strongly disagree with you what is likely to occur? Not much. Other people might write or say that you are completely mistaken, but it probably will not go any farther. What happens to the outlier who announces he does not like the food at a popular restaurant, or buys famous brand athletic shoes and complains about their fit, or goes to an expensive resort and reports it was not worth the money, or praises a new smart phone that expert critics have trashed? In general, nothing. Real life cases of harsh reprisals (or lavish prizes) for honest – but against the mainstream – reviews are difficult to find.

And this brings us back to the issue of concealing or revealing the identity of a rater. If you are reading product reviews be suspicious of those where the name is withheld. What are they afraid of? Here is a message to reviewers. Be brave, use your best judgement, and let the world know who you are.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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