How to Recognize Biased Online Software Reviews

By Robert Brandl / 02 October 2019

Learn how to find trustworthy software review websites by recognizing biased reviews. Though certainty is hard to come by, looking out for affiliate marketing relationships and balanced content can bring substantial peace of mind.

The importance of peer-generated content is growing rapidly. Not only are web users reading this content, but they're also trusting it. In fact, readers now trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.

Is it naive to place such a strong level of trust in online reviews?

Have you ever bought a product after a reading a few reviews only to be burned by an important flaw none of the reviews mentioned?

If so, you’re definitely not the only one. As someone who reviews tools for a living and leads one of the largest blogs for website-related tool reviews, I've talked with many people who have been misled by a dishonest review.

These days, more than half of businesses use paid advertising methods. Plus, an increasing number of brands are adopting affiliate marketing. This can make you wonder whether a review is authentic or has been paid for by the developer.

How to Recognize Biased Online Software Reviews

  1. Does It Contain Positives and Negatives?
  2. Does It Downplay the Negatives?
  3. How Is the Site Funded?
  4. Is the Content Original?
  5. Are There Too Many CTAs?
  6. Are Obvious Product Options Missing?
  7. Does the Site Use Heavy Paid Advertising?
  8. Is the Commenting Function Disabled?

Why Do Fake Reviews Exist?

There are many reasons why a software review may not be authentic. One is that the reviewer uses affiliate links in their content, taking a nominal payment for every application that’s purchased through the link.

When using affiliate links, reviewers have a financial incentive to focus on the highlights of the software—it increases the chance of a purchase. But, the software developer may also be creating or paying for fake reviews as a reputation management strategy.

Both of these reasons trick businesses into spending for software that may not be exactly they need to grow and develop.

To reduce the risk of paying for software that’s not right for your business, it’s important to know the different signs of biased reviews.

1. Does the Review Contain Both Positive and Negative Aspects?

A few glowing reviews aren’t anything to be too concerned about. But, let’s face it — not everyone is going to love every single feature or every single aspect of the user experience (UX). If a review website talks exclusively about positives, you're red flag should go up.

If you look at my website's review of the best website builders, you'll notice that there are very clear positives and negatives discussed for each tool. 

best website builders

Ask yourself: why are even the biggest software providers out there making constant updates to their products? It's because no software is perfect.

Authentic reviewers should discuss the disadvantages of every product.

2. Are the Negative Aspects Continuously Downplayed?

Even reviews that contain both positive and negative aspects can still be fake, which is where this gets trickier. People learned to spot fake reviews when they only talked about positive things, so fake review authors changed tactics.

The most common fake-out today is when biased reviewers mention negative aspects of a product but severely downplay them. They will usually list obvious disadvantages and then spin them into positives:

  • "Product A lacks this feature, which you don’t really need because…"
  • "Product B is quite pricey, but it has this cool feature..."

A good review should be honest about the downsides of the product, rather than trying to trick readers into overlooking them in strong favor of the positive aspects.

3. How Does the Reviewing Site Make Money?

How exactly is the review website making money? This can be a complicated question to answer. Could the reviewer simply be someone who does this in their spare time, for the love of it? Of course. But, on the whole, review websites (especially big ones) are designed to be profitable.

Ideally, there should be transparency in how the website is being funded. If you look at my website's About Us page, you will find this section:

website tool testing funding

Without transparency, you have to ask… is the website's only purpose to drive affiliate sales?

4. Does the Review Contain Original Views?

Although it may take a little time, it’s always worthwhile to compare the language in the review to the content on the software's product page.

Sales copy that’s been lifted straight from the developer’s website (or at least as close as possible without setting plagiarism bots into overdrive) could mean one of two things:

  1. The software provider has written the review themselves and just sent it for publishing
  2. The reviewer copy/pasted the sales copy and hasn’t actually used the software

Whichever case it may be, this is a sign that you won't receive a legitimate recommendation on this particular site. Even if the reviewer isn’t biased, do you really want to trust someone who probably didn’t install the software they're reviewing?

5. Are CTAs Jumping Out Left and Right?

A peer review isn’t intended to sell software. Its purpose is to provide readers with useful information (beyond what's offered by the developer) to help them make an informed decision.

Therefore, an authentic review shouldn’t continuously push you to buy software. If it does have CTAs, they should be subtle.

Always question CTAs with big, bold, glaringly obvious buttons. These are often affiliate links.

constant contact call to action

Be especially wary when they appear in pop-ups, like the picture above.

6. Are Obvious Choices Missing From the List?

Perhaps one of the most obvious giveaways that a review website isn't authentic is if there's very little variety in the selected software. This is especially true if reviews for each application include an affiliate link.

Variety is key. Could all the best software just happen to be applications that the reviewer can use an affiliate link for? Sure, it could happen. But it’s unlikely.

Review websites should have variety, and if there are some very obvious choices excluded, ask yourself why.

7. Is the Review Site Doing Heavy Paid Advertising?

Some sites resort to heavy Google and Facebook advertising and retargeting to get more eyes on their reviews. While this is not a surefire sign that their views are compromised, this kind of advertising is very costly. We're talking about click prices of $15+.

One way they can offset that cost is by “extorting” large commissions.

One of the most worrying paid results I've seen led me to a ranking table for website builders that changed its ranking when I refreshed the page.

paid advertising

It seems I was witnessing a live A/B test.

8. Is the Commenting Function Disabled?

You can imagine that a review excluding a product's disadvantages or missing features might inspire a bunch of angry comments. This leads me to the easiest way to spot a fake review: a disabled commenting function.

From personal experience, I can tell you that no matter how thorough you are, you can’t answer all potential questions a user might have in the review itself. The comment section is an excellent place to discuss specific problems and add new, valuable information to your review (as demonstrated in the screenshot below).

commenting function example

If a reviewer doesn't have anything to hide, there's no reason they should disable the comment section.

Conducting Your Own Research

If you identify some of the problems we mentioned and suspect that the review you are reading isn’t authentic, do a little research of your own.

If there's a picture or name associated with the reviews, this can be very useful. Pop over to Facebook or LinkedIn, or even head on over to Google to try and discover if there is a real person behind it all.

Sometimes, review websites use made up personas that don't have any other social media footprint beside the review. If that is indeed the case, your initial suspicions are probably right.

Don't Aim for 100% Certainty

The most challenging part of spotting fake reviews is that even affiliate sponsored review websites can be legitimate. Sure, the reviewer is paid for their contribution, but there are many honest and trustworthy reviewers out there .

These are people who do use the software, who do assess its features and functions, and who do present their experience in an authentic way. They truly aim to inform and educate their readers and help them to make the right business decision.

Take it from someone who wrote dozens of reviews himself: It's not always going to be easy to spot a biased review. However, if you look for things we discussed in this article, you’ll have a much easier time recognizing trustworthy sources.

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