Learn how to navigate through user-generated ratings and comments without being led astray.

By Vera Gibbons
Updated November 16, 2010
Monica Buck

If Internet commenters steer you to a restaurant and you have a bad meal, you’re out only $20 or so. But if they endorse a cruise that ends up being a nightmare, you could waste hundreds or even thousands of dollars. User-generated ratings and comments are more influential than ever, even surpassing the power of paid ads, says Chris Dellarocas, a professor of management at Boston University. Here, how to learn from the critical masses—without being led astray.

Spot the fakes: If several reviews all use the same particular (and positive) phrase or adjective, then watch out. The comments have probably been written by friends or even employees to help generate business, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University, in San Francisco.
Look for consensus: If you’re buying something relatively inexpensive, listen to the majority of the critics on the site where you’re shopping. But if you’re buying something that costs a lot or if you don’t have a strong brand preference, get a cross section of opinions by visiting two or three review sites before making a purchase.