The murky world of online reviews

I used to joke that online reviews were useless, because everything I ever looked at always scored an average 4.6 out of 5. Little did I know, it’s so much worse than that.

A news story broke this week, because it emerged there was a thriving trade in buying and selling Amazon reviews. Businesses were apparently spending large sums to acquire thousands of positive reviews. This does beg some questions. Wouldn’t it be obvious the reviewer was talking about a different product or service than the one seemingly being appraised? Presumably the reviews were also edited so they made sense in their new location. So why not just make them up to start with?

I had previously imagined that most reviews were written by the seller. That’s why they are all 4.6 out of 5.

I had a moment of clarity a couple of years ago, when I tried to post a negative review and discovered the service provider had blocked it. Easy to post a positive one. Very difficult to post a negative one. Hmmm. Smell a rat? I investigated a little and found my experience was not unusual.

So when I say I’m cynical about online reviews, we’re talking confidence levels of close to zero.

The icing on the cake arrived last Christmas. In the weeks approaching the big day, I was surprised to find myself receiving a series of random packages, which I had never ordered. First came some magnetic false eyelashes. Then a week later, I received a magnetic cat toy. Next, arrived a set of bathroom scales which measure body fat. Finally, a pack of rather unattractive underwear. I was baffled, so I did what I usually do in such unprecedented circumstances. I asked my kids. They’re young adults, you see, with extensive experience of online skulduggery, so they know about this sort of thing. “Oh yes, they said, it’s a thing. It’s called brushing” Apparently, sellers send you the product so they can submit a fake review in your name. There are even accounts from people who write the reviews.

As I mentioned, I was already deeply suspicious of reviews, so I don’t feel especially outraged by this – though the implications for identity security are pretty worrying.

What really does make me sit up and say “WTF” is the economics of the thing. How can it make financial sense to give a product away in order to fuel a positive review? What’s the actual value of a review? More than the value of a sale? I don’t think so. There’s clearly something else going on here. Or the world has gone totally bonkers. On the other hand, we live in a world where a cryptocurrency looks like an investment and stock markets reach record highs in the deepest recession we’ve ever seen. So maybe that horse has long since bolted, left the country, made a new life abroad, raised a family and retired to a comfortable stable in the country to see out its old age.

Feeling a little below par

Golf is not allowed at the moment due to the Covid lockdown restrictions.

Which is crazy, because surely golf is the most socially-distanced, Covid-restriction-friendly outdoor pursuit there could be.

I won’t lie to you, it’s making me a bit ratty.

Indeed, you could say I’ve been feeling a bit below par.

How witty, you may say. Please don’t.

Because this expression is always used incorrectly. As every golfer knows – no, scrub that. As everyone knows, below par is good. Above par is bad. So if I’m feeling below par, I’m doing well. If I’m feeling above par, I’m doing badly. Not so difficult really.

I don’t understand why the common usage of this expression has evolved to be so, well, er, wrong. Or, if you’ll indulge me, over par.

And that makes me almost as ratty as not being able to play golf.

“Due to COVID, you are held in a queue”

Is it just me or is this a bit off?

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, it seemed pretty natural that businesses were struggling to maintain their call centres and that customer service might be affected. It became a tedious daily reality to have to listen to recorded messages telling us that “due to COVID social distancing restrictions, we’re working with smaller teams, and you may have to wait longer than usual” etc and so on. I have spent a great many hours this last years, listening to hold music. Even online chat is often unavailable.

Fast forward to February 2021, the pandemic is now in its second year and some customer-facing businesses are still unable to offer a reasonable telephone service. I call NS&I, the increasingly unresponsive, UK Government-backed, savings brand as my supporting evidence, but there are many others.

Seems a bit unreasonable to be using COVID as an excuse for poor customer service after a whole year. That should be enough time to make alternative arrangements. Shouldn’t it?

We know banks want us to go online, cause its cheaper than manning call centres, but it appears they’re using COVID as an excuse to do this by stealth.

Ironically, the best phone-based customer service I have experienced recently has involved two of the much (rightly) maligned rail franchise-holders – Southern Rail and South Western Railways. How very refreshing to talk to a human, and for them to have some kind of ability to address the issue being raised.

Decent service from the railways? Is nothing sacred?