Research Shows that Online Camera Gear Reviews May Be Distorted by Fanboys


Can you trust camera reviews submitted by customers of online retailers? Not entirely, suggests a new academic study, and not for the reasons you might think.

Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail,” by Duncan Simester of MIT and Eric Anderson of Northwestern University, finds that 5 percent of the reviews on popular retail sites were submitted by customers who never purchased the item. Those reviews tend to be more negative than legitimate ones. And they’re more influential, as potential buyers react more strongly to negative reports than positive ones.

ScreenHunter_31 Jul. 15 18.04Yet there’s no evidence such fake reviews are part of any systemic effort to boost sales for rival brands or other forms of shilling, the authors find. Instead, they’re posted by frequent reviewers acting on their own and motivated by several forces.

“We conclude that it is very unlikely that the effect is due to agents or employees of competing retailers submitting negative reviews to induce substitution to their own products,” according to the report. “Instead the low rating effect appears to be due to actual customers engaging in this behavior for their own intrinsic interests.”


Some are “self-appointed brand managers” — in other words, fanboys — reacting to new items they deem unworthy of the brand or retailer. Others are motivated by the social status rewards (“elite” status, shiny icons by your name, etc.) that come with posting lots of reviews.

(Nothing in the study looks specifically at camera buyers, but the fanboy phenomenon sounds awfully familiar.)

How do you distinguish, and thereby discount, fake reviews? Simester and Anderson note that bogus reviews tend to be longer and nastier than legitimate ones, reference family members and other extraneous information and use lots of short words and exclamation points.

(via DPReview)

Image credit: Photo illustration based on thumbs up by Grey World, still frame from Gladiator/DreamWorks Pictures

  • Bill Binns

    My dad once advised me not to buy a car based on the opinion of someone who owns the same car. People are loathe to admit that they made a mistake buying something expensive, even to themselves.

    I read gear (and hotel and restaurant) reviews but I am looking for multiple people with the same specific complaint. Star ratings are almost meaningless. There are people out there that will give a DSLR a one star review because they didn’t like the strap it came with or worse, because of the buying experience at the store where they got it.

    Luckily, it’s hard to screw up buying a DSLR these days. Can anyone think of a truly bad DSLR currently for sale?

  • David

    I tend to discuss things with other photographers I trust. I also try and get to see the camera in real life. It is harder to trust what is real on retailer reviews or forums when I’ve actually read negative comments about cameras that are not even out.

  • marks

    I must admit the first thing I do i hit the low/negative reviews first before going on to positive ones…. and usually find my self dismissing many of them pretty much out of hand, they read like a lie, to many extraneous details to much huff and puff, and sometimes plain old trolling … and the one real thing that really throws it… really there is almost no such thing as a “bad camera” or “bad lens” these days, wrong camera/lens for the buyer, yes bad camera/lens? probably not.
    having dismissed those then the rest of the bad reviews usually read like “bad customer service from shop/warranty provider” with the occasional “bad copy”
    Having got that out of the way I then move on to looking at the positive reviews from people who have similar setups/wants/needs from the system as I do rather than go through all the gushing fanboy “BEST CAMERA EVER” stuff

  • dannybuoy

    I think common sense prevails when you read reviews. I think it can be quite clear if the review is genuine or not. I like to think I’m discerning enough to wheedle out the propaganda and believe the genuine reviews. You also have to be aware that some products can have a few minor issues and still remain a great product but these minor issues can be blown out of proportion by a vocal few. I’m thinking about the Leica X Vario here.

  • Colin Peddle


    Exactly as you put it, people HATE admitting they made an error in purchasing something. It sounds unbelievable but it’s true. I’ve even had arguments with people over this notion, that’s how hard it can be for people to grasp the idea that supposedly objective reviews from owners are so skewed they’re not even worth reading and non-biased comments are very, very hard to come by. It’s subconscious at times, but nobody wants to admit they’re wrong.

  • Adam Cross

    just don’t read reviews, chances are you’re buying from a company you’ve already invested money with – trust them, not random negative reviews.

  • Banan Tarr

    The Sigmonster is a well-known fake review item due to its sheer crazy cost and size. People write the fake reviews for humorous effect. I hope you aren’t relying on Amazon reviews to make a decision to purchase a lens that expensive. That said, wish you would’ve picked a better example… but there are definitely some funny fake reviews on there for that lens.

  • Rob Elliott

    umm reviews by people are often bad. I always read the worse reviews not the best. (and then compare them to “professional” reviews or failing that the best reviews)

    Grown Ups 2 has a 90% from people who saw it and 7% from Critics… I hardly think it is one of the best movies of all times. (not that critics are always right either)

    This applies to everything, particularly Amazon.

  • Mantis

    On Amazon, read the 3-star reviews. Those tend to be the most honest and give you the accurate pros & cons.

  • 3ric15

    >2JZ powered Delorean
    A Supra motor in a Delorean LOL

  • dez

    THESE REVIEWS ARE JOKES! They were never intended to be read as real reviews. Somebody writes that he has bought a Sigma 200-500 for his Iphone, and everybody is believing it. Banan Tarr is the only one who could see this?

  • Michael Zhang

    Nope — they’re simply an illustration for the star ratings. We actually wrote about the funny reviews back in 2011:


  • amportfolio

    Real or joke, I’ve found if one is going to spend hundreds or thousands on something, they should research all over. Not just store reviews, but blogs and even trusted publications.

  • Bill Binns

    You just can’t put too much stock in any single review, regardless of star rating. If I see 10 different reviews complaining about wonky autofocus or bricked cameras, that’s when I take a step back and investigate further.

  • Burnin Biomass

    When looking thru reviews, I will take specific complaints and Google them to see if other people really have that problem.

  • Trudy

    I am laughing that the only thing in this post that I care about is the thumbs down photo of “Commodus” from Gladiator. I DIED laughing. Anyway, great piece, I always suspected them “stacking” the reviews. Ugh.

  • Theranthrope

    So, I should trust the opinion of someone who doesn’t own a particular item over someone who does?

  • Theranthrope

    Actually, humans have a weird cognitive blind-spot in this regard; where people will less time evaluating big-ticket purchases.

  • Theranthrope

    Personally, I use a “preponderance of the evidence”-approach to product reviews (among other things…) where I don’t rely on any one source, try to find as many sources as possible, and ignore outliers by proponents and opponents, alike. However, this requires a great deal of discipline and mental fortitude to avoid “shutting down” in the face of information that may contradict my own existing preconceived notions, which not everyone can do.