Taking advice from complete strangers has always been part of life.

Whether in a town that’s new to us, or seeking advice about something we’re not an expert on (such as when we take a car for new tyres), we’ve often had to turn to people we don’t know for guidance.

The prevalence of online reviews and ratings has taken this to a completely different level – to the point that very often those we seek advice from first, or exclusively, are people we never have had, and likely never will have, any ‘real’ contact with.

In theory, this makes sense – after all, in our circles of family and friends, even our collective knowledge of who to buy from and where to visit, eat, drink and stay will be far from complete.

However, when dealing with people in-person, we may find it easier to judge if someone’s advice can be trusted – something that can more difficult online.

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It’s difficult and/or time-consuming to check on the credentials of many, if not most, reviewers. Do 10 reviews make someone an expert on something? And do we unknowingly discount opinion from a real expert simply because they’ve only left a single review on a particular site?

Yet it’s easy to also doubt the trustworthiness of the reviewing tools and sites.

Over the last few years, a number of events have eroded some of the trust in the review system that we’d previously welcomed as an invaluable tool when deciding if we should buy products or services, or visit countries, hotels and restaurants.

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In June 2011, Amazon and TripAdvisor found themselves under close scrutiny as ‘fake reviews’ made news headlines. Reports claimed that companies were posting – or paying for – reviews to be written that praised their own offerings and criticised those of their competitors.

And in 2015, an Italian newspaper, Italia a Tavola, set up a fake restaurant as part of an experiment to reveal alleged flaws in TripAdvisor’s rankings system. One month later, ‘La Scaletta’, the non-existent restaurant, was rated the best restaurant in Moniga del Garda, Brescia.

When the newspaper revealed what it had done, the restaurant’s reviews and images were very quickly removed from TripAdvisor. These are not the only reviews to have been deleted without notice on the site, whose algorithms are used to help determine whether or not reviews are genuine.

Perhaps we’re ready to move on from this ‘first age of internet naivety’. There’s no doubt we’re all becoming more aware of the risks of blindly believing online reviews, and the trust we place in word-of-mouth recommendations reflects the desire to know whoever’s offering advice. Indeed, TrustPilot found recently that 81% of ‘millennials’ believe them to be valuable.

This is great news for those who run physical shops – or sell direct to customers. And while these businesses will of course also be reviewed online, the building of genuine relationships reduces the likelihood of negative reviews, as the process of putting things right is more likely to begin in person, rather than via a third party.

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