Belkin wants to buy your love

A rogue Belkin employee has been paying people to post glowing reviews of the company's products -- to the shock and dismay of many. But he's hardly the only one.

Looking for a fast way to make a buck 65 cents? Log on to Amazon Reviews and post a glowing recommendation for a Belkin router. You don't need to own one, use one, or even know what a Belkin router is. Just need to spew a few sentences worth of meaningless praise in its general direction and you'll be almost 70 cents richer.

I'm not kidding. That's the jist of an actual advertisement placed on Amazon's Mechanical Turk site, which offers low wages for scut work that can't be done easily by a machine -- or at least it was until a blog called The Daily Background found it. As TDB discovered, the ad was placed by one Michael Bayard, a biz dev guy at Belkin who is probably wishing he was someone else right now. According to TDB, Bayard posted his own glowing reviews under different aliases and was also recruiting people to say nice things about Belkin products at Buy.com and Newegg.

When word of this leaked up the chain to Belkin prez Mark Reynoso, Bayard was thrown under the wheels of the Belkin bus. They even backed up and ran over him again a few times, just to make sure. Reynoso posted this response on Belkin's site:

...it was with great surprise and dismay when we discovered that one of our employees may have posted a number of queries on the Amazon Mechanical Turk website inviting users to post positive reviews of Belkin products in exchange for payment....Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this. We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction. We regard our responsibility to our user community as sacred, and we are extremely sorry that this happened.

Reynoso doesn't say what happened to Bayard, so I don't know if he got fired. But I'm guessing he's going to have a hard time getting the taste of crow out of his mouth.

I happen to be a fan of Belkin products (and no, I did not just make 65 cents writing that). I have a Belkin router, and it's fine. Not great, not awful, just fine. And I believe Reynoso when he says this was just the work of a misguided employee.

But this problem is much bigger than Belkin. It is widespread across the Net. As Robert Luhn reported for PC World last October, fake reviews are a virtual epidemic -- but proving they're bogus and finding out who's behind them is murky at best. The Bayard/Belkin story is the rare example that's clear cut.

Why do companies (and/or rogue employees) do this? Because it works. For some reason, many readers still trust reviews from "real people" more than they trust them from real tech journalists. They believe that journalists are on the take and other consumers aren't, even though (as this story proves) the reverse may be true.

If you saw how most tech journalists live -- or heck, how they dress -- you'd quickly realize that they're not in bed with advertisers. Even 65 cents a shot would be an income boost. Enough for better shoelaces, at least.

If you buy a product based solely on a handful of glowing user reviews and it turns out to be a total dog, don't blame the company that made it or the site where the reviews were posted. Blame yourself for not doing enough homework. Laziness, not fakery, is the larger sin.

Are fake reviews a problem? Got any egregious examples? Post them below or e-mail me: cringe (at) infoworld (dot) com.

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