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Viral Conversations: Community Based Production of Biased Reviews

Update: Viral Conversations has changed the language in their FAQ not to encourage gifting of reviewed items and to encourage reviewers to disclose whether they are keeping reviewed items.

I just ran across a new site called Viral Conversations. The basic idea is to serve as a brokerage between companies with products they want reviewed and bloggers who want to review them. Sony submits an offer for a blogger to review a camera, some bloggers submit applications to review the camera, Sony chooses one or more to write reviews, sends them a camera, and the blogger writes a review.

There’s a customer driven version of this basic idea that could be community empowering and in the long term best interests of the company. Maybe the company offers to lend two cameras to qualifying bloggers, and the users of the site vote on which bloggers get to review the cameras. This way, there would be no chance for Sony to pick only friendly reviewers, and reviewers would not get paid for reviews with merchandise. I’m sure there would be problems with this approach, but it’s possible at lest to think hard about how to create such a site in a way that would produce honest, community driven reviews of the products. In fact, such a system could attack existing problems with generating honest reviews through advertiser driven media.

Unfortunately, Viral Conversations is not such an honest attempt. In fact, it not only ignores the problem of biased selection of reviewers, but it is breathtakingly bold in the corruption of its system for generating reviews. Consider the following from the FAQ:

[for advertisers]

What Kind of Reviews Can I Expect?

We encourage all of our bloggers to be as honest as possible. Sometimes there will be negative aspects or criticisms, as this is to be expected. This not only makes the review more believable but gives you suggestions on how you can improve your product.

What if the Review is Negative?

We strongly suggest that all bloggers contact you beforehand if the review is more negative than positive. Hopefully this gives you the opportunity to fix the problem. If a resolution can’t be reached we suggest that the review not be published. We can’t force anyone to not publish or take down a negative review, but we will try to help.

Do I Have to Let the Bloggers Keep The Item?

No, you don’t have to let the bloggers keep the item, but we do think it’s a good idea and really nice thing to do. It’s going to depend on a number of factors such as cost and shipping difficulty. Letting the bloggers keep a $50 coffee maker is probably a no brainer, but you may feel a little differently about an $1500 espresso machine. Be as clear as possible in the beginning to avoid any confusion.
[for bloggers]

Does the Review have to be Good?

No, the review should be honest. Most would agree that the IPhone is a great product, although not everyone likes the touch screen, and it’s safe to say everyone wishes the battery would last longer. These do not make the IPhone a bad product. Talk about the product’s good points, and mention areas where it needs improvement. If you find that your review is more negative than positive or almost all negative, please put on the brakes before you publish. Send an email or pick up the phone and let someone know first.

Do I Get to Keep The Product I am Reviewing?

That’s going to vary from offer to offer. While we recommended that merchants who use our service let you keep the product or item, it’s not always possible. Sometimes it’s a monetary issue, other times it’s a limited availability issue. That information should be communicated to you before hand. If you do keep the item you are responsible for any tax liabilities that are incurred.

So while Viral Conversation can’t absolutely guarantee good reviews or that reviewers get paid by companies for good reviews, they strongly suggest 1) that the companies give the reviewed products to the reviewers and 2) that the bloggers only publish positive reviews. Okay.

And what about a disclaimer from the blogger about the fact that she is basically being paid to write good review?

Do I need a Disclaimer on My Post?

You don’t need a disclaimer but we very strongly recommend you do it to be upfront and honest with your readers. It could be something as simple as “The John Smith Camera Company sent me their new ABC-123 DLSR camera to review”. If you do a lot of reviews on your website a more formal review policy should be something you should look into.

Assuming the advertisers and bloggers follow the suggested practices, the formal review policy should presumably say something to the effect of “You should trust nothing I write in this blog because I’m being paid with in kind merchandise to write only positive reviews”?


I enjoy reading outrageous terms of service. Viral Conversations has a great bit in their terms of service:

Viral Conversations website disclaims any and all responsibility or liability for the accuracy, content, completeness, legality, reliability, or operability or availability of information or material displayed in the website pages. [emphasis mine]

Even though I live and work with lawyers, I am not one myself. Still, I’m pretty sure it’s not possible to disclaim all responsibility for the legality of my actions. If it is, I hereby disclaim all liability for the legality of any and all actions committed by me, including swiping your shiny new iphone. …


  1. Hi Hal,

    Thanks for stopping by my website and giving me the opportunity to address some of the issues that concern you. I’ll take them in the order you mention them.

    >biased selection of reviewers

    The purpose of the website is get a buzz going and let as many people know about a product as possible. Just as in the real world advertisers and PR people are more likely to give Oprah free merchandise for a review and less likely to give it to person who runs a public access channel show which airs at 2 am.

    > Good and bad reviews

    I’m not sure if you are aware but PC Magazine as well as many other electronics review publications won’t run a negative review. If a machine does that poorly in their tests they simply don’t publish the review. Secondly we hope that advertisers will use this feedback to improve their products.

    >And what about a disclaimer from the blogger

    We’ve recently updated this section, if a blogger does keep the item we recommend them putting a disclaimer up. For bloggers who plan on doing reviews regularly we suggest they use the NY Times journalistic guidelines as a starting point.

    >review equivalent of link farming

    we don’t require that bloggers link to the advertiser, they can do so on their own if they chose to. Again the recently updated FAQ suggests that if bloggers do keep the item they follow google’s guidelines as far as linking.

    >legality of the TOS

    I’m not a lawyer either, but if you’re going to pick on our TOS could you at least be fair and pick on everyone elses too 🙂

    if you have any more questions please feel free to contact me at the email listed in this post.

    Posted on 26-Nov-08 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  2. hal wrote:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the response.

    The problem with the bias is not that there’s a selection mechanism to pick out the biggest and best blogs. The problem is that it is the companies who are choosing which reviewers get the privilege to review them. To the degree that folks want that privilege (which is an assumption you are building your site upon), they will be encouraged to build reputations for writing favorable reviews. Their readers would ideally balance that incentive by encouraging them to write honest reviews, but without the reviewers telling their readers how they are qualifying and being compensated for the reviews, their readers don’t have all the relevant information to judge the quality of the reviews. So the incentives are all on the side of writing positive reviews.

    This setup is not necessarily bad in its own right. If readers want to read reviews by folks picked and paid by the manufacturers to write positive reviews, that’s fine. It’s like reading product descriptions on manufacturer sites, which are useful in many ways, even if they are biased. The problem is that the readers are not being told how the reviews are being generated. Barring full disclosure of the nature of the relationship, readers think they are reading independent reviews of products. As far as I can tell, that’s the point of the site: to create positive grassroots buzz about the products through positive reviews in the apparently independent blogging community. But in the end, it’s a form of an astroturf campaign, because the reviewers are being paid with free products to write positive reviews.

    I don’t see where you recommend that reviewers follow the nytimes journalistic guidelines (maybe privately or in the registration process?), but suggesting that companies gift products to reviewers directly contradicts guidelines #35, #36, and #79.

    35. Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

    36. Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept employment or compensation of any sort from individuals or organizations who figure in coverage they are likely to provide, prepare or supervise. The senior executive of each newsroom may authorize reasonable exceptions (for example, to let a teacher work part time as a copy editor).

    79. Photographers, camera operators, picture editors, film editors, art directors, lab personnel and technology editors and reporters may not accept gifts of equipment, programs or materials from manufacturers or vendors. They may not endorse equipment, programs or materials, or offer advice on product design. (This guideline is not meant to restrict our technical staff from working with vendors to improve our systems or equipment.)

    There’s a quick fix to this problem, which is to require or at least strongly suggest that any blogger writing a review include a disclaimer that makes it clear 1) that he was chosen in a competitive process by the reviewed company, 2) that the company is giving him the product in return for writing the review, and 3) that he only posts positive reviews. The current suggested disclosure that “The John Smith Camera Company sent me their new ABC-123 DLSR camera to review” includes none of these key pieces of information.

    With proper disclosure, there may be reason to complain about the usefulness of the site and the reviews it generates, but not the ethics of what it’s doing. I’m offering this as a serious proposal, not merely a rhetorical device.

    I realize that a similar problem exists in existing mass media reviews, but that does not excuse taking the worst parts of a fraudulent system and exporting to the world of citizen media.

    Posted on 26-Nov-08 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Lbug wrote:

    To be fair while I understand your concerns I think the criticism is a little harsh. There is nothing going on here that is any different to what is commonplace amongst the large, mainstream media outlets.

    Posted on 27-Nov-08 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  4. Hi Hal,

    There selection process allows merchants to be somewhat selective with who reviews their products. This is built in so merchants don’t have to allow hate blogs or other objectionable material bloggers into the mix. Merchants are generally pretty open I’ve seen more then one occasion where bloggers with less than 20 subscribers were chosen.

    Since most bloggers have never received products to review and probably aren’t going to make a habit of it, suggesting lengthy and complicated disclosures is overkill. For bloggers who engage in regular or semi regular reviews yes a different level of disclosure would be a good thing. Not sure why you can’t see the NYT link it’s there perhaps it’s cached on your computer

    You’re making quite a few assumptions about a system that you haven’t participated in any meaningful way. Since we’re recommending that bloggers be honest and disclose if they keep the item, I’m not sure what you’re basing your accusations of fraud upon.

    Posted on 27-Nov-08 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  5. hal wrote:

    I’ve removed the reference to link farming, since you make clear statements that reviews need not include links. This was a poorly worded metaphor for a system in which supposedly independent media are paid for positively referring to a third party.

    I see the nytimes link now. But it’s meaningless in relation to the question of whether bloggers should keep the merchandise because you elsewhere in the same faq suggest that it’s a “good idea” that companies gift the reviewed merchandise to the reviewing bloggers. If you really want the bloggers to follow those nytimes guidelines, you should require or strongly suggest that they not keep the reviewed products, as the nyt guidelines clearly require (see above quoted sections, among others).

    You actually include support for keeping a reviewed item and a suggestion to follow the nyt guidlines in adjacent sentences in the linked faq above:

    If the person sending you the product is letting you keep it using disclosure that is human readable, and using any google approved methods for advertising links is strongly suggested. We suggest that any bloggers who will be doing a reviews on regular or semi regular basis follow The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism.

    These two sentences together are plainly contradictory. You are saying that bloggers can keep the items they review and they should follow the nyt guidelines, which say that they cannot keep the items they review.

    Likewise, you suggest disclosure but offer a sample disclosure that does not offer the key fact that the blogger has been gifted the item: “The John Smith Camera Company sent me their new ABC-123 DLSR camera to review.” That disclosure says nothing about keeping the item.

    A proposal:

    On the issue of fraud, I’ll be happy to edit my post to state clearly that this is not fraud if you edit the faq to make clear either 1) that a blogger should not keep the items that she reviews or 2) that any blogger who keeps a reviewed items should disclose in the review that she is keeping the item. This policy should be clearly stated and not contradicted elsewhere in the faq.

    For example, you could add the following text to the end of the disclaimer faq:

    If you keep the item you are reviewing, you should disclose that fact clearly in your review with a statement like: “The John Smith Camera Company sent me their new ABC-123 DLSR camera as a gift in return for this review.”

    That’s not a lengthy or complicated disclosure, but it makes clear the fact that the company is paying the reviewer with in kind merchandise, which is the important background that the reader has to know to judge the review.

    Posted on 28-Nov-08 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  6. Not sure if you’re still monitoring this, but i’ve made a few changes to the FAQ to make search engines and few other people happy and it should be pretty much in line with what you found troublesome as well.

    Posted on 14-Jan-09 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  7. hal wrote:

    Hi Michael,

    This is good news. I think these changes will make your site much stronger and produce better reviews in the long term. I’ve updated the original post and written a new one to reflect the changes.

    Posted on 20-Jan-09 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

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