Online user reviews are a great concept. With Web sites that offer them, you can read the experiences of other consumers with whatever you're thinking about buying, from a computer to a cruise vacation.

Like all great concepts, this one though useful can sometimes be flawed in its execution.

Part of the problem comes from "astroturfing." This is the practice of a company or its public relations or advertising agency planting positive reviews that appear to be from actual customers. Instead of the grass [review] being real, it's artificial, like AstroTurf.

Little can be done about this trickery except to develop a discerning eye for it. If a review is glowingly positive, full of superlatives, don't automatically discount it; just be skeptical. Same with a review that's entirely negative. It could have been planted by a competitor.

A bigger problem than astroturfing, according to those who follow this, is honest reviews written by actual customers that just aren't useful. Unhelpful reviews typically result from the fact that most people have little experience writing reviews and don't have the knowledge or background to add the context needed for the review to be as useful as it could be.

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Reid Goldsborough  |  Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or