Bogus Belkin review put peer ratings under question

Belkin’s admission that an employee has been offering to pay for favorable Web-based peer reviews of its network gear raises the question of not only how widespread such practices are but whether they undermine community and trust in the connections and relationships that the Web seems to foster so easily.

For IT veterans, this latest example of vendor perfidy simply reinforces the value of the adage “let the buyer beware.”

“I’ve been in IT for over 20 years and if I believed every sales pitch that I’ve been given about the capabilities of hardware and software we would not be e-mailing each other [about this incident] right now,” writes Anthony Rodrigues, director of information technology, City of Malden, Mass., responding to an e-mail query. “There’s a huge difference between theory and real world operations.”

He doesn’t search out product reviews. On those rare occasions when he reads one, he only does so to glean an “impression” of the product, to be confirmed by far more in-depth study and conversation with the vendor.

The scam by the Belkin employee was discovered and then uncovered online by political blogger Arlen Parsa on his Web site late Friday Jan. 16.

Parsa had been earning some money doing computer task-work on Amazon’s MechanicalTurk site. In the course of that, he found another task advertised: creating completely fictitious positive reviews of Belkin products on one or more Web sites, and then marking negative reviews of the same product as “unhelpful” to delegitimize them. Each review would be worth 65 cents to the “writer.”

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Parsa traced the job posting to a Belkin employee, Michael Bayard, a “business development representative” for the company in Los Angeles, and posted images of the original ad along with Bayard’s Linked-in profile. (Network World blogger Brad Reese has collected the images and links in a handy summary blogpost.) Parsa said Bayard had created dozens of these offers.

Belkin president Mark Reynoso posted a letter Sunday acknowledging the incident on the company Web site. “Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this,” he wrote. “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.” He says this is an “isolated incident.”

The letter says the company is working to remove all of the relevant postings on MechanicalTurk, and working with partners to identify and remove any resulting reviews.

Reynoso identified the central issue for Belkin and its customers as one of “lost trust” and pledged to work to restore it.

The letter led to other revelations or at least claims of revelations. editor Jason Chen published the text of a letter that asserts Bayard’s pay-for-praise scam is just one of many similarly deceptive, and long-standing practices at Belkin. One alleged technique was to give bona fide reviewers Belkin products with custom firmware designed to mask known problems. In his post, Chen said the letter was from a Belkin employee, but he doesn’t explain how he knows that. So far, Chen has not responded to an inquiry asking how he had determined that the letter writer works for Belkin.

For IT managers like Rodrigues, trust is focused on trusting oneself — the experience, judgment, and expertise created in the school of hard knocks. He relies on two main resources: a network of IT colleagues, now long-time friends, and what he calls “brutally honest” relationships with vendors.

The network is a tested, close-knit set of trusted relationships. Its members discuss issues, problems, products, vendors. “We talk about what’s going on and if we have a particular issue we bounce them off each other,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, a fresh pair of eyes and or gray matter will produce an answer or at least an explanation or workaround.”

With vendors, Rodrigues has developed a simple guiding philosophy: show me. “I have been lucky enough over the years to have developed brutally honest relationships with vendors,” he says. “My only loyalty is to what works.”

Recently, he was looking into a new switching fabric for the city’s network infrastructure. One vendor invited him to headquarters. “I was shown the production environment, got to sit in briefly in one of their training classes, and got to spend hours in a hardware lab with dedicated lab personnel, building actual network topologies that would mimic my designs,” he says. “In this particular instance some of the capabilities of the hardware and software exceeded my expectations and got me rethinking the way I design networks.”

Networkworld US

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