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Online surveys have become a popular way for businesses and other organizations to gather data. There is an entire industry built around getting people to fill in online surveys, often in exchange for cash rewards or gift cards. In theory, this is a win-win situation. Businesses get to ask whatever questions they need to get the data they want and can gather responses from a large number of respondents. Meanwhile, the users receive a payout for doing very little work.

However, in practice, there are a number of issues with this system. In fact, the mere existence of strawpoll bots renders most online surveys more or less useless as a means of gathering reliable data.

Why Are Online Surveys Used?

It’s easy to understand the attraction of online surveys for businesses that need data. It requires virtually no effort on their part, they only need to design a survey that will get them the answers they need. Using the internet, it’s possible to get a survey in front of thousands of respondents in a single day, especially if they are being offered something for their participation. This is much cheaper and easier than conducting a survey on the street and all the answers come back in digital format, which makes handling and analyzing the data much easier.

Unfortunately, in spite of these potential benefits, online surveys are unreliable and an ineffective means of gathering data.

Cheaters

As soon as you start offering people a financial reward or political gain for something, even a small one, there will be people looking to take advantage. If you are paying users money for each survey they complete then it stands to reason that completing more surveys will result in more money. A user who is more interested in triggering their payout than accurately answering the survey will simply give random answers to multiple-choice questions, or terse answers to qualitative questions.

There are some techniques that can be used to detect cheaters, but these aren’t perfect. For example, including a question telling the user to select a specific answer, including questions whose answers can contradict one another, or automatically eliminating any respondents who have selected the same answer for every question, can all be used to identify which respondents are cheating.

Bots

A bot is a computer script that is written to emulate the actions of a human user. Bots can be programmed to do just about anything that a person might do while online, and that includes filling out online surveys. There are automatic survey taking bots that are able to fill in numerous surveys simultaneously on behalf of the user.

These bots are sold to users with the promise of enabling them to earn a full-time income from filling out surveys. The idea is that by using a bot to automatically fill out the forms, a user can complete enough surveys in a day to make a full wage. The reality is that even with a bot, no one is going to make a full-time living filling out online surveys.

Corrupted Data

Both bots and cheaters will corrupt the data you gather from your online survey. However, even when you are dealing with genuine respondents, there are issues with online surveys. For one thing, because they are online, the respondent isn’t able to ask any questions they might have. This means that if they perceive any ambiguity in the question then the answer that they give might be unreliable.

Writing survey questions is harder than you might realize. It’s amazingly easy to inadvertently ask a leading or unclear question. The way that questions are phased, even the order that they are given in, can affect the way that people answer them.

For an online survey to be effective, it needs to be composed by someone with a good understanding of how they work and are conducted. But if you’re going to acquire that kind of expertise, there are better ways of making use of it.

The lack of an in-person interviewer also means that there is no way of screening the respondents beforehand. The online platforms that provide surveys to respondents might have some kind of filtering or screening process, but these are rare. It is also trivially easy for their users to give false information and misrepresent themselves.

Finally, online surveys will always be biased because they can only ever reach people who have an internet connection. Respondents to online surveys are also more likely to be relatively young and tech-savvy, limiting the usefulness of the data collected.

On the surface, online surveys seem like a cheap and easy way of gathering data. However, once you begin to dig beneath the surface and consider how an online survey actually works, there are numerous flaws with the method. Add in the prevalence of bots and cheaters looking to game the system, and online surveys are one of the least reliable methods of gathering data out there.