There have been myriad discussions about the value as well as the authenticity of online reviews. In fact, last week we posted five reasons why you should respond to online reviews. But one area doesn’t get nearly as much attention: should we trust online reviews?
A Marketing Professor at the University of Colorado had an eye opening experience when shopping for a car seat. He discovered that the highest ranking car seats on Amazon were the lowest ranked by Consumer Reports, and the highest ranking car seats on Consumer Reports were poorly ranked on Amazon. He wound up formalizing this experience into research and found some interesting results. From the article:
“Navigating by the Stars” was published in April in The Journal of Consumer Research. After analyzing 344,157 Amazon ratings of 1,272 products in 120 product categories, the researchers found “a substantial disconnect” between the objective quality information that online reviews actually convey and the extent to which consumers trust them.
We have said this anecdotally for years. First, reviews are generally gamed to begin with – they are created by a dense but small population of overall customers. Online reviews are very easy to leave (it’s just one click!) but they provide no context at all. And you generally do not know the people leaving the reviews, so it’s very hard to establish if their needs and sensibilities match your own.
But the article is actually focusing on something different – our desire as consumers of reviews to believe that they have authority. I’ll admit even my own behavior sometimes reflects this, even though I know better. When I am pressed for time and I’m researching a new product, I do experience a level of laziness that leads me to filter results by reviews at times. It’s an “easy” thing to do, and review sites promote this by making results easily sortable by “score”.
Of course, there is always the “any press is good press” argument as well. The Times article mentions Botto Bistro, which we wrote about as well. This restaurant gave hefty discounts on future purchases for customers that left 1 star reviews on Yelp. In addition to some astounding national press (pretty cool for a hyperlocal restaurant!), they realized that all these reviews on Yelp were helping their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) because so many people were talking about them on a highly visited site. It didn’t matter what they were saying, just the fact that there was conversation meant this restaurant showed up in search results more often than their competition. And clearly, enough people agree with the results of this latest study, since plenty of folks ignored their 1 star rating and visited the restaurant anyway!
As a consumer, there are three takeaways from this article:
- Leave more reviews and feedback! If you are only relying on other people to inform your decision, that’s a mistake.
- Find sites where you can easily determine what people who you know think. We should all be demanding this capability. I want to know what people who I trust think of the products and services I research.
- Understand how the review sites curate their reviews (if at all). For example, a “this review was helpful” feature where you can sort results based on helpful reviews is at least a step in the right direction.
The bottom line is until we stop looking at reviews as a “score” or a game, reviews will never be an ideal way to evaluate products and services. Reviews need to be contextual, authentic, and truly helpful to the business. In other words, feedback.