When consumers seek to evaluate companies, products, and services before making a purchase or hiring decision, most start (and often end) by turning to online review sites. In general, looking at ratings and number of reviews seems helpful to unsure consumers—but how often do we analyze that information fully and accurately enough to get to the real meaning and value of that data?
Not nearly often enough, according to a Stanford study, which demonstrates that this failure on the part of the consumer is actually leading many of us to make poor purchasing decisions. For example, the study found that “when choosing between two products online, people tend to favor products with more reviews despite the fact that the more-reviewed product is of lower quality.”
A Market Watch article titled, You’re Reading Online Product Reviews All Wrong, highlights the same issue. “When it comes to reviews of products on online shopping sites, more does not necessarily mean better — but consumers often mistakenly assume it does."
Still, 86% of consumers say reviews are an essential resource when making a purchasing decision. And many experts agree that online reviews can be very useful and help consumers make better choices—but only if you know how to properly evaluate and interpret the information.
Here are few key points to keep in mind when looking at online reviews:
- Check your emotions and assumptions at the door. Most of us make shopping decisions emotionally, rather than logically. Try to be aware of this while you’re reviewing ratings and customer reviews online and make an effort to check your emotions and assumptions at the door.
- It’s about quality, not quantity. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, most shoppers favor a product that has a higher number of reviews, even if it has a lower rating than a competing product with fewer reviews. However, a product with a low rating but a high number of reviewers is more likely to be of poor quality than a product with a low rating and fewer reviews.
- Five-star reviews are frequently fake, but that doesn’t mean negative reviews are necessarily reliable. Research shows that many people may depend on negative reviews more than positive ones because they see them as more trustworthy—but that’s not necessarily the case. For a more reliable method, use websites like Fakespot, which lets shoppers plug in the URL of the product and see what percentage of its reviews are real and reliable.
- Negative online reviews are especially misleading. Marketing data indicates that negative reviews in particular dramatically influence our buying behaviors. But research on the biases and demographics of online reviewers — and our own, often errant interpretations — suggests this influence is very misguided and highly problematic.
- The credibility of all reviews — even real ones — is questionable. Just as it’s impossible for a parent to know if their child’s C grade is actually “average” or the worst in the class, it’s hard to tell what certain online ratings really say about quality, especially when everyone rates differently. Reviews are subjective, and the tiny subset of people who leave them aren’t average.
- Details and context matter – a lot. Because ratings and reviews are so subjective, details and context are hugely important to understand if we want to properly evaluate companies and products, so we can make the best choice for us. Often our values, needs, perceptions, and preferences are completely different from the reviewer. Something that makes one person dislike a product, company, or service—and thus rate it poorly or give a bad review—might just be the thing that we love about it. Try to read more thorough reviews and search for the reasons behind the ratings.
We hope you have enjoyed our look into how to interpret online reviews. Do you have a system for how to spot faulty reviews from good ones? Share it with us in a comment below!
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