Review This: Can You Really Trust Online Reviews?


Online reviews have gained considerable popularity in the past decade. Sites like Yelp have built their entire business around consumer reviews. Reviews are also shown on Facebook business pages, Google reviews and Amazon product reviews among countless others. And the research shows that reviews are incredibly important for a business’s success. For businesses that sell products to consumers, a product with five reviews has a 270% greater purchase likelihood than a product with no reviews. For service-based businesses, increasing their Yelp rating by one star can lead to a 5-9% increase in revenue. But reviews aren’t just important for businesses, they matter to their customers too.

A 2017 BrightLocal study found that 85% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation from a friend or family member. Overall, online reviews are the second most trusted method of recommendation. But should we trust them?

As reviewing products publicly and online has gotten more prevalent, issues have arisen regarding the trustworthiness of these reviews. When people look at a product, they tend to look at the overall rating more than anything. The problem is that reviews are so polarized that the average rating is not an accurate rating. People are much more likely to leave a 1-star or 5-star review than a 2, 3, or 4-star review. This makes it hard to determine the actual quality of the product or service.

Another problem with reviews is some platforms have review distributions that are heavily skewed towards 5-stars. This is most noticable with platforms like Uber and Airbnb, where the person relies on their good reviews so that they can make a living. Time describes the tendency to rate more favorably on these platforms as “the review-inflating guilt factor.” When Uber warns drivers that a rating below 4.6 stars could get them kicked off the platform, the consumer feels obligated to give a 5-star review to protect the driver’s rating. On these sites, a 5-star rating has been rendered essentially meaningless. The only way to determine the quality of service is to actually read the reviews.

An additional problem with reviews is that sites like Yelp have taken to using automated filtering systems. The purpose of this filter is to combat fake reviews. Though this sounds like a good thing, the filter often filters out authentic reviews, both good and bad. Not having these reviews displayed can change the average rating for a business which more often than not hurts them.

Fake reviews present another problem. Everyone wants to believe that people are giving honest reviews of their experiences but the reality is not all reviews are honest. Gartner estimates that 10-15% of reviews are fake. In this article, journalist Kashmir Hill created a fake business and set up social media pages and a Yelp page for the business. They paid for followers and for people to write reviews of the business. The experiment was a success and many people contacted the fake business believing that it was real. It is actually illegal to write fake reviews of a business. Also, if someone is paid to write a review, they are legally required to disclose that they have been compensated in return for the review. However, this has not stopped people from writing them, making it harder for consumers to know what’s true and what’s not.

The final issue with online reviews is bias and sway when people write their reviews. Preexisting biases can change a reviewer’s rating of a business. Other reviews can also change a reviewer’s rating. Seeing how other people rate and comment on a business can influence the way subsequent reviewers do so. This is more common with positive reviews than negative ones.

So, can consumers trust online reviews? Sometimes. While there are problems with fake and filtered reviews and issues with bias, guilt, and polarization, reviews can still be helpful. Consumers should do their research and read the reviews in-depth to decide how they feel about trying a new business. Ultimately, whether or not there are problems with them, online reviews will continue to be an important resource for consumers.

Tags: , ,

Categorized in: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *