Online Consumer Reviews: Let's Get Real About That New York Times Article

By: Marcus Varner | July 6, 2016 (Edited July 7, 2017)

online consumer reviews

Let's get real about consumer reviews for a second.

I've written my share about the virtues of the online consumer review model to bring about better customer service, better products and services, and world peace. Well, not that last part, but I do believe that consumer reviews can play a very real part in driving a better free market economy.

Given my fixation on consumer reviews, you might think that the recent New York Times article, "Online Reviews? Researchers Give Them a Low Rating," by David Streitfield, would've offended me. To the contrary, I found the article fascinating, both for the valid points and the somewhat muddled points the writer offered up.

Most importantly, the article raises some important questions about online consumer reviews and how to make them more trustworthy that are worth answering.

So, based on the article, let's get completely honest about online reviews, what works about them in their current form, what doesn't, and what can be done to help them reach their full potential as an instrument for making company-customer relations more transparent.

1. Yes, star reviews are too vague

consumer reviews

This was an easy target.

Streitfield spent a considerable amount of page talking about the myriad ways in which customers misuse or misunderstand the value of Yelp's star ratings. With a click, customers are able to under- or over-reward a business. They can satisfy their troll-like urges with a one-star rating and a vaguely mean review.

Indeed, this problem is not unique to Yelp. Amazon and pretty much any other review site that uses the star rating system is going to be vulnerable to this kind of abuse.

And, of course, inaccurate star ratings aren't always the result of unhappy or over-exuberant customers. Sometimes, they are the product of the different ways that individual customers perceive the value of a one-, three-, or five-star rating.

The most inherent issue with the star rating system is that they take something that really has all kinds of dimensions-customer service, quality of product, timeliness of delivery, etc.-and try to force it all into one.

A more reliable star rating system would be one that asks customers to give star ratings on various contributing factors and then builds a composite score based on their responses.

Also, defining for customers what each star count means in practical terms (Ex: "One star means 'My waiter was rude and inattentive.'") could go a long way to get customers using the same measuring stick.

2. Fake reviews are an endangered species

consumer reviews

The article also points to fake reviews as one of the biggest reasons that online consumer reviews shouldn't be trusted. Writes Streitfield:

"But if reviews are ubiquitous, there are also persistent controversies over how many of the reviews on the internet were bought by the subject rather than written as finely reasoned opinions from a neutral party, and whether that distorts all results."

But to anyone who's been watching the news around online reviews, it should be clear that fake reviews are already in the crosshairs of Amazon. For the last year, the online retail giant has been filing lawsuits against individuals who sell fake reviews to companies. Recently, they've also begun suing the companies that bought those fake reviews.

When you stop and think about it, websites have no good reason to protect fake reviews, which simply pose too much of a threat to their credibility and little to no upside.

For this reason, it won't be long before the biggest players online-think Google, Facebook, Yelp-declare all-out war on fake reviews.

Adding to this, new legislation being moved through the U.S. Congress both protects consumer reviews as free speech and singles out fake reviews from competitors as unprotected and prohibited.

With all of this pressure, fake reviews, one of the major pillars of Streitfield's argument against online reviews, will likely become so few as to be inconsequential in the next five years.

3. Customers trust each other much more than companies and institutions of higher learning

online consumer reviews

A great deal of Streitfield's article revolves around a research study that was published a few months ago in The Journal of Consumer Research which discovered "a substantial disconnect" between how consumers rated products and how professional/academic organizations like Consumer Reports rated products.

This, to me, was the most misguided part of the article, because it really comes down to three conclusions:

  • Consumers are stupid and should listen to Consumer Reports. (This is the one the article sides with.)
  • Consumer Reports is using criteria that don't matter to consumers. (The article ignores this possibility completely.)
  • Consumers don't trust Consumer Reports.

Ultimately, the article insists that the scientific evaluation of products, by an organization like Consumer Reports, is the only way to produce useful reviews. Sadly, this view fails to recognize an increasingly present phenomenon that most academics and companies fail to understand: consumers don't trust organizations.

Consumers don't trust Consumer Reports. They don't trust the government, companies, or any other authority figures for that matter. But guess who they do trust?

These stats, from a Nielsen report on global trust in advertising, should give you a clue:

92% of consumers worldwide trust word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family more than any other form of advertising. At 70%, online consumer reviews rank as the second most-trusted form of advertising.

That's right-consumers trust only consumers to tell them, from their point of view, what a product or service is like.

Julie Law, a spokeswoman for Amazon, backed this up when she said:

"Amazon customer reviews reflect the feedback, tastes and concerns of real customers, not professional reviewers. That's what makes them powerful."

Consumer Reports and other formal organizations can gripe all day long about how consumers are less interested in their reviews or how consumers should wise up and just adopt their way of reviewing. But the truth is, plain and simple, the world of professional reviewers-whether it be film critics on Rotten Tomatoes or the scientists at Consumer Reports-just doesn't provide a successful substitute for the bond and trust that consumers share with each other.

Moreover, all research on the topic shows distrust in organizations growing year over year. So Consumer Reports and other authorities on products or services might want to spend less time trying to tear down consumer reviews and more time figuring out how to harness their power.

4. Online reviews are the most power that consumers have ever had over the free market

online consumer reviews

Those who like to harp on online consumer reviews should consider the benefits of this system-and that these benefits have never existed in such abundance before. In decades past, consumers had limited reach in terms of giving their feedback to companies and to other consumers.

They could complain to the folks at the barbershop.

They could send a fiery letter to the editor of the local paper.

They could send a fiery letter to a company's customer service department.

But none of those channels had even a fraction of the reach of today's review sites and social media networks. And this is something that professional reviews just can't do. They can't provide an outlet for customers on this scale. They can't give the common consumer influence over other consumers to the degree that businesses must respect their power. They can't provide the constant feedback to businesses that only consumer reviews provide.

With this article, Streitfield has achieved one thing: accentuating the flaws that consumer reviews have. Yes, online consumer reviews are not a perfect medium. They're still maturing. But anyone who says that we should just leave reviewing up to the professionals doesn't know consumer reviews.

The power online reviews give customers in the marketplace to improve the products and services they receive can't be found anywhere else.

Unless we want to go back to mailing letters to the newspaper editor.

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Written by Marcus Varner

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