A DARK AND VAST LANDSCAPE CALLED THE INTERNET - MODERN DAY
Millions of people are probing, searching for reliable information about the products and companies vying for their business. They flock to flashing signs bearing star ratings, upvotes, and downvotes that flood the space, but are unsure how to make sense of all the visual noise…
A Pew Research Center survey found that 81 percent of Americans rely on their own research when it comes to making important decisions. As part of their individual research, 57 percent of respondents reported that they always or almost always read customer reviews before making a purchase, with an additional 37 percent saying they sometimes read reviews.
That means 93 percent of Americans consult customer reviews on a semi-regular to regular basis. It makes sense. We can learn a lot from other people’s experiences with a product or service. But customer reviews can also be very misleading if you don’t know how to properly utilize them.
People often write reviews that tend to be more subjective than objective. These reviews likely reveal consumers who:
- had a terrible experience and are looking to release frustration.
- had an incredible experience they want to share.
- are earning rewards/compensation, either from a review site or the company itself.
- are trying to manipulate the company’s online reputation (positively or negatively).
No matter the reason, the vast majority of reviews are written with some sort of bias. That doesn’t mean you can’t glean valuable information from customer reviews. You just need to analyze them with a discerning eye. If you want to use reviews to make the best purchasing decision possible, you need to:
- Unmask the Baddies — First we’ll introduce the online review baddies and the tactics they employ to manipulate and control that same online review space.
- Analyze the Data — We will then identify the analytical strategies everyday people need to become the review superheroes they were born to be.
- Don Your Cape — Through our breakdown of Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, we’ll extend the invitation to would-be review superheroes everywhere to suit up.
- Find Your Sidekick — Last, we’ll explain how BestCompany.com empowers everyday people by providing unbiased company evaluations and verified reviews from actual customers.
1. Unmask the Baddies of Online Reviews
THE ONLINE REVIEW BADDIES’ SECRET HIDEOUT
A group of shady characters are seated around a table with a large pile of money in the middle. We hear phrases like “review inflation” and “pay to play” in whispered tones, then a collective chuckle as the people outside fall prey to their misleading tactics.
It should come as no surprise that in a metropolis as big as the internet, the opportunity for bad actors to manipulate and skew the online review space is just too lucrative to pass up. Per research from the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, fake reviews influence around £23 billion ($30.21 billion) in consumer spending each year in the UK alone.
An added wrinkle to this problem is just how little the online review baddies are actually penalized themselves. At worst, the offending review is flagged or removed, or the offending account is suspended. Only in rare cases, like when the Federal Trade Commission fined an Amazon retailer $128 million for flooding their product pages with fake positive reviews, are review supervillains themselves held accountable.
But in spite of these high-profile lawsuits, fake and manipulated reviews abound. A BrightLocal study revealed that nearly 75 percent of all consumers have come across at least one fake review in 2019 — and they’re becoming increasingly difficult to identify — which will only prove to damage consumer trust in the peer-to-peer review ecosystem.
Consequently, this dilemma leaves review sites in a precarious position: as trust in review sites erodes, the pressure on those sites to disclose what they’re doing to combat fake reviews increases. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of showing how the proverbial sausage is made is giving fake reviewers the means to further game the system and deceive consumers. So what is to be done?
In order to fight the influence of fake reviews, consumers need to understand the motivations of the people and organizations posting them in the first place. In general, fake reviews are either bought or posted by one of three possible sources:
- The Competition — Often, when a company, product, or service achieves a high reviewer rating on a given site (think Amazon, Yelp!, TrustPilot, etc.), especially in a competitive market, you can almost always expect an increase in negative reviews posted with the sole purpose of driving that review rating back down.
- The Company — But the door can swing both ways. Say a product or company’s review rating or overall ranking has dipped. You might also expect to see a sudden increase in positive reviews that are 1) engineered by parties who benefit financially from the company’s high ranking and 2) intended to restore the company to its former glory.
- The Platform — Sad but true: sometimes less-than-reputable review sites claiming to be objective in their rankings or reviews can actually avail top spots to the highest bidder. In some extreme cases, they’ll even suppress negative reviews as a way to falsely inflate the reputation of the companies paying them for high-ranking positions.
In any case, these fake reviews are designed to manipulate consumer opinion and skew perception of the company/product as being better or worse than it actually is. Even reviews that appear legitimate can actually be paid for by companies interested in boosting their rankings. And given that most people automatically select the highest-reviewed products and services, regardless of the actual quality, this manipulation can lead to some pretty bad purchasing decisions.
With all this in mind, the question remains: how do you differentiate between reviews that are sponsored by either the subject of the review itself or the competition, and actual customers who just want to share their subjective experience? Faked reviews are hard, but not impossible to spot, and knowing what to look for in both individual reviews and reviews en masse can make all the difference.
With enough practice, consumers will be able to pick a fake review out of almost any lineup:
One easy way to identify reviews is to look for common phrases or writing styles across a sample of reviews with the same score. If you find, for example, a large swath of five-star reviews that all employ the same phrasing (e.g., if 50 reviews all contain the exact phrase, “customer service was very kind and generous and considerate”). This phenomenon indicates that either 1) the reviews are being posted by the same reviewer under a variety of pseudonyms, or 2) the reviewers are being coached to mention certain key phrases by a backing organization.
Another clue to look out for is the level of anonymity attached to an online review. Many review sites are cracking down on this particular issue, requiring reviewers to have either a valid email address or social media account before they can post. Certain sites go a step further by requiring reviewers to verify their purchase before their review gets published. The more you can link an online review to an actual person, the less likely it’s a fake.
In the online review space, timing really is everything. Remember, the top-ranked spot represents incredibly lucrative real estate on a review site’s webpage, and companies and product owners are sometimes willing to resort to less than ethical means to achieve it. As you inspect product and company reviews, pay close attention to the timing and volume of either extremely positive or extremely negative reviews. If you discover a spike in positive or negative reviews — especially if the site has experienced a change in rankings — be suspicious.
One question you should ask when approaching any one-star or five-star review is “does this sound like a commercial?” In other words, does the review feel more like one person’s subjective experience, or is it attempting to sell you one way or the other? Do the negative reviews not only excoriate the product or company in question but also recommend a competitor? Do positive reviews laud generic features like “great customer service” without going into further depth of an actual interaction?
As with any consumer-driven content, typos and grammatical errors are inevitable. And within certain bounds, these flaws can actually amplify a review’s credibility because real people make mistakes. That said, reviews that exhibit a high density of syntax and grammatical errors or overuse of exclamation points and capital letters might be less credible, and might have hired overseas companies to bolster their rating. Not to say that a negative experience can’t lead to a good old fashioned incoherent rant online (we’ve all been there); but the informed review reader would view that as the exception and not the rule.
2. Analyze the Data: The Review Superhero’s Utility Belt
THE DARK AND VAST ONLINE REVIEW LANDSCAPE
Amid the millions of people, a handful of individuals stop probing, stop flocking. We ZOOM IN on their faces: eyes big, they’re looking at the flashing review signs as if for the first time, like they can see something nobody else can see...
Spotting falsified reviews is just the first step of the process. To protect yourself and others from falling victim to falsified reviews, you need to have the right tools. Every review superhero needs to utilize some basic data analysis techniques in their fight against online review villains.
Reviews typically contain two types of data: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative data is essentially anything that can be counted (number of reviews, star ratings, etc.). Qualitative data is descriptive (the written review). You have to analyze quantitative and qualitative data in different ways, but comparing the information you’ve gathered from these data types is the only way to understand the full picture.
Analyzing Quantitative Data
Quantitative data provides you with percentages and statistics. This is useful for determining how reliable the information is.
Look at the total number of reviews.
When it comes to analyzing the quantitative data in customer reviews, the first thing you should look for is the total number of reviews. The more reviews are posted, the more likely it is that they portray an accurate representation of the product, service, or company.
When analyzing data, most statisticians agree that you need at least 100 participants for any results to be considered valid. If what you’re researching has more than 100 reviews, it’s safe to assume that the customer ratings are an authentic representation of the product, service, or company. You can still gather useful information if there are less than 100 reviews posted; you just have to take it with a grain of salt.
Look at the number of reviews for each rating.
The next piece of information you want to look at is the number of reviews for each rating. This is where the numbers can be most deceiving. We instinctively want to believe that having all positive reviews and no negative reviews is indicative of a quality company. But that is not the case. Depending on the review site, companies can pay to have negative reviews removed or pay for positive reviews to be written for them. Don’t be fooled by these villainous tactics.
Negative reviews are not always a bad thing. We do not live in a perfect world. Even the best companies make manufacturing mistakes and hire terrible employees. It is unrealistic to expect any product, service, or company won’t let someone down. Even if 10–15 percent of a company’s reviews are negative, the odds of you having a negative experience are pretty slim.
If you only look at numbers and percentages, you will miss other important information that can influence your purchasing decisions. Numbers without context can be very deceiving. Remember, there are plenty of fake reviews trying to steal your money. Quantitative data is important, but it shouldn’t be the only tool on your utility belt.
Analyzing Qualitative Data
Qualitative data is all about discovering patterns. Identifying patterns clarifies the numbers and percentages and helps you understand why a company, product, or service is rated the way it is. It takes more time and effort than just looking at the numbers, but it’s the only way to get the full picture.
Look for patterns.
Patterns indicate consistency in a product, service, or company. When reading through customer reviews, make note of themes that are mentioned by multiple people in both the positive and negative reviews.
If multiple reviews mention customer service, it indicates the quality of the business’s employee training. If reviews discuss a malfunctioning part, you can infer there are some manufacturing issues with the product. The more reviews mention a positive or negative attribute, the more reliable the pattern becomes.
However, don’t forget to keep the numbers in mind when deciphering patterns. If you notice a negative pattern in the reviews, but it’s only a small percentage of people that experience the issue, then the law of averages indicates you’re still okay to move forward with a purchase.
If you find a particularly positive or negative review, but don’t see the same themes in any other reviews, that usually indicates a one-off experience. Bad companies have good days, and good companies have bad days. If a complaint or compliment only appears once or twice, remember to look at it in context. One negative experience in thousands is less significant than one negative experience in ten.
Read company responses.
Most review sites allow companies to publicly respond to reviews. These responses can provide valuable insight into the company that should not be overlooked. When reading through company responses, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are all the responses the same? Many companies have a planned response they use when responding to reviews. This makes sense in situations where the company is trying to communicate the same steps to a large group of people, like if there’s a known manufacturing error or if the company has a specific way of getting a refund. However, if a company is just copying and pasting the same response to every review, that tells you the company is more interested in saying it responded than actually addressing the issue.
- Does the response address the specific things mentioned in the review? Sometimes companies will respond to reviews, but not actually address anything in the review itself. This is another indication that the company cares more about showing they responded that resolving any problems experienced by the customer.
- Does the response provide a clear plan of action? Some companies are great at providing a sympathetic response to a negative experience, but they don’t address how to resolve the issue. The best companies will offer a refund, discount on future purchases, discuss plans to keep the issues from recurring, etc.
The more data you analyze, the more knowledge you have, and the better decision you can make. Now that you know how to spot the villains, and are armed with useful tools for your utility belt, it’s time to suit up and get to work.
3. Don Your Cape: Which Type of Review Hero Are You?
THE REVIEW SUPERHERO’S HEADQUARTERS
Armed with knowledge, our team stands before an array of capes, body armor, tools, and other implements crucial to establishing their new identities as online review superheroes. They suit up.
Think of a reviews repository — such as Amazon, Yelp, or Best Company — as a living representation of the quality of companies, products, and services, maintained by a group of diverse heroes willing to share their voices with the world.
It truly takes a village to present a full mosaic that accurately represents what a company offers.
So where do you fit into the world of reviews?
While each of us is unique, it can be helpful to find common patterns and self-identify our traits as consumers as we make purchasing decisions and use our voices to influence others. In general, reviewers can represent a number of categorized personas with varying motivations and objectives.
For the purposes of this article, we’ve created four avatars based on author Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework made prominent by her New York Times bestseller, The Four Tendencies, and embraced by enthusiasts worldwide. Over three million people have taken the 10-minute quiz. The best part about Rubin’s framework is that it provides practical guidance, not just observation like some other personality tests.
Once you know your Tendency, you can channel your unique attributes — which are superpowers, really — to analyze reviews in a way that is productive to your purchasing experience and to write reviews when it aligns with your values.
Suiting Up: An Application of Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies
To help you identify which of the Four Tendencies you resonate with the most, Rubin’s guiding question is as much a matter of motivation as personality:
How do you respond to expectations, both internal and external?
- Obligers, the most common Tendency (41 percent of people are Obligers, according to page 8 in Rubin’s book), meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. For example, an Obliger consistently meets work deadlines but struggles to complete New Year’s resolutions.
- Questioners (24 percent) question and investigate all outer and inner expectations and comply only with ones they deem truly justifiable.
- Upholders (19 percent) readily meet both outer and inner expectations.
- Rebels (17 percent) resist all expectations.
No Tendency is better or worse than another. But understanding yours can help you create the conditions that will help you become the hero you want to be in your own life: how to best accomplish your goals, interact with others, and create change.
As promised, we’ll walk you through how your Tendency empowers you to best represent yourself as a consumer in the world of reviews.
And if you’re reading this as a brand proponent or other business professional, these insights on expectation-based behavior can impactfully inform your efforts to solicit reviews from customers and clients.
Tendency overview: You prioritize other people’s expectations of you over your expectations for yourself. You identify with these statements:
- It’s hard for me to tell people “no.”
- I’ll do something to be a good role model, even if it’s not something that I’d do for myself.
- Unless someone is enforcing a deadline, it’s hard for me to get work done.
How to approach writing reviews: As an obliger, you get things done with accountability to others, so you’re likely to respond well to a company prompting you to leave a review — especially if it’s a live person who asks.
Obliger reviews are important because they’re often willing to share even an average customer experience to do their duty, bringing balance to the extremes. They don’t need to be driven by the need to share an extraordinarily good or bad experience.
Even if you haven’t been charged directly to leave a review, think about all the parties depending on you: potential customers who could avoid a bad experience when they hear what you have to say; potential customers who could have their lives improved by a product or service; an amazing company that deserves the positive feedback.
What’s in it for you: Fulfilling a sense of duty to your community. Approval from your relationships and networks is important to you, and contributing your voice to the conversation around a company, product, or service fills that need.
Real-life application: Review site features like upvoting, reviewer profiles, and company responses can provide validation for leaving reviews as they relate to community.
And the social rewards of review-writing can pique the interest of obligers and non-obligers alike. In a case study of the online market for volunteer reviewers, researchers found patterns that suggest that social image and influence, like a detailed profile and the opportunity to have your reviews upvoted, can drive consumers to leave reviews.
Tendency overview: You resist things that seem arbitrary or inefficient, and all expectations must become an inner expectation for you to agree to something. You identify with these statements:
- I’ll comply only if you convince me why.
- It really bothers me when things are unfair or arbitrary.
- I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework.
How to approach writing reviews: You may question multiple aspects of customer reviews, including the validity of other peoples’ reviews and why you should write your own. But you are driven by information, so focus on the specific content of reviews in your approach.
Is there a particular company that has abysmal reviews that don’t represent your experience at all? The new information you provide in your own reviews is an important addition to that company’s review profile. It swings the other way too: if you question the rave reviews received by a company you were treated poorly by, all the more reason for you to share that experience.
As you seek to convey your experience with a company accurately and efficiently, be extremely specific in your feedback. Whether it’s a one-star or five-star review to highlight the extremes or a two-star or three-star review to drown out any perceived exaggerations by others, detailed justifications for your rating provide the most valuable information for customers and the company itself.
What’s in it for you: Knowing you’ve brought balance to the force. Even if you still question the value of reviews overall, you do trust yourself. Adding your voice to the mix can only improve the “system” you question, especially where money and value is concerned.
Real-life review hero: Before he started writing reviews, runner Eric Barber was constantly reviewing and recommending shoes to customers at the running shoe store where he worked. Now as a shoe-reviewing blogger, he thrives on feedback from comparison blog posts and other reviews — even when he’s singing a different tune from other reviewers.
“I try to correct the record of unfair reviews when I disagree,” Barber explains. “When you’re writing a review, there’s no right or wrong answers. It doesn’t matter what other reviewers are writing about a shoe, and it doesn’t matter what even my best friend thinks about a shoe.”
Barber sees crucial value in offering his unique opinions, as getting the wrong shoes is the first step towards injury when you’re a runner. Plus, reviews can inspire companies to return to their labs to make improvements when necessary. The most gratifying experience for Barber was reading someone else’s review of a shoe on Amazon: "I got this shoe based on the recommendation of Steadyfoot [Barber’s blog].”
A note on reading reviews: As a questioner, your desire for more and more information as you research a product, service, or company may sometimes lead to “analysis paralysis,” preventing you from making a decision. To combat this, keep these tips in mind before entering the rabbit-hole of never-ending reviews-binging:
- Be aware that even great companies will have some bad reviews.
- Take note of the date reviews were left; more recent reviews are the most relevant.
- Utilize the search function on review sites to filter reviews for your particular location or concern. For example, Best Company’s company profile pages (like this one for Lendio) each have a search bar where you can search for keywords like “[state],” “customer service,” or “return policy.”
Tendency overview: You meet both inner and outer expectations and would describe yourself as disciplined. You identify with these statements:
- It’s important to me to meet other people’s expectations and my expectations for myself are just as important.
- I want to know what’s expected of me.
- I love crossing items off my to-do list.
How to approach writing reviews: You work well on a schedule, so consider giving yourself a timeline or establishing a routine for review-writing after using a new product or service (for example, one week after delivery).
As an upholder, you might sometimes be accused of being rigid in regards to embracing rules and best practices, and you may get annoyed while reading reviews that aren’t super detailed or otherwise helpful. Use this acknowledgment of people who have done a “bad” job of reviewing something (in your opinion) as well as a dearth of reviews in some cases as further validation that your own prompt, detailed reviews are much-needed.
What’s in it for you: Validation of both your altruism and your self-interest. You may feel intrinsically and extrinsically compelled to write reviews, but no matter the motivation, you know you’re doing what’s expected of you as a consumer for the greater good.
Real-life review hero: Stephanie Fatta, founder of beauty blog Beauty Brite and experienced reviewer, has been motivated personally and on behalf of causes she believes in. She was writing reviews for beauty products long before she developed sponsored partnerships with companies, driven in part by her commitment to cruelty-free and natural brands. “I started my blog in 2010 originally as a place to share homemade beauty recipes and reviews of products I purchased on my own,” Fatta explains. Since then, she has branded herself as a beauty expert and has been able to provide positive exposure to companies she believes in.
Tendency overview: You resist all expectations and do what you want when you want. You identify with these statements:
- I want freedom to do something my own way.
- I’m not particularly persuaded by arguments such as, “People are counting on you.”
- If someone tells me I can’t do something, I think, “I’ll show you,” and I do it.
How to approach writing reviews: You’re not going to employ a company just because someone says to, nor will you avoid a company with bad reviews necessarily. And if you don’t want to write a review, you’re not going to write a review because a company asks you to or because we say you should, and you wouldn’t do it even if your mom begs you to.
So instead of making this a matter of expectation, think of reviews in terms of identity, resistance, or reward.
- What specific products, services, or companies appeal to your identity as a person and that you’d actually enjoy reviewing? You can be picky when it comes to writing reviews because it does take some time and effort. So review only companies that you believe in 100 percent.
- Review as an act of resistance by contradicting what someone else said. Be the one person who says the unpopular opinion on either end of the spectrum. Plus, as a rebel, it’s possible you approached your initial purchase in an unconventional way, so you likely have some interesting consumer insights to share.
- Consider the personal rewards of becoming a top reviewer of a website.
What’s in it for you: Self-empowerment and clout. You validate your own identity as a rebel by speaking out when your voice goes against the grain. And you can gain clout as a super reviewer whose opinion is highly valued by customers and companies.
If that sounds like an out-of-reach aspiration, think again.
Real-life review hero: Chris Cade has been part of Amazon’s invitation-only review program for the past ten years and has found a way to establish his personal brand as a reviewer to his personal and professional benefit. Cade’s business, The Miracles Store, is in the personal development blogging niche, so reviews were a way to subsidize the purchases of products he already wanted.
“What originally motivated me to write reviews was to be able to write off my book and movie purchases as business expenses,” he explains. “I would purchase a book or movie, review it on my blog, and then copy the review onto Amazon.”
And now? “I continue to review products because I am an Amazon Vine Voice,” Cade says. He’s reviewed everything from socks to Bose wireless noise-cancelling earbuds and a 3-D printer.
4. Find your Online Review Sidekick: BestCompany.com
THE ONLINE REVIEW LANDSCAPE
Capes waving, our heroes stand above the searching crowd, ready to swoop down and protect them from the review baddies’ schemes. Meanwhile, back at HQ, a sidekick mans the supercomputer, providing insights and other assistance as needed.
Every hero needs a sidekick, and in the online review space, Best Company can be that sidekick. Best Company’s mission is simple: to become the most trusted review site. Period. To do this, we strive for the following:
- Publish accurate company rankings and honest consumer reviews.
- Educate companies on ways they can improve.
- Provide insight for consumers on what separates good companies from the best.
Best Company consciously avoids and preempts many of the pitfalls common to the online review space. Businesses cannot pay for top-ranking spots on bestcompany.com, nor can they unduly suppress negative reviews that pass our rigorous review moderation process. Every customer review on bestcompany.com has been verified and linked with an actual person. And while Best Company may be compensated for affiliate relationships, rankings are determined by verified customer reviews and nothing else.
The result? A truly objective review site that compares businesses on their merit and on the customer experience.
Have you had an experience with a company that you want to share? That you feel will benefit others? Well, consider this your bat signal: start reviewing here.