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Reviews Tell Us How to Feel About a Product, But Can We Trust Them?

Not all reviews are created equal. Some are scientific but others come from people paid to talk about the product or who receive it for free. Here's some background that will help you know how to spot a good review the next time you buy.

You may have written a one-star review before - but that was easy. You probably picked up your phone, went onto Google, Yelp or one of countless other platforms, and had your complaint posted in seconds before going back to Netflix.

You likely were not following the old wisdom to write an angry letter, but don't send it, because it was so easy to send. And you definitely weren't as salty as Nanni, a customer who lived more than 3,700 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. He was so upset at his copper dealer that he wrote what may be the first-ever written bad review in recorded history....and carved into a clay tablet that's still around today. Imagine screwing up at your job so bad that people read about it in a museum.

There's no doubt that the ways we talk about what's good to buy, and what's not, has changed since then.

Not too long ago, people went to the store and once they found a product, if they had any questions about it, they had to ask someone who worked in the store.

But today’s shoppers outsource this skill to total strangers. We just read the reviews.

When looking to buy, shoppers today get first impressions from easily accessible star ratings online, and can read lengthy stories about buyers' good and bad experiences.

And these days, there's also plenty of information on products available from YouTubers and TikTokers. But some of these reviewers are paid for their reviews, or offered free products. And this means they’re not just reviewers, they’re influencers.

"I think historically we lived in a time when influencers were far and few between, and influencers were mainly celebrities who had powerful voices," says Radhika Zaveri, who teaches at Southern Methodist University's business school. "The definition of powerful voices was very different."

"I think in today's modern world, you and I are influencers in our own right," says Zaveri. "So if you think of the number of times you have written a review on Yelp, for instance: you've gone to a restaurant and you come back and you either write a positive or a not so positive review, or you have talked about it on social media. We do it all the time. And so as brands, it's really important to recognize and learn from the voices that are enabling us to be the brand of choice, especially with millennials, because brand loyalty with millennials is low and they don't mind switching."

She says products can either be made or broken based on consumer voices on the Web.

But these voices aren’t all motivated by the same factors. For some, a positive experience is expected, so prompting them to write a positive review can require extraordinary effort.

"Americans tend to leave negative reviews more than they’re leaving positive reviews," says Ryan Thorpe, chief data scientist at Womply. "Unless it’s like this outward experience of like, 'Man, this was the most amazing thing ever, I have to tell everybody about it because it was so good' – and so in the data, you definitely see that businesses that are making more revenue have a higher blend of more negative types of reviews, which is super interesting."

Testing and rating products

Decades before amateur reviews permeated shopping platforms and social media, one organization set out to make reviews rigorous and scientific.

"We started in 1936 basically as the antidote to advertising," says Jen Shecter, senior director for content impact & outreach at Consumer Reports. "At that time consumers had no other sources of information besides advertising."

During the Great Depression it was important to make informed purchases. So Consumer Reports Magazine introduced the scientific review to the American shopper.

"The only way to truly say 'this product is better than this product' is to evaluate them on the exact same playing field," says Shecter. "We test dishwashers and we’re soiling all those dishes exactly the same way. And it’s a lot of work. For washing machines, they’ve got these like swatches basically, and they have holes in them and they count the frays – the frays that appear. We buy tens of thousands of dollars in industrial stains every year. So you’ve got blood, you’ve got a ring around the collar – you have all these industrial swatches and we wash them to see how they get the stains out."

Product reviews also measure safety risks.

"We had a case with a baby food manufacturer where we contacted them and said we found high levels of heavy metals like arsenic and lead in your baby food. And we gave them the lot numbers and they said, 'we actually only tested the raw ingredients, we never tested the finished product.' And when we tested the finished product, it had these higher levels of heavy metals like arsenic and lead. And so they changed their processes, they said, because of what we told them."

What reviews say about a business - and why bad reviews can be good

Thorpe says bad reviews can have a positive outcome for brands.

"It’s definitely good to have the occasional bad review in there because it builds that authenticity. If it all comes within a certain period of time, that’s another dimension as well. So if you see in the early days, we’ll say five really bad reviews – that was two years ago. Everything from since then has been generally good with a couple of negatives then yeah, that’s what a customer would want to see."

And the consumer voice can be reduced to a simple star rating. It’s a shopper’s first impression of a brand or product, and Thorpe says it has a measurable impact on business. His data science team at Womply used automated tools and sales data to track the effects of star ratings on local business. It’s a scientific approach to measuring a rating’s influence on revenue.

Some of the results:

  • Businesses that ignore their online reviews earn 9% less revenue than average
  • If a business replies to more than 25% of their reviews, they earn 35% more revenue
  • Having 3.5 to 4.5 stars earns you more revenue than any other rating
  • A flawless 5-star shop earns less in revenue than a 1 to 1.5-star shop
  • Businesses with no reviews in the past 90 days earn 20% less
  • Having 25 or more recent reviews can mean earning 108% more

Thorpe says he's more comfortable seeing recent reviews. That gives a sign the business is still around...and maybe fixed problems from a bad review 2 years ago

It’s a small part of a major industrial shift, all driven by data. It’s altered consumer expectations, disrupted marketing and advertising and shortened the product development cycle.

"Just think about a product that you came across and went, 'oh wow, this is the best thing since sliced bread', before you know it the next version comes out. And that happens all the time. And that is because we're getting feedback so quickly," says Zaveri.

Humans are enduring profound societal and technological change, but we’ve done this before. By upgrading our skills alongside new technology, we overcome limitations from the past. For shoppers, this means understanding modern marketing and customer feedback.

"I think at the core of credible information is whether or not it is truly independent," says Shecter. "Look at who’s behind the product information you’re getting. Is it sponsored? Is there advertising behind it? Is there an ad for the product right next to the product review you’re reading about?"

It also means we’ll need to learn how to make quality reviews with useful data points that can help other shoppers. Shecter has some suggestions.

"Make it actionable advice in terms of what somebody can do in that situation. You know, some of the greatest tips from Consumer Reports are things like, if you want to complain to your cable company, don't call customer service, call the retention department. Give me something to do that led to a positive outcome. If you're the pioneer who trailblazed and spent six hours figuring something out, tell me what I can do so I don't have to spend six hours."

We’ve come a long way since complaining on clay tablets, but as customers we have the same needs: we want quality products at a fair price, we want brands to listen and respond to our voices, and if things don’t work out, we just want our money back.