How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?

How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?

Have you ever been burned by a bad online review? Have you ever made a fantastic discovery from a review you read online?

Do you find yourself swayed by the wisdom of crowds? Or do you fear “groupthink” and trust your own instincts?

The internet has democratized the ability to review. No longer do we have to wait for a select group of experts to give their stamp of approval. Instead, anybody can write what he or she thinks online. But who exactly is writing the reviews we read? How reliable are they? And what do they really mean when they give something five or zero stars?

In “Do Not Trust That Stranger’s 5-Star Review,” Joanne Chen, a senior writer at Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product review website, writes:

Last Saturday, I was desperate for Mozart sheet music. It had to be for piano, and it had to be easy to play. Out of 84 options on Amazon, a book with 4.7 stars caught my eye — good enough for a 9-year-old’s music-class presentation. Later that afternoon, I needed to book a hotel for our summer vacation and I trusted the 1,310 reviewers on TripAdvisor who gave my pick an average of four stars, along with a good number of “fantastics” and “wonderfuls.”

Dinner was a 4.5 star meatloaf recipe. And this weekend, with Memorial Day sales in full swing, I will turn to an army of online reviewers who will help me bite the bullet and replace a toilet that has mysteriously begun flushing of its own accord. Someone else will have put the time in at Home Depot so I don’t have to.

But which someone? Who are these reviewers I’m trusting with my purchasing decision, big and small? I don’t know for sure, and yet I feel completely stalled until I’ve scrolled through everything they have to say.

The Opinion essay continues:

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, 82 percent of Americans say they read online reviews at least some of the time. But only about 50 percent of online shoppers say they sometimes leave a review for a product or a service, and that number dwindles to 43 percent for restaurants. Only one in 10 people reports “nearly always” leaving a review.

Alex Haefner, who oversees content at Yelp, said the most prolific reviewers are “superpassionate about their local business experience, and they make it their hobby to write about them.” What else do we know about these “super-passionate” people who are shaping so much of how we spend our money?

Panagiotis Stamolampros, a lecturer on business analytics at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Leeds in England, said that research on reviewers is limited, but “what we know for sure is that extroverted and open individuals tend to engage more in social media, and they are also expected to be more involved with online reviews.”

That’s certainly not me. I usually roll my eyes when people in my social network share too much online, and I can’t fathom who would have the extra minutes in the day to write a thoughtful review. And yet I invite people from all over the country to have a say in virtually every aspect of my life.

Stars beget sales. According to an often mentioned Harvard Business School working paper that studied restaurant reviews on Yelp, each added star is associated with a 5 percent to 9 percent increase in revenue. Not surprisingly, then, new businesses have sprung up to exploit the rating system to the seller’s or the platform’s advantage.

In the case of both sellers and platforms, more is more. “Most providers and platforms just want to encourage more reviews,” said June Cotte, a professor of marketing at Western University in Canada. “More reviews signal quality, and it also mutes any bad reviews.”

The tactics to make this happen often lead to rendering the star-rating scale useless. I’m not even talking about asking friends or relatives or paying firms to crank out five-star reviews. (The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on dishonest practices, while some platforms, like Yelp and Amazon, have designed automated software to combat this, albeit to varying degrees of success.) I’m referring to usually perfectly legit methods, like asking loyal customers to write reviews.

Even if businesses don’t interfere at all, a five-star filter’s usefulness could eventually fizzle out anyway. That’s because in the star-rated universe, the wisdom of the crowd can morph into something more like “the madness of the crowd,” said Matthew Salganik, the author of “Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age” and a professor of sociology at Princeton.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— Do you read online reviews to help you make decisions — about movies, books, stores or music? Which kinds of reviews do you trust most? What kinds of reviews make you skeptical?

— Tell us about a memorable experience with online reviews, good or bad. Why did you follow the reviewers’ advice? How did the reviews compare with your actual experience of the product or service? What did you learn about reviews from this episode?

— Do you ever write online reviews yourself? If so, why?

— Do you think you will change any of your consumer behavior based on Ms. Chen’s article? Which of her tips on finding the right product or service do you find most helpful? What strategies do you employ to effectively use and filter online reviews?

— Ms. Chen writes:

“Knowing more about what other people are doing and thinking can help us all find the best things faster, but it can also lead to stronger fads where people are following people who are following people who are following people,” he said. “At a certain point, popularity can become separated from how good something actually is.”

Do you believe in the “wisdom of crowds” or do you tend to fear the “madness of the crowd”? Have you ever fallen for a fad because of online reviews? How much should we be worried about the growing power of online reviews?

— Do you think that companies or the Federal Trade Commission should take more steps to combat deceptive reviews on the internet?