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Online reviews are terrible, and here’s why

Online reviews sound good in theory. In practice, however, they don’t work so well.

Reviews were initially important as proxies of trust for e-commerce businesses, but they have now well and truly spilled over to bricks-and-mortar businesses, where the weakness of the review system is being amplified as some consumers have figured out how to weaponise it.

The general idea is that users provide their personal and honest feedback and other users are able to make more informed choices (like avoiding scammers). Even the business owner can use “learnings” to improve the business.

It just doesn’t work.

Amazon is plagued by fake reviews and trolls. In the book space, for instance, small groups and even bots target specific authors over spurious disagreements the trolls may have, and downvote their books accordingly so that they never appear in algorithmically-driven searches.

On AirBnB and Uber, providers and users review each other. Another great idea, but in practice, since no one can afford to be given a 1-star review (the host wouldn’t get guests and the guest wouldn’t get accommodation) – the unspoken rule is that everyone gives each other 5-star reviews all the time. A 4-star review should set alarm bells ringing.

Reviews are not a fair representation of the business, because reviewers have suspect motives, are unqualified, unreliable and the process is flawed and without proper context.

The problem with online reviews

Here are just a few of the drawbacks with online reviews, as they currently exist:

  • The motive of the reviewer is not always apparent, and neither is it always pure. Even positive reviews may have little to do with the actual service experience, and people who are motivated to review, often have an axe to grind.

  • Those who prefer not to review products and services are often bombarded by reminder emails until they relent, only to give a less than well-thought-through review long after the fact.

  • You usually only get one side of the story in a review.

  • Most people doing the reviewing have zero insight into the business’s operations, and criticisms and expectations are often unrealistic. Negative reviews are not merely limited to articulating a personal negative experience, but often are about perceptions of staffing levels, time, production, etc.

  • Compulsive reviewers operate under the misguided belief they are helping other consumers, but they are usually on a power trip.

  • Is ANY consumer really equipped to judge and compare Bunnings to McDonald’s?

  • Is the person’s subjective experience actually useful? Does the fact that a person doesn’t like a burger mean no one else will? Or vice versa?

  • A business would need to have thousands of reviews across different times, different experiences and different contexts for the sample to be considered statistically relevant. I suspect the average small business would rarely reach this sample size. Few real world, independent retail businesses boast sufficient reviews, so the results are invariably skewed. It takes more than a hundred or so reviews for the law of averages to apply, but whether a rating is valid or not does not deter the reviewing platform, with most of them showing reviews after a handful has been received.

  • Different people have different standards – what one reviewer considers value for money, another will consider expensive another to cheap. That is, the reviewer does not necessarily reflect the market that the operator seeks to attract.

  • Generally speaking, our culture – and it is amplified in the online space – has a tendency to reward victimhood.

  • It is impossible for different people with different expectations to apply the same standard. Can you have a 5-star experience at a 3-star motel, and is the average punter equipped to make that distinction?

Any run-of-the mill establishment gets reviewed as well, whether they like it or not. If you want to exist on Google Maps, you get Google Reviews. TripAdvisor has excellent SEO juice, so any business reviews will come up with your own listing at all times. If you want to keep a recent poor review off the top of your results, it will set you back $70 per month to feature a good review instead.

What now?

Review results are statistically and psychologically unreliable, but there is no way of avoiding them. They are here to stay, flawed or not.

Retailers should learn how to play the reviewing game, and the options are to (a) ignore and (b) embrace or (c) fight.

Our strategy has been:

  1. Avoid channels where the trolls feed in vast numbers (Facebook: reviews disabled; Twitter: no account; Instagram: no account).

  2. On Google and Tripadvisor, respond to every review positive or negative to at least put both sides of the story out there.

  3. Resist seeking positive reviews or attempt to ‘game’ the reviews and don’t display/promote any reviews, even positive ones.

  4. Learn what you can from a review as objectively as possible – in some instances, reviews are simply the old “world of mouth” now made visible and there is a benefit in knowing what is being said.

In the early days of e-commerce, when consumers were still sceptical, a 5-star review simply meant the product was as advertised and arrived when promised.

Any scammer who wanted to take money without sending the goods wouldn’t last long. These trust issues are not as prevalent, and there are different mechanisms to root out the bad apples today.

Businesses – and the delivery of customer experience – are too complex to be reduced to a simple star system or a subjective comment.

Maybe that is an opportunity for an entrepreneur.

Dennis Price is a shopping centre, retail, marketing & strategy all-rounder with over 30 years’ experience, across a portfolio career of concurrent interests, including consultant & coach at Ganador, retail centre management at JLL, GPT, Lend Lease, entrepreneur at Yearone Solutions, Ganador & Uncle Joe’s Cafe, and Academic at MGSM, UoW, AIB. 

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