Online Reviews: Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

The majority of Americans rely on online reviews, with some 78 percent checking them out before making a purchase, according to a recent YouGov survey. Forty-four percent of those polled said they had written reviews themselves, at least occasionally.

At the same time, many customers doubt the ratings reviewers give products.

Perhaps that’s because a number of people across various age groups — although Millennials appeared to be the main culprits — admitted to writing reviews for products they never personally used.

The upshot is that although Americans rely on online reviews when making purchase decisions, they also have a sense that many of them are fake.

Although 90 percent of respondents said that reviews were an important part of the purchase process, 90 percent also believed that some people wrote reviews of products and services without trying them out.

People are also suspicious of the role businesses play in online reviews, the survey results suggest.

Eighty-nine percent of respondents said they believed businesses wrote negative reviews of competitors. Conversely, 91 percent of respondents believed businesses wrote their own positive reviews, and 36 percent believed they did so often.

A minority, 13 percent, believed online reviews were very trustworthy.

A Tarnished Tool

The findings of this survey are profound for both businesses and consumers.

For consumers, online reviews have become a huge democratizing force in the commerce world. Complaints of shoddy treatment or a poorly performing product once might have been brushed off by a company, but they now are more likely to be taken seriously and addressed with appropriate action.

Companies benefit from online reviews — and not just from a PR standpoint. Numerous companies have taken reviewers’ comments into account in their product development cycle to fix mistakes or otherwise improve a product.

A Way Out

When reviews don’t accurately reflect the writers’ real-world experiences, however, they’re worse than useless — but it is hard to see how the current state of affairs can be fixed.

What was an admirable concept — review product, alert other people to your experiences, good and bad, and then lather, rinse and repeat to create a more user-friendly, consumer-oriented economy — has become corrupted and tainted by misuse.

There is one possible, if only partial, remedy: Companies should stop begging consumers for a review of each and every product purchase (I’m looking at you, Amazon). Instead, they should emphasize the ones that really do bring value. This solution would work only for positive reviews, though. I am having a difficult time imagining a company highlighting a negative product review, even one that’s honest.

Still, making a dent in the countless product reviews and “likes” would be a start.

It has become increasingly difficult to buy even the most mundane of products — hair products, toothpaste and even Q-tips — without being emailed politely, and then more urgently, with a request to review the product.

I would imagine a lot of people give in to those pleas. Others, such as myself, just ignore them and then quietly wonder how the purchase of toothpaste fits in with my online profile. When you truly stop to think about it, it starts feeling a little creepy.

That said, there is a place for these entreaties — if companies could learn to temper themselves.

AT&T and Me

Let me give you an example: I use AT&T, with which I have had a longstanding love-hate relationship. It routinely asks me to recommend it to friends, and I routinely ignore these requests, knowing they will just lead to more requests — and possibly some social mention with my name on it.

Recently, though, I used AT&T’s video bill service for the first time. I am not sure how long it has had this service, but I just tried it out and was very impressed.

The video walked me through the elements of my bill, explaining certain fees — not all the fees, mind you, but enough to make me feel cautiously confident that I was not being victimized by cramming. It only took a minute or two to watch, and my name was used throughout. That’s not necessarily a great feat of personalization these days, but it is a nice touch.

Now this is something I could get behind, should AT&T ever ask.

This approach would not solve all of the problems bedeviling online reviews, but it is a start: If companies stop treating all reviews for all products the same, and value the truly thoughtful ones the most, users might bring the same attitude to the table.

Erika Morphy has been writing about technology, finance and business issues for more than 20 years. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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