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Are fake online reviews crushing consumer confidence?

Jen A. Miller | Dec. 1, 2015
While a certain percentage of them are almost certainly suspect, customer-driven online ratings and reviews are just too powerful to simply ignore. But does anyone really trust them?

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Credit: Flickr/GRAND PARC BORDEAUX

Sure, a five-star review seems like a very good thing to be attached to a product. Batches of them may sway a consumer to buy that countertop microwave, adjustable baseball hat or 100-percent-pure-certified organic maple syrup. 

But what if those items had only five star reviews, and not one bad thing said about them? Can that content really be trusted? 

In October, Amazon sued more than 1,000 sellers of phony product reviews, a follow up to its first batch of such lawsuits that went out in April. 

And while it’s certainly wise to be wary of what you read, consumer-generated content – content that includes reviews – may be too valuable to be ignored. Seventy-one percent of people read consumer reviews before making a purchase, according to a study conducted by Bazaarvoice, a company that helps companies and brands with authentic consumer generated content. The study also found that seven out of 10 U.S. consumers have questioned the trustworthiness of reviews across the web. 

"If you go to a site and everything you see is five stars and looks like it's written by a marketing department, common sense is going to tell you something feels off," says Jennifer Griffin, vice president of content integrity and insights for Bazaarvoice. 

The bad five-star review

Brands and ecommerce websites have a vested interest in making sure the reviews that appear on their websites are from real customers, not bots or services that are paid to write glowing five star love letters. There’s even been a recent online/Twitter movement of sorts, #noreceiptnoreview, aimed at what its proponents (led by restaurateurs and food critics) claim are a preponderance of fake reviews on the travel site TripAdvisor, which publishes more than a quarter-million reviews of restaurants and hotels. The #noreceiptnoreview campaign wants to ensure that TripAdvisor users can only post a review of an establishment if they provide a scanned receipt. 

A recent study conducted by PowerReviews and Northwestern University's Medill IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center found that purchasehood peaked when the average rating on an item is between 4.2 and 4.5, then drops as the rating approaches five. 

"Our inference is that consumers perceive all five star reviews as too good to be true, and they discount it," says Edward C. Malthouse, research fellow at the Media Management Center, which is a partnership between Medill and Kellogg. "They can't just scrub all the negative ones because eventually consumers will figure out that all the negative ones have been scrubbed." 

Online ratings and reviews: it's a trust Issue

 

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