CUSTOMER REVIEWS: CAN WE TRUST THEM?

by Eleanor D. Baines

De’Andre:

I play basketball in school and I’m also on a rep. team, so I’m always on the internet looking for basketball shoes. 

Customer reviews Influence me because the people who write the reviews were once in my position, wondering if they should buy the shoe.

If there are a lot of bad reviews, I won’t buy them because I don’t want to make the same mistake the reviewer did. If I buy the shoe, and it’s not for me it’s going to effect my whole team because they depend on me to give one hundred percent on the court!

Eleanor:

That was 13 year old De’Andre speaking.  Amazed to learn that someone as young as him used on-line customer reviews, I interviewed the young teen and asked him, “how customer reviews influenced his purchases”, and that’s what he had to say.

Introduction:

You’re listening to InQuery.  A podcast show run by the Professional Writing students here at York University. We’re exploring the technology of today and creating the new ideas of tomorrow.

Eleanor:

Hello, my name is Eleanor Baines, your host on today’s InQuery podcast.  Today, I will be talking about the on-line customer review. Can we trust them?

Nowadays, we are so inundated with choices for product and services, honest advice about a potential purchase has never been more call for.

Yet, there use to be a time when the only referral for a product or service came from family and friends, or sellers advertisements.

Today, assisting consumers with their demand for advice, are the numerous e-commerce merchants who now provide customer review platforms for products and services they sell.

Customer reviews, also referred to as e-word-of-mouth (eWOM) by some, are evaluations generally written by anonymous consumers who have experience with the product or service they write about.

One of the first customer review platforms was Epinions.com.  It was established in 1999, acquired by Shopping.com in 2003 and eBay in 2005, however, it’s now non-operational.

In a non-scientific peer survey conducted for the purpose of this podcast, only 13 percent of those surveyed revealed that they preferred expert reviews over customer reviews. The main reasons? Because they are written by unpaid peers, who are generally unbiased.

Whenever I’m searching for a product on-line these days, I almost always encounter a link to customer reviews. Most of the reviews I’ve observed include brief remarks about a product. A small number contain lengthy detailed accounts. And there might be one or more with criticizing remarks from a ranting and raving frustrated reviewer.

You might think that review users would prefer short and succinct reviews, yet, in the peer survey more than 2/3 of those surveyed preferred the lengthy review for its detail, and clarity. The individuals studied also found it reliable and more useful.

Researchers also found that people do not easily disregard reviewers that are extremely negative and will only discount the review if it only appears to reflect a mere difference in tastes.

Another researcher concluded quote: The use of emotion-laden words may convey excitement and enthusiasm (or disdain and dissatisfaction) about a product, which could simplify the decision process and thus be helpful to the reader unquote. *

Forty-eight percent of those surveyed reported they use customer reviews frequently.

Betty, a retired wife and mother of three adult children is a frequent user of customer reviews. I asked her “what she looks for in a customer review” here’s what she had to say:

Betty:

Well I tend to do a lot of research, if were buying a large product or an expensive product, like a TV or a fridge or stove, and I do a fair bit of reading to compare things. Then I look at the customer reviews to see if there’s any particular problems with the item. I like it when there lots of reviews for a particular product and I look at the details so that if people have very specific feedback about something I like to know what that is, if there is any problems with it. But I also look at the overall rating and tend to avoid buying things that have a mediocre or low rating overall. So ya, I pay a fair bit of attention to these, and I want to get good value for my money, so I want to make sure were buying something that’s going to last and that’s of good quality.

Eleanor:

Eighty-seven percent of those taking part in the peer survey reported they were influenced by customer reviews.

De’Andre, whom we heard speaking about buying basketball shoes at the beginning of the podcast said customer reviews influence him because the reviewers had the similar goal of deciding whether they should purchase the shoes.  He also said that he won’t buy a product if there are a lot of bad reviews.  De’Andre represents the single consumer who will typically use eWOM while single to search for services such as restaurants or items associated with recreation, like sports gear, or music, movies, and games.  While Betty, whom we listened to at the latter, looks for product details, problems, ratings and wants overall good quality.  Her eWOM experience embodies the all-inclusive review user, those consuming for family and household.

Like De’Andre and Betty, almost all of those in the peer survey said reading customer reviews reduced purchase uncertainty for them. In other words, even with all of our prior experiences and varying degrees of tastes, likes, and dislikes, most customer review users are satisfied that reviews assist them with making good purchasing choices.

Stay tuned! Next, I’ll be talking about review facilitators who are benefiting.

CitizenShipper, a client of the customer review facilitator, Trustpilot, has seen a 9.2 out of 10 rating and a growth rate of about 300 users per day. Wow! Now that’s a bundle of new customers.

In a March  2015 interview, CitizenShipper, CEO, Richard Obousy told CRM magazine, quote, Consumers trust other consumers more than they trust brands. Word-of-mouth marketing is very powerful, especially online, and we've been impressed by how proactive Trustpilot has been about helping us find new ways to engage our customers through reviews. unquote **

In addition to assisting consumers with helpful advice from their peers, many sellers have used the customer review platform to show their customers that they are taking corrective actions. For instance, LL Bean offered 6,300 of its customer’s new sheets in response to negative reviews about one of their sheet brands. Such actions have had positive outcomes for eWOM merchants.

Researchers S. Park and J.P. Allen’s study, Responding to online reviews: Problem solving and engagement in hotels, pointed out that hoteliers too are taking proactive action as a result of customer reviews, in order to portray the best image to the public and to show guests that corrective actions are being taken.

Next up in the podcast is negativity in customer reviews, stay tuned!

Countless assumptions have been made about customer reviews. This popular topic amongst consumer researchers has generated studies on the effects of eWOM and age, brand lovers, and group opinions to name a few.

The idea that negative reviews command greater attention in review readers is an assumption shared by many eWOM researchers. So why is this the case? P.F. Wu, in a study on negativity and bias in customer reviews explains that people: expect others to be moderately positive; pay more attention to bad than good news; that negative news captures attention simply because negative is novel; and that people take criticism more seriously than praise.

Also, consumers may worry if reviews are genuine when ebusinesses only post a few of the most positive reviews and fail to post any negative reviews. However, doubt will decrease when there are many positive reviews.

Next, ebusinesses taking the offensive.

Most of us know the story of the three little pigs. One in a hurry builds his house with straw and the other also in a hurry builds his house with sticks, while the third takes his time to build a solid fortress of a house, with bricks.

Like the third little pig, many ebusinesses have adapted software programs designed to keep their customer review platforms, safe from overwhelming threats. This software will single out, extract and group words with similar word groupings, together.  Parsing of this sort is called opinion and sentiment mining. Many ebusinesses use opinion and sentiment mining to better target consumer markets and fake reviews. For more on the topic of opinion and sentiment mining see the transcript for this podcast. *

See links below:

Web Data Mining: https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6Mh50Uaq6AIC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=b.+liu,+web+data+mining&ots=NwsYJIGjlh&sig=9DbSuRKhtAb2RHPTF-h2mbWF7oo#v=onepage&q=b.%20liu%2C%20web%20data%20mining&f=false

Consumer Mining Searches:  https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/blog-season1/c0eaf4af-451e-4ef3-872a-6266a5341d91

Another strategy sellers use when there is too much negative content, is the putting into view, a show of the products rating (or the number of stars out of five) and the volume (or number) of reviews for a product or service. In this way, the consumer sees the products popularity, while at the same time, the seller can choose not to display the reviews in print, and control the negative content.

Phoney reviewers either promote a particular product by writing several positive reviews or they target competitors and damage reputations by writing false and misleading reviews.

Imposter reviewers may give a product a high rating but write a negative review that may avoid detection in less sophisticated mining programs. There are also those imposter reviewers who work in groups. These ones are often difficult to detect as they may write reviews at different websites at a product’s launch to avoid detection and take over the products negative or positive sentiment.

Counterfeit reviews are not only problematic for the seller, but are also damaging to us consumers as they mislead and cause us to make decisions about a purchase that we may not have made if it weren’t for the fake reviews. Even so, most facilitating software nowadays can detect parallels in fake reviews and are successful at weeding many of them out.

An average of sixty-five percent in the peer survey reported that they found negative reviews persuasive, while only thirty-nine percent said they made purchases despite reviews being negative.

These statistics are significant as more than half of review users surveyed, are affected by negative reviews and almost two thirds of them say they won’t buy a product if a review is negative. We now see why sellers are motivated to detect and keep negative reviews at a distance. In fact, sellers are so concerned with the impact that negative reviews has on their sales that many sellers design their opinion and sentiment mining programs to assign the most negative reviews to the bottom of the review hierarchy.

The implications of the seller moving reviews to a bottom position in the review pile are serious as this type of manipulation deny consumers an honest reflection of customer feedback. Also, if there are several reviews for a product, the negative reviews placed at the bottom of the batch will be seldom read.

An example of review manipulation was made apparent when Yelp client’s complained that their busienesses had once enjoyed a top ranking but were now amongst Yelp’s lowest rankings.  Yelp, is a company that provides consumers with listings of local businesses rated by Yelp customers.

Yelp explained that they filter out the occasional reviewer to give more prominence to those reviewers who post reviews more frequently.

Defending their services, Yelp spokesperson Stephanie Ichinose told CBC News quote, we are not a pin up board – where you drive by and put something up and you leave. We are a community unquote. **

Communications expert, Peter Chow-White told CBC News quote, consumers should realize sites like Yelp manipulate content to boost their own bottom line, so the reviews are not purely "grassroots" unquote. *

In August of this year iReach by PR Newswire reported that BestCompanys.com has a new site feature where businesses reviewed can extract customer reviews and use them however they please.

Statistics in the peer survey showed that consumers are satisfied when using customer reviews.  Yet, fake customer reviews problems and hidden manipulation tactics such as those previously mentioned interfere with the consumer’s decision making process and jeopardize the genuineness of customer review platforms.

Consumers can avert review manipulation in a variety of ways. For example, review users can make sure they search both the top and bottom reviews to find and read some of those undesirable reviews that may be at the bottom of the review pile. It may mean finding the reviews of those ranting over their purchase, however, you may also find those with practical and balanced feedback.

Also, watch out for those too good or too bad to be true reviews and try and determine whether the reviewer is describing the product like someone with personal experience with the item they write about. Research has revealed that fake reviewers generally will single out one flaw and will remain ambiguous about other details relating to the product.

It would be most unfortunate if we could no longer trust what sellers present as authentic customer reviews.

Can we trust them?

My opinion. I think that as long as consumers continue to write about their purchasing experiences, users will continue to seek them out. But users have to stay current with opinion and sentiment mining tactics and most of all, trust their intuition!

Footnotes:

  • Wu, P. F., In search of negativity bias: An empirical study of perceived helpfulness of online reviews, web. Psychology & Marketing, web. October 15. 2015

** Customer reviews drive CitizenShipper's word-of-mouth marketing. Customer Relationship Management, web. destinationCRM.com, web. October 17, 2015

* Liu, B. (2007). Web Data Mining, web. Google scholar, web. October 16, 2015

Web Data Mining

https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6Mh50Uaq6AIC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=b.+liu,+web+data+mining&ots=NwsYJIGjlh&sig=9DbSuRKhtAb2RHPTF-h2mbWF7oo#v=onepage&q=b.%20liu%2C%20web%20data%20mining&f=false

Consumer Mining Searches:  https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/blog-season1/c0eaf4af-451e-4ef3-872a-6266a5341d91

 

.** Yelp accused of burying good customer reviews, Business owner says rating site is unfairly hurting business, web. CBC News, web. September 22, 2015

* Yelp accused of burying good customer reviews, Business owner says rating site is unfairly hurting business, web. CBC News, web. September 22, 2015

References:

Scholarly Sources

Chen, Y., & Xie, J., Online Consumer Review: Word-of-Mouth as a New Element of Marketing Communication Mix. web. Google Scholar, web. October 15, 2015

Liu, B., Web Data Mining, web. Google scholar, web. October 16, 2015

Mudambi, S. M., & Schuff, D., What Makes a Helpful Online Review? A Study of Consumer Reviews on Amazon.com. web. MIS Quarterly, web. October 15, 2015

Park, S., & Allen, J. P., Responding to online reviews: Problem solving and engagement in hotels, web. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, web. October 19, 2015

Schindler, R. M., & Bickart, B., Perceived helpfulness of online consumer reviews: The role of message content and style. web. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, web. October 15, 2015

Wu, P. F., In search of negativity bias: An empirical study of perceived helpfulness of online reviews, web. Psychology & Marketing, web. October 15. 2015

Non-scholarly Sources

BestCompanys.com unveils new embeddable review feature to promote "the voice of actual customers, Web. iReachcontent.com, web. Nov. 22, 2015

Customer reviews drive CitizenShipper's word-of-mouth marketing. Customer Relationship Management, web. destinationCRM.com, web. October 17, 2015

Customer Review, web, Wikipedia.org, web. November, 2015

Epinions, web. Wikipedia.org, web. November, 2015

Firms take online reviews to heart; many say consumer responses offer clues to supply-chain snafus, flaws or unclear instructions, speeding up remedies. web. Wall Street Journal (Online), web. October 17, 2015

Market Place Tech, Can you really trust online customer reviews?, web. Marketplace.org, web. September 9, 2015

Online Profiling and Invasion of Privacy: The Myth of Anonymization, web. Hoffington Post, web. November 18, 2015

Yelp accused of burying good customer reviews, Business owner says rating site is unfairly hurting business, web. CBC News, web. September 22, 2015

Sound Recordings:

Going higher, web. Bensound.com, web. November 14, 2015

Indoor Basketball game, web. free sound.org, web. November 14, 2015

Small crowd, web. soundbible.com, web. November 14, 2015,

Troubling, Setuniman, web. free sound.org, web. November 21, 2015