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Four Surprising Facts About Online Reviews


Online reviews, for better or worse, are a permanent part of online reputation marketing for most businesses. Retailers, service providers, franchises, law firms and other professionals hang on every star given by customers. But not all online reviews are the same. In a comprehensive dive into the numbers provided by businesses, the following five conclusions were drawn from the data.

1. Star Ratings Are Important to Searchers

There’s good reason Google started incorporating star ratings into its organic search results, as well as its own Google Places for Business where it aggregates star reviews from third-party sites. Common sense would dictate that the star rating shown for a provider would be a key determinant, and our initial research by ConsumerAffairs for Brands confirmed this to be the case.

When asked to answer the question “what is the importance of star ratings in your decision-making process”, respondents came up with the following. The highest response freely provided was that star ratings gave them “confidence/comfort/satisfaction”. The second highest response was that they used star ratings as an aggregation of “quality”. The third most provided response was that star ratings gave them “at a glance” information.

The takeaway from this is that star ratings provide a wide range of perceived benefits to the searcher.

2. Three Tiers for Star Ratings Affecting Likelihood of Purchase

Our findings from over 10,000 respondents showed that there were three distinct tiers of how likely a customer was to purchase based on the star rating.

The highest tier came from 4.5 stars, with 64.2% likelihood of purchase. The next tier was 3.9 to 4.0 stars, with 42.8% to 58.4% likelihood of purchase. One tier below that were 2.8 to 3.0 stars, with 22% to 41% likelihood to purchase. Another interesting finding is that while many of the units between 4.0 stars and 5.0 stars appear to overlap, it seems that 4.5 stars and 5.0 stars are materially different.

The takeaway from these findings is that reviews with less than 3 stars decreases likelihood to purchase to less than 50%, declining rapidly from that point and leveling out at 20%. Businesses with poor ratings need to do what they can to increase the average star rating to at least over 3 stars. Businesses that maintain high star ratings benefit from high purchase intent.

3. All Things Being Equal, Look to Written Reviews

Another interesting finding was that when star ratings were the same for different reviews, the difference maker was in the written reviews.

Key factors that searchers looked for within the reviews were: experiences surrounding customer service; both positive and negative customer feedback; language and jargon coming from “real” people, or those they could identify with; written reviews that felt more “trustworthy” and authentic.

In fact, the power of the written review was such that it could even swing the balance of purchase intent from one with perfect 5 stars to a review with a slightly lower 4.8 stars. Respondents said that the content of the review (which continually came up as the most mentions for every condition) was the most important deciding factor. Other factors that swung the pendulum were: some assurance of the validity or authenticity of the review; price; the understanding that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” product or service, and as such searchers weren’t looking for “perfect”.

For all intents and purposes, 4.8 stars and 5 stars were essentially equal to the participants of the study. The takeaway for businesses is to focus more on the quality and honesty of written reviews, and less on “thin” 5 star reviews. Searchers can sniff out authenticity, or the lack thereof, from a mile away.

4. Is It Possible to Have a 1 Star Product Preferred Over a 5 Star Product?

In short, yes. Fascinatingly enough, study participants were more likely to prefer a 1 star rating with positive written review content over a 5 star rating with negative written review content.

In our study, we attached 5 star ratings to bad reviews or 1 star ratings to positive reviews. The graphs below show that the brands with positive written content were the ones consumers preferred to purchase from.

In fact, even when there were no stars at all on the page, if it had positive written content, consumers would still prefer to purchase from it over a 5 star review with poor content.

In summary, brands should work towards providing an experience that leaves the customer with a positive impression. That in turn will translate to honest, authentic, in-depth reviews that purchasers can relate to. The findings also show that attempts to game the system through purchasing third parties to leave fake star ratings is likely to do more harm than good. When it comes to reviews, honesty really is the best policy.

Dr.Sean Guillory is the data scientist at ConsumerAffairs for Brands, a software-as-a-service platform to help brands manage reviews and generate leads. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from Dartmouth College.

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