Can You Really Trust Online User Reviews?

As a savvy consumer, you probably do some research before you spend your hard-earned money, whether it’s for a night out at a fine restaurant, a hotel stay as part of a leisurely vacation, or purchasing goods such as electronics or clothing. How often have you spent those dollars only to find out that the restaurant or hotel wasn’t quite what you were expecting? How much time have you spent exploring your plans and checking out online user reviews? Did you trust what you read? That’s the question I’m asking today and what I have learned about online user reviews can help you wade through some of the clutter and get to the real story.

Can You Really Trust Online User Reviews?

There have been many articles written and surveys taken about the reliability of the reviews we see online for various services like hotels, restaurants, contractors, and of course, products. Some are positive and others are negative. According to a survey done by BrightLocal, the results for 2015 show that 80% of consumers trust reviews as much as personal recommendations, but 72% will do so only if certain criteria are met, with 31% needing to believe the review is authentic.

But how do you know if a review is authentic? A few weeks ago, mega-retailer Amazon filed a lawsuit against 1,000 purveyors of fake reviews, showing just how pervasive the problem is. Whether the fake review is a positive one written by a paid professional or a negative one done by a competitor, either way consumers lose by not getting the true picture. Major sites that depend on user reviews have their own algorithms for sniffing out fakes, but can you rely on them? We don’t always know what testing has been done to verify the accuracy of the algorithms, so some skepticism is in order.

A Multitude of Stars

When looking at reviews, ratings are usually made with stars posted out of 5 (or 10) as the highest rating. If the average rating is the result of thousands of reviews, it’s more likely to have some validity than if there are only 4 reviews posted. I find the rating to be helpful when trying to compare 2 products or services which both have a lot of reviews. However, most people want to know the content of that rating and basically ignore the stars altogether. So what someone writes specifically is a much better way to judge the review.

Strike a Balance

While it’s true that bad experiences are more likely to trigger a review than a satisfied experience, I tend to look for the middle ground to get a grasp on reality. Too high praise or too much criticism is a red flag to me. I look for reviews that have a balance of both positive and negative comments, which implies that the reviewer is trying to give a fair assessment. I also look for specifics in both the compliments and the complaints while skipping over vague, general reviews. Seeking out patterns in the specific comments is a good way to get some confirmation. For example, if 4 out of 10 reviews of a laptop complain about short battery life (without phrasing it in the exact same words), I am likely to believe that’s an issue.

Who’s the Reviewer

Having said that, we also have to look at who is writing the reviews. Some sites indicate whether the reviewer is a verified purchaser of the service or goods listed, which can be helpful. One of the best ways to tell if a review is sketchy is to check and see if the reviewer has a few reviews posted around the internet. If they do, they may use identical language in their praise and that makes me totally skeptical. The same for any anonymous reviewers…I tend to ignore those entirely.

Your Mileage May Vary

But even among genuine reviews, we need to account for differing tastes and standards as well as what issues are directly related to the product or service being reviewed. For example, my wife and I stayed at a lovely resort in Mexico a few years ago and we really loved the place. But one reviewer mentioned that it wasn’t “kid friendly” and I just had to laugh. The resort didn’t allow children at all and was strictly for couples to enjoy. Duh! So I guess technically he was correct, but the comment wasn’t at all helpful. I’ve seen other travel reviews where people complain about the weather and other issues that were completely beyond the control of the hotel. Some people don’t know the difference between a rant and a review.

The Proof Is In The Photo

When it comes to photographs, I rely on reviewers’ actual photos rather than the professional photographs that may appear online. That way I know that they’re not just showing me what I want to see and it’s more likely to be a realistic depiction. We’ve all been fooled by travel photos taken at the corner of the pool that appears to be Olympic-sized only to find out it’s really a small kids wading pool, or clothing that looks perfect on the model but not so much on a “real person”.

Ancient History

Lastly, look at the date on the review if it’s provided. Recent reviews may be much more helpful as the quality of the service or product may have changed over time. If it’s for travel, you may want to check hotel reviews for the same time of year as you’ll be travelling. For example, a ski resort will likely have very different activities available in the summer and the winter.

 

Next time you’re doing your research, pay attention to the reviews, but remember that they’re not all authentic.  Even if you can’t tell which reviews are real, by using some of these tips, you may still be able to get the information you need. For more tips on utilizing online reviews, check out Consumer Reports’ guide to user reviews.

How do you use online reviews to decide where to spend your money? Have you ever written a review? What is your experience with user reviews?

Image courtesy of nenetus at freedigitalphotos.net (with changes)

18 Comments

  1. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank

    I most of the time find online user reviews reliable especially after reading so many positive reviews and photos taken by the users. I think I would try looking into date on the review. Nice tips Gary.

  2. Besides Racing Toward Retirement, I write a book blog, This That and the Other Thing (http://rannthisthat.blogspot.com) and on it I review book, and a few other products. I rarely purchase things I review, though I will do reviews of some things I purchase, if that makes sense. I’ve reviewed a couple of hotels on Trip Advisor. When I review books I try to hit on things I know are important to my readers. Many are religous and don’t like sex in books, so describe the level of sexual content. Others don’t like a lot of religion, and since I review a lot of religious fiction, I try to describe how religon fits in the book. With products I try to let folks know the good and the bad. I rarely write five star reviews; IMO if “everything” is five stars, how do I label the extraordinary?

    I agree with looking at bunch of reviews, preferably three star and below, looking for consistent problems.

  3. K @ One More BROKE TWENTY-SOMETHING

    I often write reviews of hotels, restaurants, performances that I see, and museums that I visit. I’m a very active Yelper as well.

    When it comes to reviews, I tend to value pictures more as well. I also look at the quality of the writing/grammar – did they write in complete sentences? Spell words correctly? At the very least, did they use punctuation? Just little things like that often weed out some of the reviews I’ll consider.

  4. Kyle Suzanne

    Very true…”But even among genuine reviews, we need to account for differing tastes and standards as well as what issues are directly related to the product or service being reviewed.” Feel free to link this up to Frugal Friday if you have time…

  5. Great tips! One thing I will say is that you can teach even young kids to be careful about online reviews. My Kindergardener uses reviews to evaluate which games to download because she knows she only has limited space, and she’ll say stuff like “They’ve got 5 stars, but there’s only 2 reviews. That’s bad, right?”

    She also really wants me to leave reviews on games she likes or hates to let people know.

  6. I think I’ve seen so many listings for folks to write reviews for money on Craigslist, that I have trouble trusting online reviews at all – especially on the seller’s website. If someone likes something so much they wrote a blog post about it, I’m a lot more likely to trust that.

    1. Even though we can’t be sure whether or not the reviewers are being honest or being compensated, reviews do give you some information that you don’t necessarily have and I would be more likely to trust real life pictures provided by users. I also rely on people I know in real life for their recommendations.

  7. My prof in uni taught that the first thing to examine in any research paper is the bibliography. That gives an indication of the paper’s worthiness. I guess it’s the same for reviews. Have a look at who the reviewers are, then have a look too at the other reviews these folks did, and make a judgement.

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