Online user reviews: People trust their own motives for posting … but not others’.

user reviewsOne of the most important uses of the web today is for people to seek out user reviews of products and services before they buy.

Research shows that people place a high value on these user reviews, and they are more likely to influence purchase decisions than brand advertising and other forms of promotion.

The famous 90-9-1 rule — of every 100 people, 1 creates content, 9 respond to created content and 90 simply are just lurkers — may no longer be accurate.  But even if the rule still holds, that still means quite a few people are engaging in the practice of posting customer reviews and comments.

For most people who post reviews, their reasons for doing so are positive, if the results from a recent YouGov survey of U.S. consumers are any guide.  The research was conducted in November 2014 among American respondents age 18 or older.

When asked why they post consumer reviews online, the survey respondents cited the following reasons:

  • To help other people make better purchase decisions: ~62% cited as a reason why they post
  • It’s polite to leave feedback: ~35% of respondents cited
  • It’s a way to share a positive experience: ~27%
  • To make sure good vendors get more business: ~25%
  • To warn others about a bad experience: ~13%
  • To expose bad vendors: ~12%

Interestingly, the older the age of reviewers, the more likely it is that they upload reviews for the reasons listed above:  Respondents age 55 or older cited all but one of the six reasons in greater percentages than the average for all age groups.

What about the flip side of the equation?  Do those who post feel that others are posting reviews for the same reason?

thumbs up and downThat’s where the picture gets a bit murkier.  It appears that those who post do so for positive reasons … but they don’t necessarily think others are posting for similarly positive purposes.

In fact, about two-thirds of the survey respondents felt that some reviews are written by people who haven’t actually purchased the product or service.

A large portion — 80% — think that businesses write positive online review about themselves.

And nearly 70% believe that businesses post negative feedback about competitors’ products.

So it’s interesting:  People see themselves participating in online ratings and reviews for the right reasons, yet they suspect that other posters may not be playing fairly — or maybe even gaming the system.

It’s an indication that while user reviews are welcomed in practice, there are also nagging doubts about the veracity of what people are reading.

Still, surveys find that many consumers cast those doubts to the side, and continue to read user reviews and be influenced by them.

Fake online product reviews: How pervasive are they?

Fake reviewsThink about those reviews that mean so much to you when considering whether to purchase a particular product or a service …

It could be that the comments you’re reading are bogus – or at least not based on the reviewer’s first-hand experience.

An online survey of nearly 1,200 U.S. adults age 18 and older, conducted by marketing research firm YouGov in January 2014, found that more than one in five respondents admitted to having posted online reviews about products or services they hadn’t actually bought or used.

The percentage is somewhat higher for men (~23%) than it is for women (~17%).

Why do people post reviews or comments on products and services they haven’t tried?  Here’s what the survey respondents reported:

  • “Just felt like it”:  ~32% gave this reason
  • “Didn’t like the idea of the product”:  ~22%
  • “Didn’t like the manufacturer”:  ~19%

These stats might suggest that there are more “negative” reviews being posted online than what reflects the actual experience with the product or service.

But the YouGov survey also found that far more people leave good reviews than bad ones:

  • ~57% have left a mixed review
  • ~54% have left a good review
  • Only ~21% have ever left a bad review

What drives someone to leave a bad review?  The #1 reason is obvious … but the #2 reason might surprise you.  And the #3 reason is just mercenary:

  • ~88% want to warn others about a disappointing product or service
  • ~23% believe that venting their frustrations will leave them feeling less angry
  • ~21% are hoping to get a refund or some other monetary consideration from the company in question

The veracity of online reviews is important because the vast majority of adult consumers check them before deciding to purchase a product or service.

This YouGov survey is no different:  It found that ~79% consult reviews at least sometimes … and ~26% reported that they “always” check reviews before buying a product or service.

FakeryThe YouGov report comes hard on the heels of a Virginia lawsuit wherein a carpet cleaning service charged online review website Yelp with publishing negative reviews posted by people who had never been customers of the store.  The cleaning service claimed that the negative reviews had hurt its business.

In that case, a judge ordered Yelp to reveal the identities of the seven “anonymous” reviewers — who I’m sure never thought their “unidentified antics” would ultimately be revealed for all the world to see.

It may just be that posting a “faux” review has now become a little riskier.

People may think twice now before engaging in their little mischief.  I’m sure most of them can think of a lot better things to do than to be hauled into court for an alleged infraction like that — or at the very least, having their name brought into the legal proceedings.

Online Customer Review Sites: Who’s Yelping Now?

The news this week that social networking and user review web site Yelp® will now de-couple the presentation of reviews from advertising programs comes as a rare victory for businesses that have been feeling more than a little pressured (blackmailed?) by the company’s strong-arm revenue-raising tactics.

The web has long had something of a “Wild West” atmosphere when it comes to reviews of businesses helping or (more likely) hurting the reputation of merchants.

Yelp is arguably the most significant of these sites. Since its inception in 2004 as a local site search resource covering businesses in the San Francisco metro area, Yelp has expanded to include local search and reviews of establishments in nearly 20 major urban markets. With its branding tagline “Real people. Real reviews®,” Yelp is visited by ~25 million people each month, making it one of the most heavily trafficked Internet sites in America.

Yelp solicits and publishes user ratings and reviews of local stores, restaurants, hotels and other merchants (even churches and doctor offices are rated), along with providing basic information on each entry’s location, hours of operation, and so forth – with nearly 3 million reviews submitted at last count.

Predictably, user ratings can have a great deal of influence over the relative popularity of the businesses in question. While most reviews are positive (ratings are on a 5-point scale), Yelp also employs a proprietary algorithm – some would say “secret formula” – to rank reviews based on a selection of factors ostensibly designed to give greater credence to “authentic” user reviews as opposed to “ringers” or “put-up jobs.”

Not surprisingly, Yelp hasn’t disclosed this formula to anyone.

So far, so good. But Yelp began to raise the ire of companies when its eager and aggressive advertising sales team began pitching paid promotional (sponsorship) programs to listed businesses that looked suspiciously like tying advertising expenditures to favorable treatment on reviews as a sort of quid quo pro.

Purchase advertising space on Yelp … and positive reviews miraculously start appearing at the top of the page. Decide against advertising … and watch the tables turn as they drop to the bottom or out of site altogether.

Concerns are so strong that three separate lawsuits have been filed this year already, culminating in a class-action lawsuit filed in February that accuses Yelp of “extortion,” including the claim that Yelp ad sales reps have offered to hide or bury a merchant’s negative customer reviews in exchange for signing them up as Yelp sponsors.

“The conduct is an offer to manipulate content in exchange for payment,” Jared Beck, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, states bluntly.

As for whether Yelp’s announcement of new standards will now curb the rash of lawsuits, it seems clear that this is the intent. But so long as Yelp offers to do any sort of manipulation or reshuffling of reviews in exchange for advertising, the lawsuits will probably continue – even if there’s only the appearance of impropriety.

Oh, and don’t look for Yelp to provide any additional revelations regarding how reviews are sequenced to appear on the page. Too much transparency, and it’ll only make it easier for people to figure out how to “game” the ratings.