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.

Customer testimonials and user reviews: Social media takes a time-honored marketing tactic … and puts it on steroids.

product and service ratingsThere’s no question that most people value hearing the opinions of others when deciding whether to purchase a new product.

But in the fast-evolving world of social media where there’s been an exponential increase in testimonials, ratings and recommendations about various products and services, what types of recommendations resonate most?

We may have some answers to that question in results from a recent survey sponsored by marketing firm Social Media Link, which was issued in October to all members within the company’s Smiley360 community brand activation program.

Dubbed the “Social Recommendation Index,” the 20-question online survey was answered by more than 10,300 respondents.

The survey isn’t exactly a true cross-section of American consumers in that the vast majority of the respondents were women.  Moreover, most respondents were between the ages of 25 and 45.  Still, the results are certainly worth a look.

For starters, three-fourths of the respondents stated that fewer than 10 reviews are all that they need to make a purchase decision.

Moreover, the most valuable reviews tend to be the ones that include personal stories, rather than a laundry list of product benefits.

By contrast, “star” ratings are the least influential type of review by far:  Only ~15% of respondents report that those ratings are the most important way to influencing their purchase decisions.

The degree of impact of a product review also depends on who’s doing the reviewing:

  • 86% cite reviews by friends and family members as having the  biggest impact
  • 39% are influenced by blogger reviews 
  • Only 11% report that celebrity reviews have the most impact

I’m not at all surprised about the paltry figure for celebrities.  Celebrity endorsements in general are far less influential than many marketers would like to admit – a topic I’ve blogged about in the past.

"It's OK.  Your cousin Merlin also likes the product!"
“It’s OK. Your cousin Merlin also likes the product!”

Considering that “friends and family” are the most influential reviewers, it also comes as little surprise that survey respondents view Facebook as the most trusted of all the major social platforms:

  • Facebook:  ~68% consider highly trustworthy
  • Pinterest:  ~56%
  • YouTube:  ~51%
  • Twitter:  ~41%

Commenting on the research conclusions, Social Media Link’s CEO Susan Frech stated this:  “The survey found that people don’t need hundreds of recommendations and reviews to entice purchase; it’s really about receiving a quality message from a trusted source.”

Click here to view an infographic summarizing the Social Recommendation Index key findings.

What about you?  Is your view different from what’s been reported in this study?  If so, please share your observations with other readers here.

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.