Review websites have been around almost as long as the internet itself. TripAdvisor.com, for example, is one of the oldest and best-established travel guide sites on the web, with an amazing claim that 5m people across the globe look at its 40m reviews and opinions every day (Source: The Guardian)
Yet, in the last year, it seems that the independence and objectiveness of its reviews has been called into question.
Hoteliers have long disliked the potential impact of negative reviews, especially as TripAdvisor reviewers can leave their comments without having actually booked through the website, so opening the door to possible abuse. This is in contrast to rival laterooms.com and restaurant review site toptable.com who do require actual bookings from reviewers. Some restaurants are even threatening legal action (see The Times – July 16, 2011)
Conversely, Adam Raphael – Editor of The Good Hotel Guide, believes that up to half of all TripAdvisor reviews are “collusive”, implying that friends and family of hoteliers write positive reviews with a conflict of interest (link here for detail)
All this speculation left us asking what impact this really makes on the users of the reviews, and what they can do about it, both to protect themselves, and benefit the system as a whole.
Our top 3 learnings come from our research into consumer reviews for online retailers:
- Triangulate your info – We’ve found that customers who are unsure about product reviews get extra validation by cross-referencing a number of review sources. This has the added advantage of not only getting more product information, but also being able to separate out retailer customer service (such as delivery experience and call centre operation) from the product quality itself.
- Sort reviews by date as well as rating – many items are updated, long after initial reviews were placed. This is as true for restaurant and hotel reviews as electrical goods. We found more recent ratings more accurate for functional data (how many heat settings does a fan heater have?) and in a hotel context, this would apply to information such as number of lifts, does it have wifi, and so on)
- Look for contextual data – we found that customers valued information about the reviewer and their profile, in order to match whether their own needs were similar and that the review is relevant. For example a comment such as “As a mum of three young children from 3-5yrs, I found the safety protection of the PIN code really useful, to stop the device being switched on accidentally”.
Finally, here’s some interesting research conducted by Professor Zakary Tormala at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He wanted to find out whether positive restaurant reviews were more persuasive when coming from ‘expert reviewers’ or ‘amateurs’. The results were surprising, which showed that experts who were ‘unsure’ about a restaurant but thought it had potential was more persuasive than feeling ‘certain’ about them. Conversely, people were more convinced by 100% positive amateur ratings than the pro’s (read a research summary here in Harvard Business Review)
The bottom line is that, for better or worse, reviews are an integral part of decision-making for many consumers. But perhaps wow! ratings should not the ultimate goal for providers – instead, it may be that a little uncertainty, with space for a consumer to make up their own mind and ‘discover’ the truth can be more compelling than we thought.