Capitalized Feedback: Losing Trust in Online Reviews
Amazon was the king of online user trust. Built on the backs of reviewers, Amazon gained credibility with consumers and ushered in the collaborative buying experience we’ve come to enjoy. But the go-to gut check for buyers all came tumbling down in 2011 when a scandal broke revealing thousands of fake reviews. The gig was up. Consumer trust evaporated in an instant. Was that trust ever real in the first place? Over the course of a few posts, I want to take a look at online reviews attempting to answer several questions:
Why we trust them? Why they are valuable? How Review Washing works? What’s Google doing about it?
A certain segment of the population has always been suspicious of online information. “You can’t trust anything you read,” my dad reminded me almost daily at the inception of the internet. I quickly came to realization the internet acts to reinforce perceptions and hunches than anything else in history. If I wanted verifiable proof of the Moon Hoax, I could find it. In the heat of a friendly disagreement with my wife, I’d open the computer and ask Google if people actually cooked pizza in the oven on cardboard (apparently some people do, including my wife).
The simple existence of something online provides confirmation that what we believe to be most certainly is. So it was with online reviews.
The brilliant idea of online reviews brought another dimension to an online purchase. We trusted what we read online, but we had heard horror stories about giving out personal information or heaven forbid, our credit card number. Plenty of people were leaking stories of stolen credit card information and unfulfilled orders from brickless storefronts.
Reputable retailers including Amazon and eBay began implementing reviews to create transparency and supply experiential feedback to prospect shoppers. We wanted to know what we were buying was real, actually worked, and wasn’t an information fraud risk. We saw the establishment of a 5-star rating system. Whoever came up with the 5-star system was brilliant. It was a play on the hotel rating system which magically categorized hotels into buckets of amazingness from one to five stars. Five Star hotels were true hospitality marvels and one star hotels were avoidable. Applied to online reviews, the 5-star system stuck.
Amazon and eBay added ratings to their products and we immediately began sharing and consuming our experiences for specific products or vendors. What’s not to trust?
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
When Amazon added the ability to sort by “Avg. Customer Reviews” it was a sign that reviews not only worked, but that they were as important as price or search relevancy. I would often purchase products based solely on reviews. I imagine I’m a pretty average shopper. I don’t want to buy on price. I’m not cheap, but I don’t want to spend money if I don’t have to. So reviews seemed to fit the bill for my purchasing habit. I could get the one that others had most enjoyed. Simple.
The success Amazon and eBay were enjoying didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, reviews started popping up everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the least trusted service providers were some of the early services reviewed.
- Auto Mechanics
Initially these review sites were designed to grade businesses and help consumers weed out bad apples and refer people to good options. Sites like AVVO.com (attorneys) and RateMyProfessor.com came to prominence. So did a little start up called Angie’s List. In 1995 Angie Hicks was frustrated with the options available for homeowners to find reputable contractors. She saw an opportunity for a community-based message board to compare experiences. The site was supported with membership fees and eventually paid placement for service providers. The popularity of local reviews put much more control in the hands of consumers empowering a muffled population to enlighten each other.
As online reviews permeated through our internet veins, our purchasing experiences became almost circular. Our purchases were driven by others reviews and our reviews guided others’ decisions. For the first time, our voices were heard. Companies had to respond to online reviews. If they didn’t, they would die. Or was there another option?
With the revelation that Amazon was full of fabricated reviews, we were suddenly faced with questioning something we had blindly trusted. Did anyone actually buy these products? Were Google Reviews even real people?
Amazon and Google would adapt new verification practices as a result of Amazon’s review scandal. Before the scandal broke, anyone could create a Google review without any verification. I heard stories about companies opening fake Google accounts and posting positive reviews for themselves. Sometimes in the hundreds or thousands of accounts. Thankfully, the process now has built in verification protections that can help prevent consequential review gaming.
Amazon implemented a “verified purchaser” tag for reviewers instantly bringing credibility to reviews. If they bought it from Amazon, their review must be legit. Nice job Amazon.
Trust was quickly restored for many consumers in the wake of these changes. At the same time, Google rolled out a new local listings page for businesses. Search results would now include local results for terms which included a review rating based on Google reviews. For the first time, ratings became part of search results. Google’s new review system was so popular that Google allowed third-party sites to include ratings in search results. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Check out my next segment for a look under the hood of the dark side of online reviews – we call it Review Washing.
Click here for PART 2
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Lindberg, CR is a partner in Lion Tree Group, a digital marketing agency in Madison, WI. His expertise is in multi-platform brand messaging with a focus on inspiring homeowners. As an industry insider, he has walked the walk and developed a winning business campaign strategy from experience with one of Wisconsin’s largest remodeling companies. His agency specializes in digital design and branding updates. He regularly blogs at his company’s blog: The Bark and Roar.