Yoram Solomon, PhD
Can You Trust Customer Reviews?
The idea of posting and relying on customer reviews comes from the Fifth Law of Trust: trust is transferrable. The better business bureau (BBB), Amazon, Google, and many other companies use such reviews. Before you buy almost anything, download a song, go to a movie, or book a hotel room, you check reviews. You buy if you see positive reviews, and you don’t buy if the reviews are bad.
But is that trust justified? Should you trust people you don’t know? In this article, I will share some of the dangers of relying on customer reviews. I will also discuss other aspects of it and give you ideas on how to know if you can trust reviews and how to increase the reliability of such reviews.
Why Are Reviews Important?
When you were a child, did your parents ever tell you never to enter a car with a stranger? I bet they did. And did you? Before you answer, I have one word for you:
If your parents told you never to enter a car with a stranger, how come you do that anyway? You don’t know the Uber driver, do you?
You do it because of the Fifth Law of Trust: Trust is transferrable. If you trust a person, and they trust another person, you are likely to trust that other person as well. Probably not as much as you trust the first person or as much as the first person trusts the other person, but more than not trusting them at all.
However, the Fifth Law of Trust doesn’t come without peril. In 2018, a Sunday Riley (a skin care product company) employee leaked an email sent to all employees. In that email, the company’s CEO asked the employees to post fake positive reviews of the company’s products. They were given very specific instructions, such as not to use the company’s VPN so that the reviews will not appear to be coming from the company’s IP address, to open new email accounts with providers such as Google and Yahoo! and post the reviews from those, to use those accounts periodically and leave reviews for other products to reduce suspicion. The most outrageous comment in that email was bold and underlined: “credibility is key to the reviews!”
Have you ever received a package from Amazon that you never ordered, yet it had your name and address on the package? Those are part of a “brushing” scam, in which the seller of a product, to increase the visibility of the product on Amazon’s site, sends the products to unsuspecting Amazon customers, and then posts reviews in their names, appearing to be posted by “verified purchasers.” All they need is your name and address, which are not hard to get.
Facebook alone released the fact that in 2020 they had removed 1.3 billion fake accounts, and by the third quarter of 2021, they had removed an additional 1.8 billion.
Considering the above, can you trust positive reviews?
What about negative reviews? Before I buy something, I always check reviews. However, even if the product (or service) has a very high average rating, with a very large number of reviews, I check the bad reviews… Always. Do you do the same?
The reason I do that was well documented in research, and I described it in the Positivity component of my trustworthiness model: bad is much stronger than good. Research showed that were are much more (some studies claim the number to be around 3) likely to post negative reviews if we had a negative experience than to post a positive review if we had a positive experience. As a defense mechanism, we are more likely to seek out those negative reviews over positive ones.
But, there are several things to consider when reading bad reviews. The first is that some people just don’t like the product, the company, or the service. Calling them “haters” might be extreme, but when I read those reviews, I can tell that there was absolutely no way that that customer would ever give a positive review. At least not for this product or company. Just like a small percentage of my students give me a bad review as a professor, even if my average rating on RateMyProfessors.com is 4.5 and 86% of the students gave me a 5-star rating. There are always a few that will give a 1-star rating for the same class.
The second reason goes to the Personality Compatibility component. Some people just don’t see things the same way as you do. They are not haters, and they are not biased. They just value different things. Maybe they intend to use the product in a different way than you do, and while the product excels when using it the way you intend to, it doesn’t when using it the way they wanted to.
So, beware of being deterred by negative reviews, too.
How Can You Tell?
And here is the million-dollar question: how can you tell when to rely on reviews and when not to?
My first consideration in determining the answer is the sheer quantity of reviews. It’s not impossible to fake a large number of reviews, but it’s much harder. So, unless the product is very rare and I can’t find one with many reviews, I will only consider a product with a high number of reviews.
The second consideration is Intimacy. Just like intimacy is important to determine another person’s trustworthiness, it’s important to determine the trustworthiness of customer reviews. The rating-only reviews are at the lowest level of intimacy, including no reviewer name, validation, or text.
Higher levels of review intimacy include purchase verification, reviewer names (beyond a meaningless alias), review text, and possibly even review media (photos and/or videos). When I see the same text in multiple reviews, I get suspicious. The more comprehensive the review is, the harder it is to fake, and the more I could trust it.
At the highest level of intimacy are reviews from people I know personally. Those are people I would trust the most, but their reviews will likely be delivered in person rather than over a website, and there is a lower likelihood that they have experienced the product I’m about to purchase and be able to recommend it to me.
Finally, the third consideration is the platform on which the reviews are posted. I tend to be very skeptical of reviews posted on the website of the company selling the products or services because those companies can filter negative reviews out (possibly leaving a token number of negative reviews for “credibility”) and are incentivized to do so. A neutral platform, such as BBB, has no “skin in the game” and could be trusted not to bias the reviews published on their website.