Why You Should Read Online Reviews and My Tips for Using Them Effectively

My professional background might explain a little about my interest in online reviews, but this topic is also relevant to the recent Meetup I attended to discuss home stay options for world travel. There, users of each service stressed the importance of reading online reviews for safety, setting expectations and ensuring an enjoyable experience. I agree.

I use data to drive personal and professional decisions every day. So, I always read online reviews before buying or using any product or service. Professionally, I apply consumer behavioral analytics to generate successful growth outcomes for organizations—a fancy way of saying I’m a business management consultant.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at data and survey results. And, this has helped me create a methodology for evaluating and using online reviews. I’m going to share that with you today.

1.      Scan reviews for commonalities.

Major or noticeable differences in opinions are equivalent to outliers in data analytics. Toss them out and look for similar trends across all reviews and comments. Review both positive and negative feedback and take note. Think about key words that might be important for using the product or service that you are evaluating and easily search for them by hitting CTRL+F on your keyboard to use the search function in your web browser. Consistencies in negative feedback during your search might indicate a common problem and recurring positive remarks can pinpoint a specific benefit.  

2.      Filter or sort the ratings.

If ratings are given in stars, rating or ranking scales, be sure to sort and isolate the top (highest) and bottom (lowest) rankings. Then, apply the first tip and scan for commonalities in each. The bottom ratings are important. Typically, these tell you a lot about poor experiences and why the customer was unhappy. Looking for the commonalities among these can identify recurring problems or issues with the product or service. It is also important to note which percentage of all reviews are good/positive or bad/negative compared to the whole. If you find that negative comments outweigh the good or are more common, it can be an indicator of a real issue.

A look at an Amazon review screen. This is for a product that I use and love. I highlighted ways you can filter the ratings and look at the number of positive and negative reviews.

A look at an Amazon review screen. This is for a product that I use and love. I highlighted ways you can filter the ratings and look at the number of positive and negative reviews.

3.      Consider the number of reviews.

If a product or service has single digit reviews and ratings, it may not be enough information to evaluate the product or service, but not always. This can happen for a number of reasons, one of which is whether the product or service is new. Or, it could simply be an issue of discovery, not necessarily indicator that anything is wrong with the product or service. In general, ratings help improve discovery, so products and services with a greater number of ratings and higher rating levels have higher visibility on market pages and other sites. If you find that a service or product you are interested in has too few ratings, look instead at other aspects of the service or product and compare it to others to evaluate unique features, the price, customer service response times and so on that can help you make an informed decision. Ratings aren’t everything, but they can certainly be helpful.

4.      Look at the recency of the feedback.

Hotels.com review screen

Hotels.com review screen

This one is pretty straightforward—if you look at a review and it is more than six months to a year old, consider that it may no longer be valid. That’s because things are constantly changing. New management, an improved process or other innovation can improve (or sometimes hinder) a product or service. Depending on the product or service, things like seasonality may also play a role. Use your best judgement when considering the recency of the feedback and if it is an older review, toss it out.  

5.      Look for words like "Genuine" or “verified” and similar words.

This means that the person actually owns or has used the product or service they are rating, or is a verified user of an online community. Be careful of people who are paid to provide reviews. This can lead to bias. Look for disclaimers in the review (oftentimes paid reviews must be disclosed in the review or on the website). As an aside, this is the same reason why it is important to know, from the business’s perspective, that feedback is in fact coming from an actual customer to improve the product or service, which is why in the world of professional analytics, more and more companies are making it a goal to tie purchases back to an individual using some sort of unique identifier—in the end, it helps consumers too.

What is your experience using online reviews? How do they influence your consumption behavior? What are key factors you look for in a review? Let’s continue the conversation below.

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