How online reviews came to rule commerce, and where they might be headed next
Like many people, Nirnaya Lohani loves to try new foods. But unlike many people, the 2007 BYU Marriott information systems graduate does more than check restaurants’ online reviews before visiting. She’s become an active Elite reviewer herself on crowd-sourced review site Yelp. And in the process, she has come to recognize a fundamental truth about human nature.
“There was a time in my life when I used to travel quite a bit for work, and searching for the best restaurants was something I loved doing,” Lohani says. “Yelp was my go-to source, and yet I questioned if people were authentic in the reviews they shared. I knew that the only way for me to believe in a product or service that I used on the daily was to be a contributor to it, because—let’s be honest—we find ourselves to be authentic.”
Authenticity is the name of the game when it comes to online reviews. Consumers want honest recommendations, and businesses look for genuine feedback and positive PR. And though ensuring that online reviews are accurate and trustworthy may be more difficult than it looks, that hasn’t stopped reviews from becoming increasingly influential in consumers’ decision-making processes. In 2016, 82 percent of Americans said they read online reviews before buying something for the first time; in 2019, that number jumped to 95 percent.1
One challenge with authenticity is that review culture often isn’t forgiving. Too many poor reviews can put a company—especially small companies—out of business because most shoppers will decide against a purchase if they see a business or product has more than six negative reviews.2
The review system, in other words, has its flaws. But to understand those flaws and how companies may innovate online consumer-evaluation processes in the future, it’s important to understand how online reviews began.
Review Culture on the Rise
In 1996, Harvard Business Review published “The Real Value of On-Line Communities,” which speculated on the future of the internet. For today’s readers, the piece may seem quaint, not only because of the use of that bygone hyphen but also for what may now seem like naivete. “Rarely do [business-run websites] encourage communication among visitors to the site,” the article reported. “Most existing communities . . . are not business oriented; in fact, most strongly oppose the very idea of commercial activity on the Internet.”
Despite the popular resistance to internet commerce, the authors went on to predict the future success of online marketing: “By creating strong on-line communities, businesses will be able to build customer loyalty to a degree that today’s marketers can only dream of and, in return, generate strong economic returns.”3
Several sites were quick to create those communities. As early as 1999, three main sources of consumer evaluations—Epinions, RateItAll, and Deja—offered users a forum for reviews and discussion. Their success led many tech leaders to either acquire the sites or create their own, often with significant updates, including the addition of response features. Online reputation management became an essential marketing strategy. By 2012, the major online review sites were the Big Five: Yelp, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and TripAdvisor.4
Today’s increased consumer reliance on reviews reflects a common desire for more interactive retail experiences, says Jeff Dotson, associate professor of marketing at BYU Marriott. “We’ve moved away from a very personalized consumer experience,” he says. “A hundred years ago, I’d have gone to the grocer and I’d have known the owner. I would have trusted the products because I’d have had a personal relationship with the owner, and I would’ve made recommendations accordingly. Now I go to a grocery store, and I don’t talk to anybody. But I still have a certain degree of trust with the retailer. I assume they’re not going to put products on the shelves that are inferior.”
The advent of the internet not only made regular shopping experiences less personal, but it also expanded retail and service opportunities beyond what already existed. Expensive or uncommon products became more accessible, so consumers reached out beyond those who lived on their streets to those who were active on their corners of the internet.
Navigating by the Stars
Online reviews often consist of both written evaluations and numerical ratings. In recent years, rating has become so pervasive that it has spawned popular phrases (“10 out of 10, would recommend”), innumerable memes, and social media handles that, purely for entertainment, rate everything from dogs to Zoom backgrounds to Star Wars robots.
When we encounter these star-symbol or numerical ratings while shopping, we assume they indicate how good a product or a service is. In Dotson’s studies on evaluations and the review process, he takes both star ratings and number ratings as “basically a proxy for product quality,” he says. “It’s amazing how much influence star ratings have on consumer choice. They have a big impact on whether someone is willing to buy a product or not.”
Star ratings have dual roles: they offer consumers an indication of quality as well as a way to differentiate between products. “When we moved to digital commerce, we were exposed to what we sometimes call the ‘long tail’ of the internet, or the variety of retail sites it supports,” says Dotson. “If I go to the store looking for chocolate ice cream, there are only so many different types. It’s very limited. But when you start to transact online, there are literally hundreds of options to choose from. The big questions we face now, given all this variety, are what is best and what can I trust? In answer, people have started to treat evaluations as screening mechanisms.”
The Perilous Quest for the Best
“I was actually a victim of fraud,” shares associate professor of marketing Jeff Larson. “I was looking to buy a bouncy house, which usually costs between $600 and $1,000, but I found a site that was selling them for around $200. I was all in, and I bought it. But after I paid, the house didn’t come, and I didn’t hear from the company. I went back on their site and found all of their products had five-star reviews, and all of them had exactly the same number of reviews. It was clear somebody had gone on and fabricated all those reviews to try and resolve consumer uncertainty about their product. They had deliberately committed fraud.”
Fortunately, Larson was able to reverse his credit charges, but many victims of fraud aren’t so lucky. Even if you’ve never been the victim of outright review fraud, you may have experienced review fraud lite or review manipulation instead of fabrication. Larson encountered such manipulation after purchasing a storage shed and having it installed. “We were super floored with the experience and thought the installers did an amazing job,” he says. “Their staff was here for two days, about twelve hours each day, to get it installed in time. I told the owner of the company I was incredibly impressed, and he asked me to review them online.
“I don’t actually do reviews that often, but I did one for him because I was so pleased,” Larson continues. “Then I noticed he had a total of twelve reviews, but this was a company that had been around for a long time and installed hundreds of sheds every year. I was puzzled before I inferred that he only requested reviews from people he knew he was going to get a five-star review from—in fact, he had a perfect five-star average. But his competitor had more than three hundred reviews and a 4.7 average.”
So are online reviews not to be trusted? Larson and Dotson agree that’s not the case. “The idea that no online reviews are trustworthy is detrimental, actually,” Dotson says. “If there are fake reviews out there, consumers lose confidence in reviews, which many people rely on as mechanisms of trust. So companies do a bunch of things to ensure that reviews are authentic and trustworthy, such as using third-party companies such as Trustpilot to ensure honesty in the review process.”
Larson agrees that while it’s important to take precautions, consumers should feel comfortable relying on the majority of online reviews. Because it’s in their best interest, most companies are actively working to eliminate fake reviews. “There’s been plenty of review fraud on Amazon, but Amazon and other big players are fully incentivized to make sure reviews are as truthful as possible,” Larson says. “They are in the business of providing information, so ensuring the quality of that information is profitable for them.”
However, one precaution consumers ought to take is to account for the fact that reviews and ratings can be given by anyone. Even if a reviewer is a verified purchaser of, say, a pair of skis, that reviewer may be an inexperienced skier who is unimpressed not because of the quality of the skis but because they didn’t work as she imagined skis would.
“A long-standing issue with reviews in general is the debate on what matters more: the expert review or the general-population review,” Larson explains. “That’s the difference between Zagat and Michelin reviews. Michelin has the experts who know everything there is to know about food. If they say your food is the best, then it’s the best. Zagat gathers reviews from the general populace. People seem to most trust populace reviews without taking into account that they can be less reliable because they’re not based on a full knowledge of how a service should be or a product should perform.”
This tendency toward unfamiliarity and the possibility of inaccurate reviews due to user error are reasons Larson recommends that businesses garner a higher number of reviews rather than aiming to receive a fewer number of positive ones. The more reviews left for a product or business, the less likely it will be that the reviews are untrustworthy.
The Future of Feedback
Though they serve a necessary function in providing information, public reviews sometimes serve neither the reviewer nor the company effectively. For example, if a couple has a subpar stay in a hotel and wants to give feedback, they might find that leaving a review is the most effective way to get the hotel manager’s attention. But their blunt review neither gets them the compensation they desire nor does it help the management see the error in a timely manner.
“Online reviews are great when the experience is good, but when it’s bad, customers usually feel they have nowhere else to go,” says Zack Oates, who graduated from BYU Marriott with an MBA in 2015. “Often the alternative to reviews is lengthy surveys, and our research shows that 90 percent of people hate long surveys. It’s a lot of work for little reward. So the main issues with the two current methods of long-form surveys and online reviews are they are too public and too cumbersome.”
These issues are what inspired Oates to find another method of consumer evaluation and feedback. In 2018 he founded Ovation, a customer-engagement platform provider that works mainly with restaurants and offers “an actionable guest feedback tool,” Oates says. The process works mainly via text message: after leaving a restaurant, a guest receives a text asking him to answer two questions for a chance to win a gift card. A link takes him to a page where he rates his experience using emojis; if he rates it as anything less than perfect, he’s asked to explain his answer. He feels heard, and just as important, the restaurant receives real-time information.
“We take all of that private feedback and all of those online reviews, and we are able to show the restaurant different trends that we discover, such as, ‘You’ve been getting a lot of mentions of cold food last week at this location,’” Oates says. “That analysis goes directly to management, and they are able to fix that issue. That’s our secret weapon: we combine this data of who customers are and what they ordered with how happy they were. When you combine those things, you get a powerful engine that can actually drive revenue.”
Eric Rea, a 2012 information systems graduate, also took advantage of text messaging when he founded messaging tool provider Podium to help businesses connect better with customers and ensure reviews accurately reflect customers’ experiences. Podium not only gathers reviews but also manages every customer touchpoint from answering questions to collecting payment.
There are many ways to innovate the consumer evaluation process, and recent developments are only the beginning. “For example, we’re researching incentives, and we’re seeing an increase in markerations, which is a blend of marketing and operations,” Oates explains. “Previously, feedback sat on the operation side, but what we’re finding is that a lot of companies are starting to blend these two together, realizing that when you share that data in a seamless way, you’re able to improve operations much faster and make much more effective marketing campaigns.”
Ultimately, every development in the review process should target improving consumer experiences, because “people just want to be heard,” Oates says. “If you don’t make them feel heard, that’s why they leave negative reviews online. They just want to know someone is listening.”
World Wide Web, Small-Town Feel
Knowing that someone is listening—or reading, anyway—is part of the reason Lohani enjoys reviewing businesses on Yelp. Perhaps her favorite review she’s ever given was for an Indian-Italian fusion restaurant in California. “I was so authentic and animated in my review, many people indicated that they found it helpful,” Lohani says. “As a result, my review was marked as the sitewide Review of the Day, and that got me so excited knowing that people are actually reading my reviews and are finding them helpful.”
Engendering a sense of community is perhaps what online reviews do best. Though most consumers may not know their local grocers anymore, as Dotson says, shopping can still retain that social, neighborly aspect when the review process is done right.
And in the future, that sense of community may become more important than ever. “The reason I continue to be an active reviewer is because of the climate during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lohani says. “There are so many small restaurants and businesses that have gone under due to the pandemic. If I can contribute at all by highlighting and promoting these restaurants through reviews or other social media activity, that would make me so happy. I genuinely love writing reviews so that people can feel connected.”
Reviewing the Review Process
There’s a lot more at work—and at stake—in the online review process than meets the eye. Keep in mind these best practices for reading reviews, leaving reviews, and managing reviews.
Bias Check: “While it’s true that those who leave reviews are a self-selected group—they all have a reason for reviewing—if their motivations have no bearing on how they evaluate a product, the reviews are usually fairly objective. So if you’re looking at the average Amazon review, while there’s the potential for bias, those reviews tend to be pretty unbiased.” —Jeff Larson
Read More Than Reviews: “If you’re looking to make a big purchase, check out a third-party evaluator such as Consumer Reports or look for some word-of-mouth recommendations as well. When there’s more at stake in a purchase, it can never hurt to be too careful and double-check what you read online.” —Jeff Dotson
Be Kind: “I travel a lot, and I rely on TripAdvisor reviews to know where to go and what to do. And once I get somewhere, I try to leave good reviews because a lot of these businesses live or die based on their reviews.” —Zack Oates
Quantity Over Quality: “When it comes to online review management, I come down on the side of getting more reviews rather than just getting quality ones. That way, your reviews are more trustworthy and you’re less susceptible to an outlier review dropping your overall score.” —Jeff Larson
Community Consciousness: “Companies should invest in communities to help build their brand and create a member-driven experience. We as humans love recognition in some form and want to stand out. Giving badges and honors to reviewers who have been committed, consistent, and helpful in bringing positive impact in the community should be recognized.” —Nirnaya Lohani
Written by Clarissa McIntire
Illustrations by Dante Terzigni
About the Author
Clarissa McIntire is a former assistant editor of Marriott Alumni Magazine. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and is currently earning a master’s in the same with an emphasis in rhetoric and composition. She’s one of those people who always says hi to other people’s dogs.
The History of Online Reviews
|1997||The term “weblog” is coined, signaling the rise of blogs, which offer long-form product and business reviews.|
|1999||Some merchant and product reviews are available on sites such as eBay.|
|1999||Epinions, RateItAll, and Deja emerge as the three main original review sites.|
|2000||TripAdvisor is founded.|
|2001||Yellow Pages and Citysearch add online review functions to their sites.|
|2002||Google purchases Deja’s intellectual property to create what would become Google Groups.|
|2004||Yelp is founded.|
|2007||More than 100,000 businesses join Facebook and begin marketing campaigns on the site.|
|2008||Consumer Reports purchases The Consumerist blog, which later becomes the Consumer Reports website.|
|2009||Yelp adds a feature that allows companies to respond to reviews; Google adds the same feature the following year.|
|2012||The Big Five review sites emerge: Facebook, Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Amazon.|
|2017||Google outranks Facebook to become the site with the most reviews.|
|2018||Yelp, Google, and other sites create policies against various kinds of review manipulation.|
Sources: “The History of Online Business Reviews,” Chatmeter, accessed 14 April 2021, chatmeter.com/blog/the-history-of-online-business-reviews; D. J. Sprague, “The History of Online Reviews and How They Have Evolved,” ShopperApproved, 20 December 2019, 5stars.shopperapproved.com/the-history-and-evolution-of-online-reviews.
- Rise of the Review Culture, Brightpearl and Trustpilot, 2019, cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/2304371/ROTRC_Report_US_3.pdf.
- Rise of the Review Culture.
- Arthur Armstrong and John Hagel III, “The Real Value of On-Line Communities,” Harvard Business Review, May–June 1996, hbr.org/1996/05/the-real-value-of-on-line-communities.
- D. J. Sprague, “The History of Online Reviews and How They Have Evolved,” ShopperApproved, 20 December 2019, 5stars.shopperapproved.com/the-history-and-evolution-of-online-reviews.