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New study investigates online reviews - makes surprising discoveries

Jul 15, 2013 at 22:01 GMT

Online product reviews are a huge part of our lives these days, and often, they're the nearest thing we get to a 'hands on experience' before we buy something. Extremely positive or negative reviews can greatly alter the perception of a product in the mind of an undecided customer.

So how do we know that the reviews we're reading are honest? The authors of an MIT study entitled 'Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail' have looked at several sites which feature customer reviews, including Amazon, but focused on an unnamed private label apparel retailer. Crucially, this unnamed retailer does not link reviews to a purchase of that item - i.e., you can write a review of something even if you didn't buy it.

What they found is that 'approximately 5% of the product reviews are written by customers for whom there is no record they have purchased the item. These reviews are significantly more negative on average than the other 95% of the reviews for which there is a record that the customer previously purchased the item'.

It's no surprise that positive reviews lead to higher sales, but according to the study, negative reviews have a much more profound negative effect.

Online customer reviews have a huge impact on our perceptions of products, and can make a real difference to sales for an online retailer like Amazon.

In simple terms, if you're considering buying something which has ten five star ratings and a single one star rating, that single negative review could make you move the cursor away from 'buy now'. And if the review was dishonest, then you, and the online retailer, just lost out. 

The research team looked at the questionable 5% of reviews, and analyzed various characteristics including the length of the reviews, the content and the language and grammar that was used.

They found that fraudulent reviews 'tend to be longer [and are] more likely to contain details unrelated to the product'. The researchers also noticed that they were more likely to contain odd grammatical quirks like a prevalence of shorter words, and unnecessary multiple exclamation points.

Perhaps most interesting though, is where the team thinks these deceptive reviews came from. Their research suggests that they do not originate from a small band of 'rogue reviewers', or the agents of rival companies engaged in smearing other manufacturers' products ('shills' is a word you'll see used a lot in our own comments and forums) but from loyal, genuine customers, 'self-appointed brand managers' who are taking advantage of the review process to 'give feedback on the firm'.

Fanboys, in other words. 

The paper is long and very interesting - and far too nuanced to do justice in a short news article like this. We suggest you click here and read it for yourself. We give it five stars!!!!


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