What type of online consumer ratings do you trust?

Users are more persuaded by reviews in their preferred format

The explosion of websites featuring user-generated reviews of products and services provides both an opportunity and a challenge for businesses. Positive online reviews can be a key element in attracting new customers to a business, but for this to happen, it’s essential that they trust what they are reading in those reviews.

Eric Lim, a lecturer in the school of information systems, technology and management at UNSW Business School – together with Fei Liu from Hong Kong Baptist University, Chee-Wee Tan from Copenhagen Business School and Bo Xiao from University of Hawaii at Manoa – has investigated the link between a user’s personality type, and their preference for either numerical, ‘one-to-five-star’ type reviews, or for written, comment-type reviews. 

Lim was first attracted to this research from his personal experience of looking at online reviews of restaurants, movies and books, which he does on a daily basis.

“I realised that I never look at the numerical ratings,” he says. “I see them, but they never register. So I asked, why show them? Are they relevant for some people, but not me? 

“Websites seem to make the assumption that everyone looks at both types of reviews.”

'I believe the way we use social media is that we’re skimmers. On review sites, we’re searching for key words'


Lim has discovered that a user’s preference for one kind of review will lead them to trust that kind of review more than another. Consequently, having both kinds of reviews may be counter-productive, as the presence of the non-preferred type creates dissonance in the user, and may raise doubts over the trustworthiness of the site.

“Websites want people to feel that their site is trustworthy, and therefore more credible,” he says.

In terms of what practical use his research could have to the business community, Lim believes it can inform a company as to how they might finetune their website, and so make it more effective.

“A site could be explicit, in asking users to choose one kind of review, or be more subtle,” he says. “It could request to link to a user’s social media accounts, and employ this to get at a user’s personality, via accessing their personal profile.”

Lim makes the point that it would not be reasonable for a site owner to remove user generated reviews from a website, but it is certainly possible to highlight certain review formats over others.

Who can you trust?

Selina Power, creative director at social media management and development agency Super Power Digital, is in fundamental agreement with Lim on one point: “From a digital marketing point of view, the first question is indeed, how do we get our customers to trust us?” Power says.

In order to extract the most useful information from a review site, Power advises users to look at a number of five-star reviews, and a number of one-stars, and then read the comments for both.

“You’re looking for the advocate [of a product or service], and its opposite,” she says. Hence, removing or downplaying numerical reviews on a site actually removes from the user the easiest way of establishing which reviewers are advocates, and which are not.

Power envisages a future where numerical reviews may be dropped altogether in favour of a simple ‘recommend’, or not. “In my experience, users take little or even no interest in the two- and three-star reviews,” she says.

Conversely, removing or downplaying written reviews on a site prevents users from filtering out negative comments that don’t actually apply to their situation. 

“If someone says, ‘don’t go to that café, there’s no vegan option’, if you’re not a vegan, you don’t care,” says Power. “Equally, if a car’s service centre is rated poorly, if you’re buying second-hand, you don’t care.”

If an organisation is to be efficient, presenting the right information to the right person in the right format has to be the way to go


Power feels it’s important to distinguish between products and services that are variously free, of low value, or of high value. 

“The ways in which we shop for these things are completely different,” she says. Essentially, the higher the cost, the more detailed research we are likely to do, and hence the greater weight given to written comments over numerical ratings.

“I believe the way we use social media is that we’re skimmers,” she says. “On review sites, we’re searching for key words like ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’, ‘great mileage’ – or conversely, ‘hate’, ‘terrible’, ‘bad’, ‘poor service’.”

Power notes that travel website TripAdvisor has an interesting format, with a numerical score, followed by a subject line where the user may write something like, ‘worst (or best) place I ever stayed’. 

“The subject line allows a user to decide whether to then read the longer review, as we don’t then need to skim the whole article to find the key words.” Power says.

Ultimately, though, questions of trust in regard to websites really spill over into questions of brand awareness and brand positioning.

“We wouldn’t do much research for a Gucci bag, or for an Audi car, as the trust is already there,” says Power. “Trust is crucial for anyone new breaking into the market.”

First-hand consumer experience

Nick Lembo is manager, public relations and local business outreach, at Yelp. Yelp uses a mobile app and website, showcasing crowd-sourced consumer reviews of local businesses, and has operated in Australia since December 2011. It presently has 83 million reviews on its site worldwide.

Yelp aims to build trust with its users in a number of ways. Importantly, all reviews pass through its automated recommendation software, to ensure that the site is highlighting the most useful and reliable content. The software examines whether the review might be fake, biased or unhelpful.

“Unlike many other sites, our stance is quality over quantity when it comes to reviews,” says Lembo. 

“As a result, we only recommend about 75% of the reviews that are submitted, and more often than not, recommended reviews come from active members of the Yelp community.”

It’s that building of a community of reviewers that is another key to how Yelp gains the trust of its users – and also gives a practical insight into Lim’s ideas of customising websites to reflect user’s preferences.

“Yelp users can ‘friend’ people on Yelp  – or just ‘follow’ them – if they like their review style, or have similar tastes,” says Lembo. 

“When a user views a Yelp Business Page, they will see reviews from their friends, and from people that they follow, ensuring that Yelp is showing them the kind of information that is helpful for them.”

Lembo clearly feels that the level of detail on the site’s written reviews are an important part of its success.

“The average Yelp review is rich in relevant information about a business, and is well-written, long-form, high-quality content,” he says. 

“People want to know the best dish at a restaurant, how the customer service was at a business, what a product or service was like. Yelp is built for people to describe a firsthand consumer experience, and there is much more to that than a simple like/unlike.”

Drivers for preference

In a wider context, Lim’s research is really about people’s preferences for being presented with information as either numbers or text.

“For example, a performance report on, say, the growth rate of a business, can be presented in figures or words,” he says. “If an organisation is to be efficient, presenting the right information to the right person in the right format has to be the way to go. It’s easy for companies to do personality tests [on their employees] to ascertain this.

“Our research is about establishing the drivers for these different preferences,” says Lim. “People may be aware they have a preference, but not know why.”


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