When users seek out reviews, such as on the platforms provided by Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other familiar sources, they likely look for the top reviewed options. A basic understanding of ratings scales has taught us all to agree that 5 stars are better than 2. But does a 5-star review really signal better quality than a 4.8-star one? According to recent developments and research, it actually might be the opposite.

Several trends have led to the sense that a 5-star rating might not signify the best. First, inflation has influenced ratings in various contexts. Particularly on two-sided review platforms, such as those used by Uber and Lyft, service providers and consumers hesitate to offer poor reviews, for fear that they might spark retaliatory criticisms or lock someone out of the market. Thus, what was once required to earn 5 stars might not be the standard for this level anymore. If everyone gets 5 stars, the rating loses meaning as a means to differentiate quality.

Second, fraud is rampant. Unethical companies write negative reviews about competitors’ offerings and add anonymous positive ratings of their own products to ensure their higher scores. In one notable case, the skin care brand Sunday Riley sent emails to its staffers, requiring them to post reviews on the Sephora site that praised the company’s products. In defending the tactic, the company alleged that it had little choice, because competitors were so busy posting false negative reviews that it had to make up for the lies, with its own fake reviews. Other firms rely on bots or click farms to create the fake reviews, producing millions of them at a time. One study alleges that approximately 30 percent of all reviews posted online are inauthentic.

Third, the arrival of social media influencers has created some confusion or fuzziness in the separation between recommendations and endorsements. That is, influencers largely seek to develop an image as “regular” consumers who just happen to have millions of followers, but they often receive substantial payments to promote a product. For followers, the line between what is a sincere recommendation and positive review, and what is a paid form of marketing communication, thus is difficult to draw.

As a result of these trends, researchers note evidence that a 5-star review often gets applied to products with intricate review-prompting strategies, not those that offer the best quality. A product or service that earns 4.5 stars, for example, with a range of honest reviews that indicate both positive and negative features, may be a better alternative. According to researchers studying these topics, the best bet for consumers is to read the reviews, rather than rely solely on star ratings. Reviews that are completely negative or completely positive probably are not trustworthy. In addition, offerings with the most reviews might not be the best options; an extreme number of reviews might signal contributions by bots or workers in click farms. Finally, the writing quality should be a tip too; if the writing does not make sense or sounds very stilted, it might be produced by a robot.

Beyond tactics for consumers to use to avoid fake reviews, the platforms themselves increasingly are being pressured to find ways to prevent the fraud. TripAdvisor uses an automated review analysis system that, according to a recent accounting, rejected 1.4 million of the 66 million review submissions the site received. Yelp’s system issues warnings when it detects a possibility of fraud, cautioning users that the positive reviews being aggregated for a particular company or product appear fake. But clever influencers and companies are always trying to find a competitive advantage, so eliminating fake reviews completely seems unlikely. It ultimately appears up to the buyer to find just the right balance of positive reviews, while avoiding fake 5 stars.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you rely on review sites or recommendations from influencers to inform your purchase choices? How do you ensure they are legitimate?
  2. What can companies do to ensure their reviews are accurate? What punishments should companies receive if they knowingly engage in fraud?

Source: Rebecca Dolan, “Have Online Reviews Lost All Value?” The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2019; Lateshia Beachum, “Skin-Care Company Sunday Riley Settles FTC Charges of Fake Product Reviews,” Washington Post, October 22, 2019