The Power (and questionable logic) of Review Systems The Power (and questionable logic) of Review Systems

Whether it’s for a film, a restaurant, or a new cell phone, online reviews are a critical factor in buyer behaviour. A single one-star review among a hundred others may be enough to turn us away. And sometimes a single relatable positive review is all we need to commit to a purchase.

Regardless of what we are looking to purchase – an accountant, a builder, a new car, we turn to review systems to help us make choices. From a distance it makes sense, but at its core, it’s completely illogical.

The Hypocrisy of Social Proof

The opinion of thousands of people we don’t know, matters. 

Want to hear a few hundred people give their opinion on a current event or news item? Of course not. But what if you are looking for a Sushi restaurant in West End? Do their opinions matter now?

One way review systems manipulate our buying behaviour is through the use of social proof (a modern extension of wisdom of the crowd). Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people are influenced by the actions and opinions of others irrespective of their relationship to us. In the context of review systems, this means that we are more likely to trust a product or service if it has a large number of positive reviews regardless of who is leaving the review. While seemingly ludicrous, its persuasiveness is undeniable.


The most relevant of the thousand opinions, first. 

Another way review systems manipulate our buying behaviour is through the use of algorithms to determine which reviews are displayed first or most prominently to us. Algorithms take into account a variety of factors including the relevance of the review to us, the number of similar reviews, and the overall rating of the product or service. In other words, the algorithm tries to determine which reviews are most suitable to us and serves us those reviews accordingly.

Incentives for Reviews or Lack of Validation

We’ve all been offered a deal or discount to leave a positive review.

Review systems cannot control who leaves reviews or why they were inspired to do so which adds another layer to the complexity of review systems. For example:

  • Well known software review and comparison site Trust Radius incentivises users with gift cards to leave reviews for certain software products. While the reviewer is not encouraged either way to support or condemn the software, there is no onus on the reviewer to prove they actually have experience with a product to leave a review. But a free gift card may encourage reviewers to submit reviews regardless.
  • Anyone can leave a Google Review regardless of if they are a genuine customer or not. Additionally, as a business, there is no way to remove a Google Business review unless you report it to Google and they can identify with clear evidence that it is a bogus review, which is extremely hard to prove. If a review does not meet Google review guidelines, it will be removed, but solid evidence is still required. Essentially what this means is that anyone from anywhere can leave a review of any nature for any online business.
  • It is not uncommon for product reviews to be manipulated by conditions of, or incentives to the reviewer. Take Jeep motor vehicles for example. A recent contract was allegedly leaked to auto industry reporter Auto Expert that outlined limitations that journalists had to adhere to when reviewing the vehicles provided to them. This essentially prohibited the use of any language in the review that may be detrimental to the brand’s reputation.

Our Own Brains Yearning for Even a Tether of Support

Sometimes we just need a crumb…

Sometimes the review systems aren’t the problem, but rather the crutch we seek at the right time and place. Occasionally if we are seeking to make a purchase but just can’t quite bring ourselves to get across the line, we will seek out as many reviews as we need to until we find that one review that provides us with validation, regardless of who the review is from or any context involved.

????Not All Review Systems Are Against Us????

It’s all just part of the game and some play it more wholesomely than others.

It’s important to note that not all review systems are as potentially misleading as the examples above. Some retailers for example identify reviewers as being verified purchasers or not, which at least helps validate that the reviewer is authentic. This is not uncommon across larger profile companies.

Plus, there are still a number of independent product review platforms online such as RTINGS for electronic devices and Auto Expert (as mentioned above) for motor vehicles.

What Now?

There are a couple of things to consider if reviews are being used as a case for making a decision.

  1. If the purchase is for a product such as a phone, car, or television set, and the reviews for that model are mostly positive, consider looking over reviews of other models from the same manufacturer. “Good” brands will generally review well across most product lines.
  2. Have your own requirements in mind to help weed out irrelevant reviews. For example, if you are shopping for a new phone and one in particular seems to review very badly, see if there is a theme to the bad reviews. If the theme is that the phone is not waterproof, and you don’t plan on going scuba-diving with it, perhaps you may be able to ignore those reviews.
  3. Be prepared and excited about risking a loss for a win. If you are looking to go out for a meal or see a film, why not disregard the review ecosystem entirely and take the risk (and if it goes well, leave a review!)

There is no doubt that review systems can be a valuable tool for consumers, but they can also be manipulated by businesses to influence our buying behaviour. By being sceptical, reading reviews carefully, and using multiple sources, we can protect ourselves from the manipulative tactics of review systems and make more informed purchasing decisions.