Online shopping has revolutionized the retail marketplace. Over the past two decades, consumers have become familiar with online reviews and have used these insights as they shop. In the first quarter of 2018, e-commerce was responsible for 9.5% of total retail sales, showing the importance of online reviews. This market share has more than doubled since 2008 when online shopping was 3.75% of total retail sales.
E-commerce reviews are a vital part of shopping online. The average customer can access the thoughts and experiences of thousands of other shoppers before making a decision. Unfortunately, some reviews are fake, deceptive, or manipulated — and that hurts both people and honest companies.
Thinking Critically About Reviews
Online reviewers can be outspoken about the quality of the items they have purchased. When an online customer is unhappy with a product, it’s more likely that they will post a review. This can cause reviews on some products to swing toward negative ratings. Overall, searching for quality products when searching online reviews is a smart move.
However, the FTC has brought a number of cases involving online reviews — likely more than any law enforcement agency in the world. Some involved companies that posted fake reviews of their own products and services. Others involved reviews by people who might have been real customers or users of a product but didn’t say that they’d been paid to write a positive review.
When you use online reviews to help you make decisions, it pays to take some time and think critically about the source of the information. What do you know about this reviewer? Or about the site or platform where you’re reading the review?
Tips for Using Reviews
For years, our main piece of advice on using reviews has been to look at a variety of sources, including well-known websites that have credible and impartial expert reviews. That’s still a very good place to start. But here are some other online shopping tips for using online reviews and deciding when to be skeptical:
- Check how recent the reviews are, and watch for a burst of reviews over a short period of time. That can sometimes mean the reviews are fake.
- Check if the reviewer has written other reviews. If so, read those to get a better sense of how much to trust that reviewer. But if it seems that the reviewer has created an account just to write one review for one product, that review may be fake.
- Don’t assume that, just by looking, you can spot the difference between a real review and a fake one. Some reviews may look suspicious, and some may look real, but it can often be nearly impossible to tell for sure. For example, you already know to watch out for reviews that seem too positive to be real, but some fake positive reviews give less than the highest possible rating in order to seem more credible.
- Remember that fake reviews are not always positive. Sometimes, a company might post fake negative reviews to harm a competitor.
You won’t always know if a reviewer got something — like a free product — in exchange for writing a review. But, on some websites, you’ll see a label or badge next to the review that tells you the reviewer got an incentive. How you weigh those reviews is up to you.
That said, in most cases, a complete picture of a product is available when you read both the negative and positive reviews of a product. Balancing the pros and cons of a product can help a consumer make decisions about his or her purchase. It is often possible to read into the reviews and make a judgment about the quality of the product.