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Analysis

Seeing Stars: Acquiring More Reviews and Sales with Simpler Ratings

How your product review system can increase engagement and sales

Ariella Brown
December 31 2019

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves,” declares Cassius in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141). 

The stars in that context represent one’s destiny as written in the stars, though in today’s online listings, there’s another possible connotation. As the overwhelming majority of online shoppers check the reviews on a product before making their selection, stars can be said to determine their success or failure. 

Number the stars

Many online sellers offer the option of viewing products in the order that presents the best-rated ones on top, so you may never even see the items with poor or no reviews. You can exclude them altogether if you elect to use Amazon’s option of limiting their search results to only a set number of stars.

According to my Gen Z consultant, the “right way” to search is to only select the four or more star options for whatever you seek. Her premise is simply that more means better, and so why would you bother with less than the best? While that is true in theory, what happens in actual practice is a bit different.

What’s behind Amazon’s top reviews

Zachary Crockett, a reporter for The Hustle, wrote up what he found when investigating “the underbelly of Amazon’s fake review economy” under the title 5-star phonies: Inside the fake Amazon review complex. Among the revelations of the article, 99.6% of its unverified reviews for March 2019 were for 5 stars.”

While it’s illegal to not disclose payment or just free products given in exchange for the review, many sellers on Amazon skirt the law, as Crockett discovered: “They’ve migrated to secretive enclaves, where they entice reviewers with a free assortment of slipshod objects and a couple of bucks.”

In his response to comments, Crockett adds another way sellers rig the rating system. Not only do they bribe individuals to give their product 5 stars, but they also will pay them to give one-star reviews to their competition. “They even ask paid reviewers to complain about one or two specific things so that shoppers see a negative pattern and change their minds,” he said.

How to build your customer model

Why the rule of thumb trumps the stars

The evidence of gaming the system to achieve a five-star rating would lead me to question if the unusually large number of five-star reviews on YouTube back when it used that rating system was also the result of rigging. Certainly, it prompted YouTube to question if the high star rating was not a truly meaningful point of reference back in 2009. The following year, it replaced it with the simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down method used on the channel today.

It took Netflix several more years to make that switch. Its VP of product explained that it used A/B testing on hundreds of thousands of people to realize that they are better off with the thumbs than with stars. As Variety reported, a shift from requiring a specific number of stars to a simpler up or down succeeded in drawing in 200 percent more ratings. In other words, it gets consumers to engage more.

Mass market or connoisseur: a contrast in reviews

It makes sense that more people will put in a review if it only requires choosing just between two choices rather than quantifying the extent to which they like or dislike it. On the other hand, connoisseurs take pride in their fine-tuned analysis. That is most clearly set out in the assessment of wine.

Traditionally, wines are assessed on a 100 point system that has to be understood on its own terms. The online wine seller, Vinio, substitutes a 5-star rating that is meant to parallel and simplify the numbers. It tries to find a kind of middle ground between the expert rating and a more familiar one. It also asserts that the average wine on the site is a respectable 3.6.

Why less is more

The thing about a number like 3.6 is that it falls short of that 4-to-5 star range that we are used to looking for when shopping online. As a result, the customer might think it’s not worth trying and miss out on a perfectly enjoyable wine because of the weight assigned to a number.

The solution to overthinking what’s good or not good enough is to adapt the same simple rule of thumb system to wine customers. That’s what the UK-based Majestic Wines did. Instead of assessing gradations of quality, customers merely have to indicate if they would or would not buy that particular variety again. That results in many more bottles receiving a large number of positive reviews. As William Ponsonby wrote in his blog on the site’s data:

“Personally, I am not one to review products, but I’d consider it here because I wouldn’t be thinking of it as reviewing for other people but rather leaving a note to myself for my next order. For your average customer, this is the only question they are interested in, and it encourages less fussy types to leave positive reviews rather than a higher proportion of more critical wine drinkers leaving 2-or-3 star reviews. A customer is far more likely to buy a bottle with over 80% of customers saying they would buy it again as compared to one with a mediocre 3 out of 5 stars. As the star system encourages people to be more critical, Majestic’s simpler review system is much better for sales.”

Accordingly, any online seller that is aiming at a general rather than expert market could encourage more positive reviews without crossing any legal or ethical boundaries. It’s just a matter of allowing customers to identify a simple yes or no answer to a question like “Would you buy this again?” or “Would you recommend this to a friend?”

The thing to remember is to avoid the temptation of asking for gradations such as “very likely”/“possibly”/“highly recommend.” These would create complications and decrease the odds of a review or of its coming across as wholly positive. Sometimes, less is more. I think it was Shakespeare that said it.

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