Review stars don't matter all that much [Study]

The idea that content is king extends to online reviews, where a new study found that consumers put far more weight in content than star reviews.

During a recent experiment, ConsumerAffairs created three sample review pages, with different star ratings and varying lengths of review content. The lowest rating was paired with the most in-depth review, and vice versa. The consumer advocacy organization found that 60 percent of consumers pay more attention to the comments than the ratings.

Danica Jones, marketing manager at ConsumerAffairs, points out that the rating is ultimately a number that in isolation, means nothing.

“You need to have the context. Maybe one person just likes their burger neat and this one has onions relish and gourmet lettuce. Someone else can say, ‘That doesn’t sound like one star, I want to try that,'” says Jones.


It’s worth noting that a positive review isn’t the same as a good one. A positive review says good things about the business; a good review says constructive things about it. A good review may be positive, but it will also describe what worked or provide some suggestion about how the product or experience could have been better.

That’s not to say that stars don’t matter; 17 percent of consumers surveyed consider them to be “very important.” Four stars, as opposed to 3.9, results in consumers’ likelihood of purchase shooting up from 42.8 percent to 58.4 percent.


Another important aspect of online reviews that Jones mentions: responding to them. When consumers write to brands on social media, they expect a reply. Since a review is essentially digital crowdsourcing, doesn’t that make a site like Yelp social media, too?

“Like it or not, consumers are shaping brand sentiment online. I think brands have to rip the Band-Aid off and accept that if they’re going to be better about what they offer customers, they have to go ahead and reach out to every single customer possible and use that data to improve on the product and improve on the service,” says Jones.

“If you do an organic search, a review is an immortalization of negative feedback if there’s no response. It comes off like the company doesn’t care about its customers,” she adds.


Scott Severson, president at Brandpoint, thinks ConsumerAffairs’ findings are unsurprising. As a content marketing guy, he’s naturally going to prioritize content over grades. But as a content marketing guy, he also points out how much value reviews can provide for marketers.

“From a search perspective, it’s fabulous content. From an influencer perspective, it’s fabulous content. I think tactically, it’s hard for a company to get reviews at scale. You can’t buy your way in the way you can a lot of other content marketing tactics,” he says, adding that Amazon reviews are among the best.

“I don’t know how it gets its users to spend so much time writing reviews, but I’m glad they do,” he says.

But while Severson thinks utilizing reviews in a content marketing strategy is a solid strategy, he points out that it’s also a difficult one to pull off. It takes a long time to collect reviews at scale, yes. But businesses often gravitate toward the most positive sentiments, which aren’t the ones that move people.

According to ConsumerAffairs, businesses with the highest likelihood to purchase score are actually the ones with 4.5 stars, not those with perfect scores. Five-star reviews can look too positive, as if people were incentivized to write them. Yelp is just as against this practice as Facebook, which is why the unrecommended reviews at the bottom are often glowing.


In January, Yelp used its data to come out with a definitive list of the 100 hottest restaurants in the U.S. Number one on the list, a barbecue joint located just outside California’s Sierra National Forest, had an average rating of 4.5 stars at the time, though the number has since gone up to 4.7. Only four of the top 10 garnered 5-star average ratings.

In two weeks, I’ll be heading to CES in Las Vegas, a city that makes seven appearances on Yelp’s list. The highest ranked is Art of Flavors, a gelato shop just north of the Stratosphere that Yelp data considers the second-hottest restaurant in all of America. I may or may not go there, though. Art of Flavors’ average rating is 5 stars (oh, sure) but the review content is pretty decent.


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