What’s more, reviews are often capricious and circumstantial. For example, the sentiment of travelers’ reviews hinges on their companionship. A study published last fall in Electronic Commerce Research and Applications, looking at 125,076 online reviews, found that people traveling with significant others wrote the most positive reviews, followed by those traveling with friends or family. Reviewers traveling alone or for business were the most negative. Our experiences change depending on our expectations, travel expertise and who we’re with.
People’s motivations also taint their neutrality. Take TripAdvisor’s “Super Contributors,” whose reviews tend to be more negative than those by less active members, according to a forthcoming study from Ulrike Gretzel, a communications professor at the University of Southern California and the director of research at Netnografica. Having formed identities around being expert travel reviewers, Super Contributors may “write more critically to appear more professional,” Dr. Gretzel said. Nevertheless, consumers disproportionately value and trust reviews professing expertise.
Put simply, we should distrust online reviews “because emotions are involved,” Ms. Dragan said.
Another reason to be wary is roughly one in 15 people review products they haven’t actually purchased or used, according to Dr. Simester. These “self-appointed brand managers” write speculative, unsolicited negative reviews to offer the company “feedback.” The problem is consumers are bad at determining which reviews are based on actual experiences and which aren’t, said Dr. Simester. “We are easily fooled.”
Get savvier about how you read reviews
Still, reviews can be helpful gauges when you’re buying stuff — so long as you keep in mind all the caveats around them.
First, weed out the most polarized perspectives. People are much more likely to write reviews if they have extreme emotions about something, said Eric K. Clemons, who teaches information management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. This is why you see so many rave reviews and so many rancorous ones.
Even people who don’t initially have strong feelings often develop them in response to survey questions — something called the mere-measurement effect.
“We are socially conditioned to give answers when someone/something asks us a question,” Dr. Gretzel wrote in an email. So if we don’t have a pre-existing, well-defined opinion, we make one up.