Buying online? Highly-reviewed doesn’t always mean highly-rated, say researchers

Stanford, August 23, 2017 — Researchers from Stanford University, California, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Indiana University, Bloomington, were intrigued to find out how people use information available online, including first-hand reviews, when making internet purchases.

They first looked at real products available on popular shopping site Amazon.com, and found that there was no relation between the number of reviews a product had and its average rating, suggesting that a large number of reviews is not a reliable indicator of a product’s quality.

With this in mind, they set out to see how people would use both the review and the rating to choose a product.

In the first online experiment, the team asked 132 adult participants to look at a selection of phone cases, presented in pairs, each with an average user rating and total number of reviews.

The team asked the participants to indicate which case from each pair they would buy.

Across various combinations of average rating and number of reviews, participants routinely chose the option with more reviews, even when both options had low ratings, therefore choosing the product which statistically speaking, should be lower quality.

“[F]aced with a choice between two low-scoring products, one with many reviews and one with few, the statistics say we should actually go for the product with few reviews, since there’s more of a chance it’s not really so bad,” explained lead author Derek Powell.

“But participants in our studies did just the opposite: They went for the more popular product, despite the fact that they should’ve been even more certain it was of low quality.”

The team then carried out a second online experiment with the same procedure, which showed similar results.

“We found that people were biased toward choosing to purchase more popular products and that this sometimes led them to make very poor decisions,” commented Powell.

According to him, these findings have direct implications for both retailers and consumers, and could help consumers make better choices.

“Our data suggest that retailers might need to rethink how reviews are presented and consumers might need to do more to educate themselves about how to use reviews to guide their choices.”

The findings were published online in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.