Reviewing the Reviewers

I love reviewing.  I have been writing reviews since we got reasonably fast internet in 2000.  I started to review (almost exclusively books I had checked out at the library) because I either felt passionately about them or because they were books that no-one had bothered to review.  But I never really thought of it as a “business” (despite having been invited into the Vine program) until two events happened: a manufacturer asked me to review their product independently of Vine and someone left a comment on my review of an air conditioner saying “I guess there’d be no point critiquing it too hard since you got it for free, huh?”

There is off the top of my head Amazon, Yelp, Goodreads, and Blogs—all of them are platforms on which “regular consumers” review all sorts of stuff and almost all of them make some money doing so: either through increased sales or through ads or free items or all of the above.  There are celebrities who are clearly paid dearly for their endorsements.  Nicole Kidman endorses Chanel No. 5, Jay-Z endorses a General Motors SUV, and so much more.  There are celebrities who blog like Giorgio Armani for example. And of course there are professional reviewers like John Dvorak who freely admits he “does not like man on the street reviews” because “they are easily corruptible”.  Then there is advice.

Advertising Age for example claims that if you’re a business, you should get the endorsement of a celebrity because that’s the best way to push your product.  Forbes, on the other hand, feels that a business should try to get customers to write reviews but cautions its readers that, generally speaking, only customers with a particularly bad experience will feel passionate enough to pen a review on their own; customers with a positive experience need to be reminded and/or coaxed to review.  There is even advice for reviewers out there.

Researchers (especially in Cornell University) have gotten into the arena as well.  Wei and Lu of National Taiwan University found that while consumers are generally speaking distrustful of all reviews, they are more likely to believe an online review that shows the reviewer has done his/her homework and will not believe a review that seems exaggerated.  Puranam and Cardie of Cornell studied what effect, if any, enrollment into the Vine program might have on reviews.  They did not find a difference in the number of stars given before and after enrollment but they did find a difference in the quality of reviews: before enrolling into the Vine program participants provided shorter and less specific reviews whereas after enrollment they tended to provide longer and more specific ones.  Trevor Pinch (again of Cornell) found that the demographics of the Vine program participants (i.e., people whom amazon asked to review their products) tended to be male, older and better-educated than the average population.  Pinch did not compare the kinds of rankings reviewers gave before and after joining the Vine program nor with other reviewers but found that eighty percent of Vine reviews were “positive”.

It should be noted that others found that amazon’s ranking system in particular and, the five-star ranking system in general, tend to distort the ratings in the positive direction.  This has real world implications quite outside the latest gadget to hit the market.  For example, when the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services measured dialysis facilities around the country using the five-star rating system, the vast majority of those facilities received a positive score of three stars or better.

So who are these anonymous reviewers?  It seems (as Pinch points out) that they are first of all a pretty well-educated bunch.  It should therefore come as little surprise that some of them end up going from “man on the street” reviewers to writing for major international publications.  Others have turned their blogs into books.  In any event, they are probably not the typical shopper.  If anything, their background (and career trajectories) put them in the same socio-economic class as the “professional reviewers.”  So the pertinent question seems to be not so much whether consumers trust celebrities more than online reviewers but whether consumers trust online reviewers more than professional reviewers like John Dovrak.

It is a question Cornell University has not yet answered.  But I am sure they’re working on it.


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