Last Saturday, I was desperate for Mozart sheet music. It had to be for piano, and it had to be easy to play. Out of 84 options on Amazon, a book with 4.7 stars caught my eye — good enough for a 9-year-old’s music-class presentation. Later that afternoon, I needed to book a hotel for our summer vacation and I trusted the 1,310 reviewers on TripAdvisor who gave my pick an average of four stars, along with a good number of “fantastics” and “wonderfuls.”
Dinner was a 4.5 star meatloaf recipe. And this weekend, with Memorial Day sales in full swing, I will turn to an army of online reviewers who will help me bite the bullet and replace a toilet that has mysteriously begun flushing of its own accord. Someone else will have put the time in at Home Depot so I don’t have to.
But which someone? Who are these reviewers I’m trusting with my purchasing decision, big and small? I don’t know for sure, and yet I feel completely stalled until I’ve scrolled through everything they have to say.
It’s not that I’m afraid of a little research. As a writer at Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product review site, I pore over user ratings professionally, though I don’t rely on them solely. For my review of foam mattresses, I focused my efforts on extensive reporting and slept on the mattresses myself. I analyzed online comments to deduce trends, and I certainly didn’t take stars at face value.
But at home, I’m as eager to take the advice of complete strangers as anyone else to validate my decisions. When I see that hundreds of other people liked the hotel I just booked, it’s a pat on the back.
The 21st-century virtual shopping experience can feel overwhelming and chaotic, but it’s the price we pay for the convenience of shopping at home. That’s why stars are everywhere. Without them, you’re vulnerable to decision paralysis. But with them, you still can’t shake the feeling that there’s a lot of homework to do — hours of life lost, scrolling through reviews, many of which were written by people who have little to nothing in common with you.
It is completely understandable why we want to trust these ratings. But with a little more knowledge, we can free ourselves from being trapped by them.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, 82 percent of Americans say they read online reviews at least some of the time. But only about 50 percent of online shoppers say they sometimes leave a review for a product or a service, and that number dwindles to 43 percent for restaurants. Only one in 10 people reports “nearly always” leaving a review.
Alex Haefner, who oversees content at Yelp, said the most prolific reviewers are “superpassionate about their local business experience, and they make it their hobby to write about them.” What else do we know about these “super-passionate” people who are shaping so much of how we spend our money?
Panagiotis Stamolampros, a lecturer on business analytics at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Leeds in England, said that research on reviewers is limited, but “what we know for sure is that extroverted and open individuals tend to engage more in social media, and they are also expected to be more involved with online reviews.”
That’s certainly not me. I usually roll my eyes when people in my social network share too much online, and I can’t fathom who would have the extra minutes in the day to write a thoughtful review. And yet I invite people from all over the country to have a say in virtually every aspect of my life.
Stars beget sales. According to an often mentioned Harvard Business School working paper that studied restaurant reviews on Yelp, each added star is associated with a 5 percent to 9 percent increase in revenue. Not surprisingly, then, new businesses have sprung up to exploit the rating system to the seller’s or the platform’s advantage.
In the case of both sellers and platforms, more is more. “Most providers and platforms just want to encourage more reviews,” said June Cotte, a professor of marketing at Western University in Canada. “More reviews signal quality, and it also mutes any bad reviews.”
The tactics to make this happen often lead to rendering the star-rating scale useless. I’m not even talking about asking friends or relatives or paying firms to crank out five-star reviews. (The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on dishonest practices, while some platforms, like Yelp and Amazon, have designed automated software to combat this, albeit to varying degrees of success.) I’m referring to usually perfectly legit methods, like asking loyal customers to write reviews.
Even if businesses don’t interfere at all, a five-star filter’s usefulness could eventually fizzle out anyway. That’s because in the star-rated universe, the wisdom of the crowd can morph into something more like “the madness of the crowd,” said Matthew Salganik, the author of “Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age” and a professor of sociology at Princeton.
“Knowing more about what other people are doing and thinking can help us all find the best things faster, but it can also lead to stronger fads where people are following people who are following people who are following people,” he said. “At a certain point, popularity can become separated from how good something actually is.”
Finally, it’s hard to know what the stars even mean. Often times, whether it’s a mattress or can opener or an Uber driver, a five-star rating means “nothing disastrous happened,” said Nikhil Garg, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. A recent study he co-wrote reported that 80 percent of people gave freelancers hired from an online platform five stars. But when he asked people to choose from different words (“terrible,” “mediocre,” “best possible,” etc.), at least half of the freelancers earned the equivalent of a two-, three- or four-star review.
In the case of hotels, said Dr. Cotte, five stars typically means “everything is what I expected.” I’m assuming this is how the Hampton Inn averaged a five-star rating on my recent search for a hotel in Maine, compared to several luxury resorts that rated only a four.
The experts confirmed what I knew, but resisted, all along. If you really want to find the best product or service for your needs, you’ll need to exert some effort. But it’s also worth remembering that if you don’t, it’s no big deal.
As Dr. Salganik explained, even if a system is gamed, the worst product probably won’t end up at the top of your screen for long; assuming there’s a considerable difference in quality among the options, it will eventually be knocked down. But if the products are pretty similar, then yes, it’s possible that the very best one will actually not float to the very top — though that’s no tragedy either. As Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice,” argues, if everything is essentially the same, then there’s nothing wrong with ending up with a product that’s the second- or third-best of the heap.
But if you’re considering a considerably large and long-term purchase, then you can’t escape doing your research before you shop, so chat up helpful sales clerks or check out unbiased expert sources.
For those who insist on using user reviews, filter your filters. When I researched my mattress guide, I focused on products with a substantial number of reviews and reviews that were less than a year old. That’s because product designs — and hotels and chefs — change over time.
The majority of product and business reviews are positive, with some negative ratings, and even fewer middling ratings in between, so don’t rely on the average star rating. Even frequent reviewers will agree to that. An “elite” Yelper who goes by the handle “Jonghan L.” wrote in an email, “Since reviewing is such a subjective matter, I hope people would take the star ratings with a grain of salt, and leverage my own reviews/experiences against other patrons who have visited the same place.” Also make sure that the five-star comments are referring to features that matter to you — for instance, safety as opposed to aesthetics in a high chair.
The number of reviewers on the Home Depot site is far fewer than on Amazon, but no less enthusiastic. Among the first toilets to pop up from my search was a model with an average of 4.4 stars from 171 reviewers. “RC” from Oklahoma says that he had no issues and added that “the flush is quiet.”
It was as if he were speaking directly to me; I was sold. Then again, if he said it simply flushes when it’s supposed to, I would have vastly improved my quality of life just the same.
Joanne Chen is a senior writer at Wirecutter.
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