Nov 2, 2015

Opinion on sale

The Hindu Businessline
November 2, 2015

The tricky world of online reviews

One area that is still outside Amazon’s purview is apparently ‘one star’ review of books. Political groups and religious cults apparently target books they dislike with a flood of ‘one star’ reviews with a view towards taking them off the shelves!

Consumers have always relied on ‘word of mouth’ to varying degrees for making their purchase decisions. This is especially if we have a good opinion of the opinion giver’s opinions! We are also discerning when it comes to accepting opinions. We often have specific people we would like to consult on particular product/ service groups: Ms X for kitchen-related stuff, Mr Y for electronics, and definitely not Mr Z for holiday recommendations.

The web took all this to an infinite level by allowing for comments and opinions to be tagged on to articles, and shopping sites. The advantage of reading a news item on the web is that one can start or join an on-going debate. Unfortunately, the anonymity seems to bring out the worst in some, and one has to sift through a lot of trash to find meaningful comments. Some newspapers, this one included, ‘moderate’ by reviewing comments before posting but I’m not sure I like the censorship.

When it comes to products and services, comments and opinions provide additional inputs, and are the modern ‘word of mouth.’ We suspect there must be psychological reasons why a larger number of disgruntled customers post an opinion as against satisfied customers; they are bitter, want to let go of some steam, and so on. Yet, this does not seem to act as a filter when we are reading the comments, and perhaps we do get influenced against the product. One negative comment may weigh more than a positive comment!

Response matters
Opinions are big when it comes to products and services. I have even used a potential comment on a website as a threat to extract better service from the reception desk of hotels. Research shows that positive reviews help drive traffic to a hotel, especially if it is a lesser known hotel. Fortunately, potential customers are more impacted by depth of comment (‘the faucet was dripping water all night and they did nothing about it’) as against a general praise (‘the people are so friendly’).

Other research shows when there is a high-percentage of negative reviews, high-involvement customers join in and tend to conform. Bad comments have a momentum of its own, so watch out if you see several bad comments, it does not necessarily mean a majority are rating it poorly. A kind of herd mentality, I guess.

Fortunately, Trip Advisor and many other sites allow the vendor or service provide to post a rebuttal. This not only helps provide the other side of the story but also suggests that this is a hotel that cares about opinions.

The credibility of the opinions as a source of additional information requires some policing on the part of commercial site administrators. Organisations whose exclusive business is providing opinions, such as Yelp, and regularly monitor and set up verification methods. takes legal action against opinion frauds. It has sued several hundreds of individuals who were in the business of writing ‘five star’ reviews for products on Amazon for a fee as low as $5 (₹325). Amazon also uses algorithms to identify false reviews.

One area that is still outside Amazon’s purview is apparently ‘one star’ review of books. Political groups and religious cults apparently target books they dislike with a flood of ‘one star’ reviews with a view towards taking them off the shelves!

The writer teaches at Suffolk University, Boston, and Jindal Global University, Delhi NCR

(This article was published on November 2, 2015)

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