How your business can get better consumer reviews

For consumers, the research highlights how malleable ratings can be. (Image: Pixabay)
For consumers, the research highlights how malleable ratings can be. (Image: Pixabay)

Summary

Research shows that if you ask people to rate specific parts of their experience, they’ll give higher overall ratings.

It’s a common frustration when consumers want to pick a place to eat, a hotel to stay in, or a store to buy from: Which rating do you trust when the ratings can vary widely?

What explains the differences? In particular, a colleague and I wondered, could the way these websites ask consumers to provide ratings affect the ratings they receive? For instance, on a site like Yelp, a rater is asked to provide an overall rating. But on a site like OpenTable, a consumer not only gives an overall rating, but also rates the food, service, ambience and value.

Across several experiments, we found that consumers give, on average, a higher overall rating when asked to rate the overall experience and several attributes of the experience compared with when they are asked to rate the overall experience alone. In other words, when consumers can speak to what specifically they didn’t like about an experience, they weight those negative aspects less heavily in their overall ranking.

The pattern, though, was apparent only when the experience was mediocre or bad, but wasn’t seen when the experience was good.

A seeming contradiction

In some ways, these results might seem counterintuitive. Don’t consumers use ratings to complain about their bad experiences? Why would they want to be more positive after rating a specific, bad aspect of the experience?

The answer can be found by looking more closely at the conflicting psychological motivations consumers have when leaving reviews. As previous research shows, people prefer to be positive, instead of negative, when possible. They want to be seen as nice people. At the same time, though, consumers might also feel the need to disclose bad aspects of an experience.

Including attribute ratings allows consumers to achieve both of these desires: They can be positive by giving a higher overall rating, but still warn other consumers about the bad aspects of an experience by rating that attribute poorly.

Lessons for consumers

What can restaurants, hotels and other service providers do with this information? For one thing, if they want to boost their overall rating they often offer on their own websites, they can make sure to ask consumers for attribute ratings. However, they need to be aware that this will artificially inflate the results; asking for just an overall rating will be more representative of how consumers actually feel about the business.

For consumers, these results further highlight how malleable ratings can be. Factors like the inclusion of attribute ratings, whether a review was written on a smartphone or desktop, and what the existing ratings are can all change what rating consumers give.

Taken together, it’s clear that while consumer ratings might be good in theory, they are often imperfect in practice. Having feedback about a product from other people who are like you might seem valuable, but when that feedback is affected by a variety of contextual factors, it can be hard to make sense of.

Better than nothing? Perhaps. But as good as it could be? Not even close.

Katie Mehr is an assistant professor of marketing at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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