5 Factors That Make People Trust (or Distrust) Online Reviews

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Scott Baradell
Published: Dec 16, 2020

You can find customer reviews for virtually anything online today, from a $2 ballpoint pen to a $2 million enterprise software system. But no matter what people are looking to buy, some reviews are more likely to influence their decision than others.

What makes both B2C and B2C buyers gravitate to certain reviews? An interesting study by German academics found that "different kinds of third-party information can vary dramatically in their importance to the trustor." The researchers ran a factorial design to study how the different characteristics of third-party information affect the "trustor’s decision to trust."

Based on this study and others, five characteristics of reviews stand out: recency, relevance, positive or negative tone, proximity of experience and credibility of source.

Let's take a look at each of these factors to understand why they are important.

  1. Recency of review. More than two-thirds of consumers believe that reviews published more than three months ago are no longer useful, according to BrightLocal. This is especially true in fast-changing industries like B2B software, where according to Gartner, "If you haven’t collected new reviews in the past 1-3 months, you risk getting cut from [a buyer's] software shortlist." That's why if you are a brand running a third-party validation program, it's important to seek out reviews consistently rather than infrequently in bunches. Learn more about the best ways to ask for an online review.
  2. Relevance of review. Buyers are interested in reviews that reflect how they plan to use a product and in similar circumstances. Reviews that focus on the most common use cases for your product will carry the most weight with buyers. As with the customer case studies on your website, relevant reviews give your prospects a clearer vision of what the experience of choosing you might be like.
  3. Positive or negative tone. More than 80 percent of buyers seek out negative reviews online, and 40 percent of those buyers will cross a vendor off their list if they don't like what they read. While positive reviews are important and increasingly necessary to have, negative reviews are deal-killers -- because they are more likely to be believed by customers. As the German study put it: "The results show that negative information is more salient for withholding trust than positive information is for placing trust." A good goal for your business is to make sure your positive reviews outnumber your negative reviews by at least a 5:1 ratio; that's the best way to counter the disproportionate influence of a bad review.
  4. Proximity of experience. Buyers favor reviews that show that the writer has firsthand experience with a company or product. That's why when a local business becomes a victim of "cancel culture" for making a controversial statement, there is often a backlash in support of the business. When Twitter users coordinate efforts to post one-star reviews for a restaurant because of the opinions of its owner, for example, these reviews are less credible than those of patrons who have actually eaten the restaurant's food. That's why these kinds of attacks often blow over -- although certainly not always.
  5. Credibility of source. The most trusted source of third-party information is family and friends, which 93 percent of consumers consider reliable.  Of course, it's not always possible to get a review of a specific product from your inner circle, so people turn to the internet. What online sources do buyers find most credible? Reviewers who leave full names, titles and other personal details are the most trusted. If that reviewer's purchase has been verified by Amazon, vetted by Gartner, or they are a Level 10 guide for Google, that carries even more credibility. Interestingly, sources who say they were initially skeptical of the product but ended up a fan are particularly influential with buyers.

Bear in mind that the factors that make people trust or distrust your reviews are magnified or mitigated when they are combined. In the German study, for example, a friend's "gossip" or second-hand knowledge of a product exerted more influence on buyers than an expert's firsthand experience. 

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