Online retailing is now firmly anchored in our society. Whereas a few years ago only specific products such as clothing were bought online, everyday items are increasingly being purchased online as well. This change not only affects sellers, who have to adapt to the changing demands of the market, but also consumers. Customer reviews exist for almost all products purchased on the internet, and consumers can take other customers’ reviews into account as part of the purchasing process. This raises the question of how customer reviews affect other people’s purchase intentions. This post will look at why customer reviews are highly important to many organizations, how they can be manipulated in practice, and the consequences for consumers of such manipulation.
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When shopping online, sellers are no longer the only source of information for consumers looking for information about specific products. More and more people are taking into account the buying experiences of other customers, which they have shared in the form of customer reviews. Publishing such reviews can lead to significantly higher sales figures if it positively influences the purchase decision process. This is particularly the case if only a few reviews exist online for a product.¹ Customer reviews and other testimonials can be understood as a special form of word-of-mouth advertising. Even if communication does not take place directly here, the statements of other customers are perceived on an interpersonal level and often appear more credible than the explicit advertising content of the respective seller. However, many organizations find it difficult to obtain appropriate feedback and customer reviews, as few customers write reviews of their own accord. In practice, therefore, various incentives are often used to encourage customers to report on their buying experience. In his work, Thakur (2018) identified two relevant influencing factors in particular that affect the willingness to write reviews: trust and satisfaction. Above all, customer trust can be seen as a success factor, as the focus here is not on the short-term experience, but on the long-term relationship with the customer.²
The importance of customer reviews in the purchasing process is undisputed and the majority of online retailers place the reviews in a clearly visible position for users of the respective platform. The suitable display of reviews in the corresponding online stores is relatively simple with the current technical possibilities. However, producers in particular face the challenge of having to find and filter all available reviews in order to respond to customers’ comments and requests. One way such a process might look is found in the influential work of Hu & Liu (2004), who published a model almost 20 years ago to help organizations collect and evaluate feedback from customers.³
However, the strong influence of positive testimonials on the decision-making process also means that organizations may have a strong incentive to manipulate customer reviews. That such manipulation is widespread in practice is an open secret. Manufacturers and sellers often add positive reviews on the respective portals or delete or hide negative ones. Above all, manufacturers who do not (yet) have a good reputation or who deliberately sell low-quality goods can increase their sales figures by falsifying reviews if they use their own reviews to increase the attractiveness of their products. Moreover, as long as a significant proportion of reviews still come from genuine customers, the reviews remain credible to new potential customers. However, if the proportion of fake reviews becomes too high, consumers may become suspicious and manufacturers may lose their trust. In particular, customers who have some expertise in the area they are shopping online will become aware of the manipulation more quickly. In the short term, fake positive reviews may indeed lead to customers being able to make better-informed decisions if the vendors provide helpful information in their self-written reviews. In the long term, however, it can be assumed that corresponding manipulation will always be discovered at some point and that providers will harm themselves if they lose the trust of their customers as a result.⁴
The constant growth of online retail is changing the way people make purchasing decisions. While customers shopping in stores can usually rely on knowledgeable staff to provide relevant information and advice, customers shopping online have to find out for themselves. Even though there are a variety of platforms where consumers can get information, customer reviews seem to be the most convenient solution. It is conceivable that many customers only take into account the rating that is displayed directly to them for the product they are interested in. Moreover, it seems unlikely that a large proportion will question the reviews displayed, even though some of them can be faked very easily. If this is indeed the case, then fake reviews, or the deliberate distortion of facts, are in a position to control consumers’ buying behavior. As more and more purchases are made online, the number of available reviews continues to increase. In the resulting mass of reviews, it is easier to hide self-written reviews because they do not stand out as much.
While adding positive reviews seems largely harmless, hiding or deleting negative reviews is critical. Well-informed and attentive customers are more often able to detect fake positive reviews and can incorporate this information into their decision-making process. However, when negative reviews are removed, no way exists for consumers to detect and take this into account. However, since it is easier for providers to remove negative reviews than to write authentic positive reviews, it is conceivable that this is at least as prevalent in practice. If this is indeed the case, it is even more important that consumers exercise caution in their purchasing decisions. Even though online customer reviews are a simple and quick way to support decision-making, they should not be the only source of information. However, major platforms are already working to ensure that reviews can only be written by verified customers. As long as such mechanisms have not yet been implemented everywhere, however, customers should always keep in mind that they could potentially become victims of deliberate manipulation. Even if it is not necessary to place all providers under general suspicion in advance, it should never hurt to always critically question customer reviews and other online ratings.
The growing importance of online retailing is having an impact on both consumers and producers. Consumers are increasingly making purchase decisions on the basis of available customer reviews, so they have a significant influence on the decision-making process. The high level of importance means that more and more suppliers have an incentive to manipulate reviews. In practice, this is mostly done by independently writing positive reviews or removing negative reviews. Even if deliberate manipulation on the part of providers does not necessarily have to be associated with negative consequences, consumers should at least always be attentive and critically question the information presented. On the part of the providers, it can be stated that writing positive reviews can even increase the information content for customers under certain circumstances. However, if the manipulation is too obvious and is perceived as damaging by the customers who discover it, distorting the facts can also lead to a loss of reputation for the provider in question.
¹ Askalidis, G., & Malthouse, E. C. (2016, September). The value of online customer reviews. In Proceedings of the 10th ACM Conference on Recommender Systems, 155-158. https://doi.org/10.1145/2959100.2959181.
² Thakur, R. (2018). Customer engagement and online reviews. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 41, 48-59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jretconser.2017.11.002.
³ Hu, M., & Liu, B. (2004, August). Mining and summarizing customer reviews. In Proceedings of the tenth ACM SIGKDD international conference on Knowledge discovery and data mining, 168-177. https://doi.org/10.1145/1014052.1014073.
⁴ Zhuang, M., Cui, G., & Peng, L. (2018). Manufactured opinions: The effect of manipulating online product reviews. Journal of Business Research, 87, 24-35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2018.02.016.