90% of consumers check online reviews before buying something, especially when it comes to online purchases. This statistic was revealed by the online review community Trustpilot and confirmed by the Brighton-based web company BrightLocal.

Research carried out by the British organization also showed that four out of five customers claim that they trust brands more if they read positive reviews about them, while 84% of buyers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations from acquaintances.

Essentially, the opinions shared by other users have taken the place of personal endorsements and the seller’s word. Rather than listening to companies, we now tend to pay more attention to the views of other customers who have already tried their products and services before us.

Unfortunately, according to research published by Harvard Business Review, online reviews are extremely biased: the verdicts of users tend to be highly polarized, with the vast majority deeming the products or services on offer either top or a flop.

According to the study, this is because people are only motivated to leave reviews if they are very happy or very disappointed. When they are simply moderately satisfied with products or services, they do not feel that it is worth taking the time to express their views online.

Think about it: how many times have you come across restaurants, services or consumer goods with numerous reviews and noticed that at least 40% are enthusiastic, 40% disappointed and just 20% somewhere in between? Who is right? The lovers or the haters?

Most significantly, do reviews at extreme ends of the scale really help anyone?


How to get balanced reviews using economic and social incentives?

The answer to the question above is “No”. Polarized reviews are not much use to anybody. As well as serving little purpose, they can have a negative impact and harm – sometimes seriously – whatever is being reviewed, whether it is a pizzeria, a notebook or even a job.

After all, companies that are hiring can be reviewed by current and former employees, as well as applicants for jobs. By sharing their experiences – which can be anything from exceptionally positive to thoroughly depressing – they can influence the choices made by job seekers.

How can you get out of this vicious circle? By trying to instil balance in the views shared.

How can you go about it? The research team decided to test the effects of offering reviewers different kinds of incentives.

They tried both monetary incentives (paying users) and motivational ones, explaining that leaving an honest comment about every experience – and not just those at the extreme ends of the scale – helps other users to get a more objective picture of the situation.

Which of the two worked better?

Motivational incentives have an impact: making people realize that they can offer tangible support to fellow users, professionals or customers increases the frequency with which reviews are published. A larger number of moderate opinions are shared, thus counterbalancing prejudices and leading to less biased content.

Paying people also unquestionably works, but it is surprising to note that in order to be really spurred into action, users demand rather high amounts that are not very sustainable, considering the critical mass of users requiring incentives.

What other options are there? One “zero-cost” system to encourage people to share honest opinions is a “give-to-get” policy: if you want to see reviews, you have to leave a review of your own.

As a motivational tool, getting people to provide their own content in order to see the experiences shared by others is a simple but effective solution that can help to make reviews genuinely useful. The exchange-based method increases the number of opinions expressed and balances out the highly polarized distribution associated with voluntary reviews.