Are Consumer Reviews Trustworthy and Reliable?
Looking for a good restaurant? Maybe a contractor to build a fence for you? Many of us do some research before hiring anyone or buying just about anything, and more often than not we find reviews, ratings, and recommendations from other buyers. But how much can you rely on consumer reviews?
Some websites, like Yelp, focus on helping consumers find trustworthy businesses and merchants selling the quality goods we’re looking for, from restaurants to barbers to car mechanics. These kinds of websites do this by letting consumers write and post reviews on their website about the things they buy. Yelp boasts that consumers—they’re called “Yelpsters”—have posted millions of reviews about local businesses.
But Can You Trust Online Reviews?
As you’ve researched the product or service you’re looking to buy, you’ve probably come across dozens of consumer reviews. When you read them, you usually get an idea about whether the reviewer is being honest and straightforward. And, for the most part, you can generally trust your gut reaction; many consumers give their honest opinions.
Nonetheless, to protect your wallet and make an informed decision about whether to buy, it’s best to use consumer reviews wisely. Don’t trust them blindly. Here’s what you can do:
Understand certain realities. Sometimes consumers over-rate or under-rate a product or service for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Anger or disappointment over a particular experience or in a certain product, or inexperience in buying similar products.
- Non-buyers and users. Believe it or not, it’s possible you’re reading a review written by someone who hasn’t even bought or used the product or service. Someone with a personal axe to grind with the store or restaurant owner might take revenge by writing a bad review. Or, maybe a competitor posts bad recommendations to steal business away from the company you’re reading about.
- Owner reviews? The flip side to revenge-seekers and saboteur-competitors: Businesses and merchants who post good reviews about themselves to drum up business.
- Sometimes consumers are paid to give reviews, sometimes by the business or merchant and sometimes by consumer review websites. Such payments may influence a reviewer’s opinion.
Take reviews with a grain a salt if they seem too negative or too positive.
Take control. To make a good buying decision:
- Read more than one review, and from more than one website.
- Try to look at positive, negative, and neutral reviews, but try to focus on the objective ones, rather than those that seem a little too emotional or extreme.
- Talk to real people, too. Your family, friends, and co-workers might have experiences to help you.
- If you’re visiting a business, like a restaurant, ask other customers there what they think about the business, if they liked it, and if they’d come back again. If you’re buying a product from a retail store, ask a salesperson what he thinks about the item, if other customers have said anything good or bad about it, and how often he sees the item being returned by customers because it doesn’t work as advertised.
- When possible, check with a trustworthy and unbiased source, such as Consumer Reports and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This is most useful when you’re in the market for products, like cars, computers, and vacuum cleaners, etc. For reviews and recommendations on services in your local area, like restaurants, plumbers, and dog groomers, check with sites like the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Angie’s List, and Yelp.
It’s your money, and today maybe more than ever, you need to do everything you can to make sure you spend it wisely.
Questions For Your Attorney
- Isn’t it illegal for a business or company to ask workers to post positive reviews about the business’ products or services?
- I wrote an honest but negative review about a company and its product, and now that company is threatening to sue me for defamation. Can it sue me and win?
Amy Loftsgordon is a legal editor at Nolo, focusing on foreclosure, debt management, and personal finance. She writes for Nolo.com and Lawyers.com and has been quoted by news outlets that include U.S. News & World Report and Bankrate.
Amy received a B.A. from the University of Southern California and a law degree from the University of Denver. She is licensed to practice law in Colorado.