When it comes to rating products online, it turns out we're way too nice. The average out of 5 stars for things like dog food, printer paper or boots is 4.3 and as The Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey Fowler explains, all that kindness is actually kind of a problem.
BOB GARFIELD: One irony about the sleazy practice of buying favorable reviews is that it may not even be remotely necessary. While bloggers and online commentators have an ugly tendency to say the meanest, sometimes most libelous things about people, when it comes to product and service ratings online, the blogosphere is too – nice. As The Wall Street Journal recently observed, online rating sites are like Lake Wobegon: everyone is above average. For instance, at Amazon.com, Johnson & Johnson Cotton Balls get five out of five stars. Mighty Bright Replacement Bulbs, mostly five-star reviews there too. Almond cookies, five stars. A box of individual Splenda packets, a vicious group of irate consumers slammed it with four and a half stars. But all the love is actually kind of a problem for the companies who make the rating software, for the companies whose products are reviewed, and for people who rely on reviews to help to figure out what to buy. Geoffrey Fowler is a San Francisco-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He wrote about the phenomenon and says it’s a little known fact about the Internet.
GEOFFREY FOWLER: We tend to think of the Internet as a place filled with mean blogs about celebrities and email flame wars. But there is, in fact, this growing corner of the Web where people have a problem that they tend to be just too positive. When you give people the option between 1 star and 5 star, most things average out to about 4.3, and some particular categories of products tend to average even higher. Like if you look at the average ratings for dog food, that’s like a 4.8.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay, so is this a function of human nature? What do you suppose makes someone put in a rating for a dog food or, as you noted in your piece, printer paper? Printer paper?
GEOFFREY FOWLER: Yes, those are among the most popular things to review online. The answer is you'd be surprised. The more you see yourself as an expert in something, the more likely you are to give a positive review because that proves that you make smart choices, that you know how to pick the best restaurants or you know how to select the best dog food. And that’s what some research from the University of Toronto found. Specifically in that study they found that people generally gave negative reviews at the same rate, but people who thought of themselves as experts on topics were way more inclined to give positive reviews.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess it’s nice to live in a world, a beautiful place where people really love - their printer paper. But is this a problem in any way?
GEOFFREY FOWLER: Yes, and many of the sites will say, you know, the ratings, they're just a starting point. What really matters is the content of the reviews. That’s true, but it’s a little bit like saying, it doesn't matter what the headlines are on newspaper stories, [LAUGHS] it’s only what’s in the stories. Okay, but you've got to read the headlines first. So it does cause a problem, and some sites are actually taking some steps to deal with it. A company that was one of the first to deal with this problem was eBay. It used to be that eBay would judge the quality of its sellers based on the average rating. But the ratings were so high that it had to set 4.3 as a baseline. If you fell underneath 4.3, you were an unacceptable eBay seller. So what they did recently is they changed that system, and now they're just counting the numbers of one- and two-star reviews. That way they can see just when it’s really just a terrible experience.
BOB GARFIELD: But then isn't it a whole lot easier for some malicious party to torpedo an otherwise perfectly agreeable seller, just because he is in the mood to do so?
GEOFFREY FOWLER: eBay sellers argue with the company about that all the time. Other companies are dealing with this problem by just trying to find different ways to measure quality. Let's take YouTube, for example. They put out a blog post two weeks ago announcing their five-star dilemma, saying that [LAUGHS] most people were only leaving five-star reviews. And they, you know, put out a call. They said, what other ways can we use information in a better way? Well, they could just measure how often people actually finish watching videos or how often people like a video so much that they share it with their friends on Facebook or other social networks.
BOB GARFIELD: Has anyone been able to quantify what portion of this aggregated kindness is attributable to people trying to, to game the system, essentially praise fraud?
GEOFFREY FOWLER: The companies that run these sites say that this does happen. Earlier this year the website TripAdvisor, which rates hotels and vacation destinations, did have to put up a notice saying that some of the reviews of hotels on their site could have been left by hotel managers. But, on the aggregate, these sites say that that actually doesn't happen too often, and some of them actually pay staff to go through and delete things that were obvious puffery.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I have some questions about a digital camera or a quart of milk or - printer paper, and I go onto whatever the review site is and everything is 4.3 or above, how in the world am I supposed to come up with any kind of judgment? What have I learned?
GEOFFREY FOWLER: Just to underscore that even more, there was a recent study by Nielsen and they asked people which forms of media they tend to trust the most. And near the very [LAUGHS] top of the list, 72 percent of Americans said that they trust online reviews. Some of the companies that use these rating systems say it’s actually a self-selecting world. So if you find a good printer paper and you give it a good review, other people are going to go to the site and find that printer paper and choose to buy it, and they're also going to find it to be good, and they're going to leave more positive reviews. So, good products encourage more good reviews, and bad products, ones that get bad ratings, people stop buying. And in the best case scenario they're taken off the market, and the companies learn a lesson.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoff, thanks so much for joining us.
GEOFFREY FOWLER: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Fowler is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Hey, Mike – our producer, Mike Vuolo – hey, Mike, give me - give me some things to rate. [LAUGHS] We'll see if this guy’s right.
MIKE VUOLO: Just, anything?
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, yeah, name like eight things and I'll rate ‘em, zero to five. You tabulate.
MIKE VUOLO: All right, let's see. A sunset.
BOB GARFIELD: Five.
MIKE VUOLO: The Bill of Rights.
BOB GARFIELD: Five.
MIKE VUOLO: Mahler’s Second.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Five.
MIKE VUOLO: Store brand canned gravy.
BOB GARFIELD: Five.
MIKE VUOLO: Ernest Saves Christmas.
BOB GARFIELD: Five.
MIKE VUOLO: Vladimir Putin.
BOB GARFIELD: Five.
MIKE VUOLO: The American League.
BOB GARFIELD: Zero!
MIKE VUOLO: Diphtheria.
BOB GARFIELD: Five. Is that all eight of them.
MIKE VUOLO: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE], yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. I'll read the credits. You, you figure out the average.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Dan Mauzy, and edited by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there, or email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield. Mike, you got a number for me?
MIKE VUOLO: You’re not going to believe it, a little over 4.3.