Practical Ecommerce

My Love/Hate Relationship with Product Reviews

I don’t have product reviews on my website. I may add them at some point. However, I’m quite conflicted about it.

My stance may seem odd since the big players in that space would cite years of research showing that adding product reviews to your website will increase your conversion rates. I don’t dispute that it increased conversion rates for their site. I’m simply not sold that it will increase conversion rates for my site.

Here are my three cynical reasons for not having product reviews.

Cynical Reason #1: Product reviews were started by Amazon because they didn’t have the ability, resources, or desire to curate what they sell. They don’t act as a gate keeper to prevent trash from being sold on their site. In fact, they opened the floodgates so that they could sell EVERYTHING. This turned out to be a bad thing for the customer because we couldn’t tell what was good and what was bad. So, instead of doing any of the actual work that a professional buyer would perform, they simply dumped the process on their customers and said, “You rate it.”

Think about this for a second. Amazon is urging you to buy something, for which they have no prior knowledge, and therefore will not be helpful in any meaningful after-sale customer service, and then they have the gall to ask you to do their work for them by evaluating the product!

Let’s apply this to a real-world situation. Imagine you went into a restaurant and asked the waiter if you should order the steak or the lamb. The waiter simply stares back at you and utters not a word. Finally, you throw up your hands, flip a coin, and decide to get the steak. When the meal is over, the waiter asks you how it was. He then takes your response and repeats it back to the next customer who asks about the steak. How can the waiter not know anything about the menu?! It’s absurb and it’s precisely how Amazon operates because it doesn’t know a damned thing about its menu. Customer reviews, therefore, are essential to its existence because Amazon doesn’t perform any of the product evaluation duties of a retailer.

As a retailer, you are supposed to be the expert on your subject matter. If a product is zero-stars-terrible, it shouldn’t even be available for sale.

Cynical Reason #2: Product reviews function to expound upon the features and capabilities of a product because the retailer hasn’t bothered to do this for the customer itself. Most online retailers take the three sentence blurb from the manufacturer, the manufacturer-supplied photo, and slap it up online and hope that it sells. Because that’s ineffective, they use user-supplied reviews to fill in the gaps. Retailers then pat themselves on the back for developing “user-generated content” that the search engines will love. Gag me.

So, instead of properly analyzing the product, testing it, and writing a detailed, honest, and thoughtful description of the product accompanied by high-quality and illustrative photographs, most retailers resort to having their customers do the work for them.

Cynical Reason #3: By admission of the major 3rd-party review services, only 1% of purchasers are going to bother to write a review. So, if your catalog contains 500 skus, you’re going to need to garner at least 50,000 purchases in order to obtain at least 1 review per sku. Ouch. That could take awhile. It also has the side effect of making your site appear unpopular since many of your products will not have any reviews.

The 3rd-party review companies have tried to mitigate this issue by allowing retailers to share reviews between sites. Ugh. Now customers are going to see the same review across multiple sites? Double ugh.

Side note: What genius came up with the idea of, “Be the first to review this product!” Seriously, no customer wants to be your guinea pig!

On the flip side, I read the reviews on Amazon all the time. Does this mean I’m a hypocrite? Possibly. However, I feel reading their reviews is necessary because the description of the products are oftentimes unreliable, incomplete, and not detailed.

The logical next step is that if your site already properly explains a product, that product reviews may add a bit of social confirmation and could increase sales.

However, the low rate at which customers supply reviews serves as a larger detriment (“hey, nobody is shopping at this site!”) than the added value of the crazed 1% (either a spurned customer looking to wreak havoc or the fanboy not providing much valuable content) who will bother to leave a review.

Who knows. We may add reviews next week. As you can tell, I’m a bit conflicted about it, but the bottom line is that customer reviews are not going to provide a huge and immediate lift to your conversion rate unless you have a large enough number of orders to obtain multiple reviews for all of your products.

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Comments ( 3 )

  1. Aaron Bradley March 7, 2012 Reply

    While you make a lot of valid points, I think all in all in you’re undervaluing the benefit of product reviews, and spinning their functionality. As someone that’s sometimes accused of cynicism, I get where you’re coming from, but I think you’re off-base in a couple of areas here.

    Just to take on a couple of the more important points…. You say that "reviews function to expound upon the features and capabilities of a product because the retailer hasn’t bothered to do this for the customer itself." Um, well it’s hardly uncommon to see a hefty number of reviews attached to a product detail page where the features and capabilities have been enumerated in great detail. The function of a review in this context is to validate or repudiate the retailer’s claims, and to offer the perspective of a person who’s actually purchased and used the product. Retailers can say whatever they like about a product: buyers know this and so turn to reviews because, all things being equal, they should be more trustworthy than a seller’s claims (or at least there’s a clear difference in motive between what a retailer says and what a reviewer says, and the motive of the former is always to sell something).

    Are the addition of customer reviews "going to provide a huge and immediate lift to your conversion rate"? Nope. Are the presence of customer reviews a well-documented and widely-recognized conversion rate booster? Yep. Will you ever see the conversion benefit of customer reviews if you don’t employ them? Obviously not. Just because an ecommerce feature won’t provide an immediate conversion boost is not a compelling reason not to include that feature: building a business is not an exercise in instant gratification. To make an analogy with social media, the fact that creating a Twitter account won’t result in a huge and immediate number of people following that account doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

  2. Jamie Salvatori March 7, 2012 Reply

    Aaron – thanks for the comments… who knows, maybe you’re right. Again, it’s a love/hate relationship :).

  3. Elizabeth Ball March 21, 2012 Reply

    I enjoyed reading your comments but have to disagree.

    In point 1, you say you shouldn’t sell a zero-star product etc. Of course not, but it’s customers who decide if they think it’s five stars or not and their reviews will help inform others.

    For point 2, detailed info from manufacturers is vital. But I love reading reviews in Gap etc that lets me know if that wrap dress gapes open or not if you’re size whatever. And that makes me choose it – or not.

    For point 3, I also disagree with the 1% figure and find it is closer to 15-20% of customers. People love sharing their feedback!

    Jamie, go on, introduce it – your customers are bound to be wondering why no-one is raving about your products

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