Why You Can’t Trust Negative Online Reviews

Why You Can’t Trust Negative Online Reviews

Recently while researching a vacation package I was considering booking, I noticed that while all of the customer reviews about the destinations, tour guides and mechanics of the trip were glowing, there were a few people who gave poor ratings for reasons that didn’t seem like the travel company’s fault: Their flight was cancelled so they missed a day; they got food poisoning so couldn’t enjoy a tour; or they hadn’t purchased travel insurance so they couldn’t get a refund when they could no longer embark on the trip.

It didn’t seem to me those experiences should necessarily be considered in ratings of the trip package itself. I was mainly looking for safety tips in the reviews, so the few naysayers didn’t sway my decision. But an overall low rating for the package definitely would have made me reconsider.

This tendency to negatively review products for things outside of the manufacturer’s control is much more apparent on a site like Amazon, where people will leave a one-star rating for books they haven’t read or because the package got destroyed in transit. And an article published today in the New York Times confirms my suspicions: Basically, you can’t trust negative online reviews. At the very least, you should take them with a heaping spoonful or two of salt.

According to the Times, because there are comparatively few negative reviews as compared to positive reviews, we give more weight to the negative ones, even though we probably shouldn’t. Reading the negative reviews makes us feel that we’re getting the full picture about something before we spend our hard-earned dollars on it, particularly the worst-case scenario.

Another point of interest: A 2014 study published by The Journal of Marketing Research found that online reviewers “are more likely to buy things in unusual sizes, make returns, be married, have more children, be younger and less wealthy, and have graduate degrees than the average consumer.” And only around 1.5 per cent of people leave reviews, according to Duncan Simester, a marketing professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and the author of the study. Should we really take their word for it?

The article also notes that when it comes to travel reviews, whom the commenter vacationed with plays a big role in how they rate the trip.

A study published last fall in Electronic Commerce Research and Applications, looking at 125,076 online reviews, found that people travelling with significant others wrote the most positive reviews, followed by those travelling with friends or family. Reviewers travelling alone or for business were the most negative. Our experiences change depending on our expectations, travel expertise and who we’re with.

Luckily, I’m travelling with a close friend. Once we’re back, I’ll be sure to give you my rating.

Why You Can’t Really Trust Negative Online Reviews [The New York Times]


  • That’s why you use common sense when reading reviews. And if it seems like something outrageous, click their name and check their other reviews. I did this and found they’d posted the almost exact same thing on 3 businesses.

    • Absolutely. I noticed something similar when I saw a scathing review of a product I wanted to buy. When I checked the reviewers name they had 8 reviews all super negative and usually rather baseless “I wasn’t home when the courier tried to deliver 1 star out of 5” type nonsense.

      You also sometimes notice reviews that are almost carbon copies, word for word. Sometimes they’re positive (and you think shill) but sometimes they’re negative. At which point I wonder whether it’s genuinely different people or whether it’s the same person posting multiple pissed off reviews trying to hurt the seller.

      The best thing I can suggest is, if you’re looking at a big site like Amazon or Ebay you can see the volume of negative reviews not just as a number but a percentage. One thousand negative reviews looks bad, but when you put it into a percentage and realise it’s 0.1% of sales it’s not such a problem.

      I’d also try to read a few reviews of each type (good/moderate/bad) to get an overall feel for something I was buying. Like Alicia points out, if a bad review is complaining about something outside the sellers purview (eg: failing to get their own flight insurance) I’d disregard that review. However, I find the way the company deals with their customers more important than an initial fault. So if a review says something like “product was faulty, company refused to discuss warranty” I pay a lot more attention to that review.

      I also disregard a lot of positive reviews for a simple reason. Too many positive reviews are made in the “woo I just got something excitement” immediately upon opening the package. “Just opened it, fast delivery. Great service”. Nooooo, I want a review after you’ve been using it for a couple weeks and you’ve experienced any little problems and flaws.

      • Reminds me of steam reviews. Check not just the up or down vote and what they had to say, if that’s good check there other reviews see if it’s just a case of they didn’t like it as opposed to it’s bad.

      • Reviews are great though. I was looking to get a Tattoo in Sydney while on a trip there. I had heard of Bondi Ink. Google reviews, 3.7 average or something. Hmmm. Did a city wide search and narrowed my choices down between 3 that had a 4.8 or higher average over more than 100 reviews. Anything else wasn’t considered. Booked in and excited now.

        • Definitely, worth reading reviews. They just need to be viewed with a grain of salt.

          I’d add, I trust reviews from real people (friend, family) more than internet reviews by people I only know online (WoW Guildies, Lifehacker posters). And I trust those people’s reviews more than anonymous internet based ones. And finally, I’d trust those anonymous internet ones more than no reviews at all.

  • Not sure why my comment was not approved saying that constant positive reviews are less trustworthy oftentimes? Why the censorship? Check out stores like Dr Boom on ProductReview that have been accused of faking reviews as an example.

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