User reviews - why you shouldn't trust them

Buy just about anything online these days and you’ll be harangued by the seller to leave feedback. And it isn’t just ebay. Amazon is worse: you’re asked to rate every app, book and album you download, every physical product you buy and even what you thought of the packaging (comments which, incidentally, appear to be falling on deaf ears judging by the ski-sized box that just arrived containing a single windscreen wiper).

Chances are you’re swayed by a product’s star rating when browsing. Let’s face it, you’re a whole lot more likely to buy something with a 5-star score than an alternative with one or two stars.

But can you really trust those ratings? More often than not, the answer’s no, and here’s why:

1 – Only certain people leave reviews

Maybe you’ve never written a review, maybe you have. Most people, though, will leave feedback only when they’ve had a bad experience. And even then, it tends to be only the most vocal.

Far too many ‘reviews’ are actually users complaining that a product arrived broken or was late. It’s the same story with app reviews, with users moaning that the latest update has a bug.

Conversely, why bother spending precious time to tell others that a product is exactly what you expected? You chose wisely and bought a decent steam iron. It just works. No point in telling the world.

The people who leave overly positive reviews tend to do so to justify their purchase - no-one wants to admit they wasted their money.

This is why you tend to get 5-star or 1-star reviews, with not much in the middle. It’s misleading and – crucially – doesn’t help you as a prospective buyer to get a feel for what the product is really like.

2 – There’s no comparison

Unless the reviewer has a wide experience of competing products, how can they possibly know if the digital camera they’ve just bought really is the best available? Their experience is typically very limited, and they won’t have had their hands on a range of the latest competing cameras to be able to compare performance, image quality, build quality, battery life and other factors which you can’t necessarily glean from a specifications list.

Sure, they might be able to say it’s better than the old camera from which they’re upgrading but that’s really not very helpful to anyone.

3 – They get hung up on irrelevant points

Quite apart from being badly written, many user reviews use irrelevant or too-specific criteria, judging products only on whether they work for them.

Just because the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 doesn’t fit in your jacket pocket (or you take exception to its daft fake stitched leather back) doesn’t make it a bad smartphone. Or, just because you happen to have arthritis (and we wouldn’t wish that on anyone) and can’t press the power button on a laptop, it doesn’t mean it’s ok to give it one star.

People often focus on the minutiae, forgetting about the overall picture.

4 – They jump the gun

How many times have you read a review by someone who hasn’t even used the product? Too many, we’re sure.

For whatever reason, they decide they’re qualified to give an appraisal of something they’ve only just unwrapped. Other times, they make it clear that they haven’t used it, and instead use the star rating to express their appreciation of just how fast Amazon managed to get it to them.

5 – Fake reviews

These are usually pretty easy to spot, but be aware that there are some pretty canny operators out there. Fake reviews are all too common: 5-star reviews of products written by the product’s maker, or their friends, family and colleagues. And we’re not just talking about TripAdvisor. Fake reviews are everywhere.

The reverse also happens: 1-star reviews of good products written by anyone who has cause to want to damage the product (or maker’s) reputation, or to make their own one look better.

There are even cases of ‘bots’ auto-generating reviews to boost an app’s popularity (Flappy Bird?). If you can’t tell the real reviews apart from the fake ones, then you can’t really trust any of them.