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On Online Ratings: Giving Them, Getting Them

User reviews have a downside.

Key points

  • User reviews, especially in the collective, may be more helpful to users than expert reviews are.
  • An average review may mask factors more important to you than to the average reviewer. For important decisions, read the top few reviews.
  • When writing a review, first write the comment, then award the stars. That avoids commitment bias.
  • They can encourage providers to prioritizing pleasing the client over doing what s/he thinks is best.
Tanya Ferrera, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Tanya Ferrera, Pixabay, Public Domain

We live in a world of stars, that is star ratings.

User ratings are a fine alternative to expert ones. After all, expert tastes are often different from our own. The professional food critic might gush over quail eggs with arugula pesto. We’re less likely to gush. The professional movie reviewer, complete with MFA, may swoon over a film's subtleties, but we mainly care about the prominent parts of the plot and characters. The professional tech reviewer might go gaga over Version 7.0’s 2084 x 2084 pixels compared with Version 6.0’s 1600 x 1600, while we care mainly about whether it's easy it is to use, reliable, and a good deal.

Another benefit of user reviews is that it capitalizes on the wisdom of crowds. I’d sooner trust dozens of regular folks over one expert, who, as mentioned, may well overweight factors other than what matters to us mere mortals.

Ratings can benefit not only customers but providers of the product or service. For example, Uber drivers rate riders: Was the rider at the location? Was s/he obnoxious? Drivers get to see the rider’s rating before deciding to accept that ride.

Using reviews

There are things to beware of:

Averages. Last I checked, you weren’t average. A factor may be more or less important to you than to the average reviewer. For example, let’s say you love movies that are psychologically rich, even if that slows the plot's pace. The average reviewer might like a faster-paced film, so the average rating could be lower than you'd give. So it's risky to judge just based on the average stars—Consider reading a few reviews before buying. Some sites, like Amazon, make it easier to find useful reviews: Rather than first listing the most recent review, Amazon uses an algorithm that includes how many readers found that review and his/her previous ones useful.

Too few reviews. The more reviews, the more you can trust that phony reviews didn't overly distort the average, for example, 1-star reviews of a counselor written by jealous competitors, a hit-piece review of a book by someone with a different ideology,

Giving reviews

Most rating forms ask you to give the number of stars first and then write a comment. I recommend the opposite. First, write the product's or services’ pluses and minuses and then, considering those, award the stars. That avoids commitment bias: your comments unduly reflecting the stars you awarded.

Effects of reviews on sellers

Star ratings’ ubiquity make them important to most providers of goods and services. One bad review could cost a counselor many would-be clients. One scathing book review could deter many potential buyers.

This has a positive effect: Providers are more likely to take extra care to ensure quality than if user reviews weren't available. On the other hand, fear of a bad review could cause undue caution. Let's say that a psychotherapist believes s/he should confront a client but knows that doing that risks alienating the client and a bad Yelp review. That could tempt the practitioner to be less forthcoming than s/he thinks wise.

The takeaway

The explosion in user reviews is a net positive, enabling us to make decisions informed by a large number of users whose sensibilities, en toto, are more like us than a single expert's. But knowing how to make the most of ratings, as with all tools, can help build a better life.

I read this aloud on YouTube.