We have known this for years and the research affirms it year in and year out – consumers aren’t just taken in by 4 and 5 star ratings – they want to read the actual reviews themselves. An article I read this week brought that into greater focus and I thought about something in a new way – 5 star ratings are not as helpful as business owners and consumers believe them to be.

As reported in The Guardian, “a new study published in Nature has shown that upwards of 80% of online reviews rate items with four or five stars. That creates what they’ve termed the ‘positivity problem’ for consumers hoping to use star ratings as a guide for where to dine or shop.

“‘The basic idea behind the positivity problem is how do you know what to choose if everything is rated so positively? How do I choose one-four-and-a-half star restaurant versus another?’ [says] researcher Matthew Rocklage, an assistant professor of marketing at University of Massachusetts Boston.” (Source: “The positivity problem: why online star ratings are too good to be true,” The Guardian, 20 April, 2021).

That makes total sense to me – if everything appears overwhelmingly great by a score such as star ratings, then what are the further barometers to inform and guide choice? Consumers do not act universally and generalisations are not always helpful, because some consumers may well be motivated to make choices on star ratings alone, while the majority will be do something more – actually read the reviews themselves.

So, if I’m picking a product that is made by 5 or ten different manufacturers and the star ratings are all unhelpfully similar, then it makes sense to delve a little further and read the actual reviews themselves, right?

“’What you should really be looking for is the feelings that people are expressing in their text,’ Rocklage says. ‘So not just reading the text for general information, but OK, generally does this person seem to express feelings behind their words?’ That can mean looking for words like ‘inspirational’ or ‘enchanting” rather than just “good’, he explains.” (Source: “The positivity problem: why online star ratings are too good to be true,” The Guardian, 20 April, 2021).

Although this study applies to consumer goods, it is just as relevant to services as well. After all, reviews expressing the feelings of the reviewer – their honest take and appraisal of their experience – is what gives it weight and substance and then connects with review readers.

This also points to the other problem with positivity. If the vast majority of ratings stars are glowing – let’s say 4 or 5 stars, then there is little room for the vagaries of human nature. By that I mean that ten people may think something is great but they won’t all award 5 stars. Some never do because they feel that 5 is utter perfection, some will as a matter of course. But a 3 star review can still be positive, with recommendations to improve an element of the product or service and is, of itself, still inherently valuable to a business and consumers.

What is exceedingly helpful is a review portfolio – with a mixture of star ratings and a litany of honest reviews. In that way consumers can read a mini-history of a business and see how it has dealt with any issues, how it strives to deliver top quality service and products, and how it deals with its customers.