In the modern world of online shopping, people rely a great deal on ratings and reviews as they narrow down which product to settle on. Unfortunately, the public is not educated on how to appropriately review items, and why. While some customers leave well-written and educational feedback about the quality and performance of an item, others believe that the review section exists solely to allow them to express their personal opinion even on unrelated matters. On a household goods website I have seen the lowest mark given to a kitchen appliance with a note that the appliance does not perform some other unrelated task that would make the customer happy. On a film review site I have seen the overall rating of a movie drop from 8 to 4 because of comments like “This movie is amazing and deserves a 10, but I gave it a 1 because I wanted my review to be on top.” Earlier today I saw my otherwise flawless Amazon book review record broken by a 2 star review with a one-liner “not my style”. Such reviews written by uneducated reviewers can really dirty the waters for shoppers, who look at the overall rating first. To the vendor reviews are highly important. A five star rating dropped to a 4 can be the difference between 100 monthly sales and 50. A rating dropped from 4 to 3 can be the difference between 100 sales and 5. The Internet has given a voice to all, but it never told them why and how to use it. The result is that customer reviews are unreliable, yet they are being relied on. I would like to take a moment and discuss what a review is designed to accomplish, what are some ways to write a useful (notice I said “useful” not positive) review, and when is it appropriate to write a review at all.
What is a review
A user review is a process of carefully examining and evaluating a product in order to give feedback to future buyers. A review, by definition, includes a personal opinion. This is a source of confusion. The first reviews were written by professional critics and experts in the field in question. Theatre reviews were written by theater critics and art reviews were written by art critics. Their opinion was earned and valued. It was valuable because it reflected years of knowledge and study. A theatre critic would never give Macbeth a low rating because he does not believe in violence and vengeance. That would be inappropriate and inaccurate. It would not tell those who are interested in that type of a drama anything useful about the play. He may, however, give a particular performance of Macbeth a low rating for poor acting, unrealistic costumes, and unprofessional lighting. It is not his opinion of the type of the story that matters, it is his opinion of how this type of a story is delivered to the public that is valuable. Today reviews are written by everyone, and people mistake the concept of reviewing with their opinion with the concept of expressing their opinion even if it is unrelated to the quality of the product. In a nutshell, people buy vacuum cleaners and rate them low because the machines do not also make them coffee.
The online anonymity
The Internet is a powerful force. It has given a voice to every user on the planet by allowing any individual to publish their words. On one hand this is a wonderful development, one that allows many talented and interesting people to express themselves, share their knowledge, and seek out other intelligent and like-minded individuals to collaborate on artistic and scientific projects. Many great things came out of the collective collaborations over the Internet. On the other hand, like all great leaps in human progress this one has a drag. The Internet has also given a voice to millions of individuals who should not be allowed to express their opinions publicly simply because they are not qualified to do so. I am not qualified to leave feedback on research works of nuclear physicists. It simply doesn’t matter if I like their lab setup of not. Why should my opinion on they interior design have an actual effect on the overall public opinion (based on a rating) of their research? You don’t think it should? Why should someone’s preference for a different drawing style be a defining factor in a review of my art then? My art has a very distinct style. If one is not a fan of that style, why would they ever buy my product with the sole purpose of dissing it in a “not my style” review? Unfortunately such reviews add up and get well mixed with the relevant ones. In a sea of anonymous strangers, it has become nearly impossible to tell a qualified writer from an unqualified one.
When is raw opinion appropriate
Some of you will argue that the whole purpose of user reviews is to collect all available opinions on the product. That would be true if the opinions were actually given about the product. However, on daily basis I see product reviews that read something like “I thought I was buying wool socks and bought cotton ones instead”. They then proceed to rate the cotton socks as 2 out of 5. Ok. Yes. Your customer satisfaction of this shopping experience has been a 2, but how does that relate to the item itself and how will that rating help other shoppers to decide if these are good cotton socks or not? A review is of the product, not of your personal shopping experience based on your own personal mistakes. If, however, you purchase what is advertised as wool socks and receive cotton ones instead, then it is your shopper’s duty to warn others of the discrepancy. So, it is not that personal opinion should not be expressed in reviews. It is that personal opinion should be expressed relevantly.
While many are eager to jump at the opportunity to publish their opinions, when they get to their review window they have very little to say. Often this is due to the fact that many people who write reviews are poorly if at all educated in writing. Yet, they were all given a voice. Not only do many fail to understand the purpose of a review, they also fail to express their completely invalid opinions in correct terms. How many reviews have you seen that use words like “nice”, “pretty”, “bad”, without actually explaining what part of the product is nice or bad, and what nice or bad even is? “This book is very nice”. Ok. That’s kind of a sweet comment. It comes with a five star rating. I am grateful, but how will that help future buyers to decide if it is for them. What is nice? Nice is the single most vague and emotionless word in the english language. Lukewarm water is nice. A dry towel is nice. A book is well illustrated, or interesting, or intriguing, or just looks great on your bookshelf. It is many things before it is nice. “A book is nice” is a complete waste of words. How about sentences such as “I like these shoes a lot”? Well, we don’t know who you are and why you liking these shoes is significant at all. Maybe you’ve never had shoes when you were growing up and now any pair of shoes is acceptable to you. Maybe you are a professional cobbler or a designer. Your opinion may be very valuable, but we are not getting it, are we? Tell us why you like these shoes. Are they comfortable? Are they attractive? Did they last a really long time? Did you get a lot of compliments on them? Convince us that these are the shoes we should buy. Not your job? Well, what is your purpose in writing this review then? Oh yes, the knowledge that your words got published. It doesn’t matter if the words carry any value.
A moral code
As I write this I realize that the only people I am reaching are the victims of bad reviews or the witnesses of bad reviews. By bad reviews I mean badly written or inappropriately published reviews, not necessarily negative reviews. Negative reviews are important if they cary useful information, and good reviews can be completely useless as well. All of you who have seen such reviews and are appalled by them are reading this and nodding your heads or rolling your eyes as you remember some of atrocities you have seen posing as reviews. Unfortunately the perpetrators of the bad reviews probably didn’t even get this far in the article. What do I whish to accomplish then? How can this situation be improved? How can I reach people who are not capable of self evaluation and knowing when NOT to speak their opinion? One must have a moral code to be able to do this. Know where your opinion is welcome and where it simply does not belong. When watching epic fails on YouTube, it is totally appropriate to flood the comment section with exclamations of horror or endless lol’s. That’s a place of entertainment and harmless humor. That is a place for raw and meaningless opinion, for that is how we humans entertain ourselves. If your review has an actual effect on other human beings, their product and their business, think first if you deserve the power to have any effect on their life. Who are you to effect the rating of a product that you don’t understand? There are people who intentionally seek out products that they disagree with and post bad reviews for them in hopes to get the product removed. Certain religious groups seeking out gothic products and attempting to destroy them with bad reviews, and the other way around, for instance. Regulating reviews is a very difficult task. There are options for other shoppers to mark reviews as helpful or not helpful, but many people either don’t know about this option or don’t care to use it. Unfortunately, the system only works if the writers exercise an appropriate moral code and also keep each other in check. How can we introduce a moral code or even explain that one is necessary? Me, I will keep writing, hoping that my concepts will stir some thoughts.
Other possible solutions
While it may be difficult to introduce a universal moral code into a worldwide Internet society, it is possible to educate people. I once read a phrase “We are all responsible for ignorance”. It stuck with me. At first I battled with the concept, attempting to reject it violently. I am not responsible for my neighbor’s ignorance on how to treat dogs for instance. If he thinks it’s ok to beat animals, he is a terrible human being, he was not raised well, and he will never change. What if that’s what every person who met him said, his whole life? What if I can be the first one to approach him and say “hey, man, you know there is a better way to train your dog. I’ve kept dogs all my life. May I share some tricks with you?” This got me thinking. How many people have I rejected and even pushed away during my life? How many of these people are walking around now making terrible ignorant mistakes, and how many other people are avoiding them instead of educating them. In this sense, we are all responsible for ignorance. I may not be personally responsible for the ignorance of some old man in Nepal, but through a butterfly effect of neglected opportunities to teach one another maybe I am.
Let’s teach people how to write reviews instead of yelling at them and reporting their badly written comments as abuse, the only available option to get that comment removed on Amazon, maybe we can post tutorials on review writing. Maybe each site that allows a review should have mandatory pages of review templates with examples before allowing people to proceed with writing a review? Maybe reviews should be presented as lists with checkboxes for “quality”, “appearance”, etc. On the other hand, we should take care to read the reviews and help sort out the good from the bad, the useful from the harmful.
When writing a review, remember your audience. Who are you writing for and with what purpose? Are you trying to warn others of the poor quality of the product? Fair enough. Provide them with believable evidence. If you are truly satisfied with the product, take a moment to support the maker by leaving a well-written and informative review. They will thank you for it by staying in business and making more awesome stuff.
A good review needs to have a user’s opinion of the actual product, backed by solid evidence and examples. For example: “This is a very well written detective novel with an unexpected plot twist and great character devolvement. I was, however disappointed in how short it was compered to other works in this genre. I therefore give it 4 out 5 stars.” This is useful feedback because it address what the book is and its basic strengths and weakness that the reader noticed. Writing about the same novel, this is an example of a badly written and irrelevant review: “I am not a fan of detective novels. 1 star out of 5.” This person’s genre preference is irrevant to the summary of the quality of this book. If anything, this person, with their hatred of detective novels, should have never purchased the book in the first place, and once having purchased it should not have embarrassed themselves by writing something that reveals nothing about the novel, but about themselves only. I hope you can see the difference.