Here’s a riddle for you: If you can’t hold something in your hands before buying it, how do you know what you’re getting?
Consumers have had to learn to contend with that conundrum since the first online shopping order was placed in 1984. It’s simple enough if you’re purchasing something you’ve used for years, such as a favourite pair of socks or a tried-and-true shampoo—but can be a little trickier if you’ve never interacted with a product in real life before.
For many consumers, the answer is in online reviews. Being able to read other customers’ unfiltered reactions to a product can be invaluable. Just by scrolling through a few comments, online shoppers can gauge a product’s quality, find out how it held up over time, and sometimes even see photos and videos of it in real life.
To dig deeper into what makes product reviews so helpful, Vocal Video compiled a list of 10 things consumers look for when reading and evaluating product reviews online. Here’s what to keep an eye out for when reading product reviews, from how to tell if a review is trustworthy to key themes to watch for.
With these tips in mind, you can add products to your cart with a little more confidence.
Online reviews are only valuable if you can be sure they come from real customers, but knowing for sure that they’re authentic can be difficult.
Many consumer advocates believe that large online retailers like Walmart, eBay, and Amazon have been flooded by fake reviews in recent years from businesses hoping to drive a spike in sales. A study conducted by UCLA and the University of Southern California found that as many as 4.5 million sellers sourced fake reviews from Facebook groups in 2020.
To tell if a review is truly from paying customers, look for a detailed breakdown of why they did or did not like an item. Someone being paid to write a quick five-star review is more likely to leave a two- or three-word comment than an essay. Some retailers also indicate whether a review came from a verified purchase or not, although that’s not always foolproof. Some companies will pay fake reviewers to buy the product before writing an inflated, five-star review.
Photographs and videos
There’s one surefire way to make sure reviewers actually bought products: if they post a photo or video of it in their review. One survey found 21% of respondents said they only consider reviews high-quality if they include a photo or video.
Not only do reviews with photos or videos allow potential buyers to see what the product looks like in a real-life situation, but they also give you more detail than the brand’s listing. For example, online-only clothing brands like Lulu’s have noticed that items with more photo reviews lead to higher sales, likely because reviewers’ photos of themselves wearing the item serve as sort of a virtual try-on for potential shoppers.
After all, if you can’t try it on in the fitting room before buying it, seeing how it fits someone with a similar body type is the next best thing.
At least 20 reviews of an item
When buying a product, you want some confidence that what you’re purchasing will work well—and that’s where the number of reviews comes into play.
If a product has dozens or even hundreds of reviews, it automatically seems like it has been vetted by fellow consumers, and therefore more trustworthy. A study published in 2017 in Psychological Science found that people tend to favor products with a higher number of reviews—even when comparing two products with the same low star rating. Researchers surmised that people would rather get the product they viewed as more popular, even if it seemed likely to be disappointing based on the high number of negative reviews.
Don’t let the sheer number of reviews sway you, though. Before making a purchase, make sure the majority of those reviews seem authentic and trustworthy.
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Reviews demonstrating how a product holds up over time
Online reviews are the second-most trusted source when buying a new product, behind only friends and family. Even though online reviewers might be strangers, experts say that consumers see them as peers, and therefore give them some amount of trust.
If you don’t know anyone who has personally tried the product you’re considering, seeking online reviews that elaborate on just how long it lasted or how well it worked can be incredibly helpful. Reviews with plenty of detail about how the product works and how long it lasts can allow you to make comparisons to other products on the market—a key part of the buying process. Assessing the potential lifespan of a product can help you decide whether it’s worth the money, and ultimately if you’ll add it to your cart or not.
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Details about a product’s use in real life
When you’re not able to see or touch a product in real life before buying it, reviews with information about how the product was used can serve as a helpful stand-in. Detailed reviews provide more context about a product than you can get from a brand’s marketing materials.
That dress might look teal in the photos, but a reviewer might be able to tell you that it actually appears more like forest green in direct sunlight. Or, maybe you’re curious about just how sturdy that side table really is; reading through reviews of other buyers’ experiences of using it in their homes can give you some peace of mind. Knowing that other customers purchased a product for similar reasons and were happy with that decision can make you that much more likely to actually buy it.
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While authentic, glowing reviews filled with photos might make you more likely to buy a product, the inverse is also true. According to 2021 data compiled by ReviewTrackers, 94% of customers said a negative review convinced them to avoid a business. Shoppers don’t like taking risks—and knowing that someone else was unhappy with their purchase makes it seem even more risky. After all, why would you waste your money on something that you suspect won’t work for you?
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The date attached to a review can also have a big impact on how seriously a potential customer takes it. In a 2019 Influenster survey, shoppers said reviews written in the past month were more trustworthy than older reviews. If a review is written in the past few weeks, you can feel fairly certain that you’ll receive a very similar product. Reviews that are years old, on the other hand, might leave you wondering whether the brand has changed its manufacturing, packaging, or business practices since then.
When you’re shopping online, prioritizing reviews written in the past several months can help you be sure you’re reading the most relevant ones.
Reviews on different vendor sites
Comparison shopping is nothing new. Savvy shoppers have been looking for the best deal even before they could shop online. Now, it’s easy to check multiple sellers for the product you want from your computer screen—and that practice could also help you ensure you’re getting a fuller picture of its reviews, as well.
Apps like Google Shopping and Honey can help you find out all of the different retailers that sell the product you’re seeking. Check a few different vendors’ websites to make sure there are no huge differences in ratings. If a product has a nearly five-star rating on Amazon but a much lower rating on Walmart, that could be a potential red flag.
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Reviews on company social media sites
Similarly, perusing a brand’s social media can also help you uncover even more product reviews. There’s no one place that reviewers go to share their feedback on products, so you might find helpful information on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit, in addition to online retailers.
A 2020 survey of shoppers revealed the largest share of respondents selected Facebook as the social media platform where they were most likely to make a purchase—making it more likely you would be able to find customer reviews on Facebook, as well. Taking the time to check a company’s social media accounts for glowing reviews (or nasty comments) is especially valuable if you’re planning to make a more expensive purchase.
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Reviews on consumer complaint sites
When you’ve had a particularly bad experience with a brand or product, you want to shout it from the rooftops—or post on a consumer complaint forum, in the digital world. To gather an overall picture of a company’s reputation, search the Better Business Bureau database to see its overall rating and any complaints from customers.
There are also a variety of other complaint sites like Complaints Board, and Planet Feedback. Not only do these websites give buyers a recourse for a disappointing experience, but they also give potential customers yet another way to vet a brand or product. These websites tend to garner only negative comments, however, so keep in mind that you’re only seeing the reviews from the most frustrated customers.
This story originally appeared on Vocal Video and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.