Are All Online Reviews Created Equal?

It’s widely established that online reviews are hugely important in the buying process, but are all reviewers equal in the influence they have?  That was the question posed by a recent study from Indiana University, which examined the trustworthiness of online reviewers.

It’s perhaps intuitive to think that top-ranked reviewers carry the most influence, but that wasn’t what emerged.  Whilst they were influential for brand-new products, they weren’t nearly as influential across the broad spectrum.

The researchers analyzed sales activity for 182 new music albums released during 2014 on Amazon.  They compared the data from the website with direct market access sales data from A.C. Nielsen.

“Opinion leaders are typically defined as consumers who generate a high volume of influential word of mouth,” the researchers say. “Since its influence is rarely measured directly, marketers trying to identify key influencers usually look for users who generate a high volume of content along with feedback from other users, such as helpfulness ratings.”

Whilst these reviewers were found to generate a lot of word of mouth, their impact on actual sales was rather more nuanced.  Their impact upon sales was driven both by the content they wrote, and the reviewers profiles themselves.

“Our analysis demonstrates that top-ranked reviewers write reviews that are longer, more formal and with more punctuation but that are less social and less effective,” the authors write. “The results show that marketers should be extremely cautious in using reviewer rankings alone as a measure of opinion leadership or as a basis for establishing an influencer network.”

Most websites provide a peer-ranking process for reviewers that is based upon factors such as the volume of reviews, their frequency and how helpful they have been to other users.  The best reviewers typically have a badge attached to their profile, which logically would boost their credibility.

Their apparent influence was not all that pronounced however, with a particular decline in importance as the age of the product rose.  By contrast, lower-ranked reviewers became more influential as the age of the product rose.

“Nowadays, consumers can easily share their product experiences via the internet. Online communities and influencer networks can play an important role in increasing firm profitability, especially if managed properly,” the authors conclude. “Our findings help marketers understand why some reviewers are more impactful than others. … Our results show that it is important for a firm to identify, address and motivate influential word-of-mouth disseminators, rather than rely on site-wide rankings.”