Democracy of Online Product Reviews

(by Irfan Mahmud, winner of the 2019 Lodlois Scholarship)

Go to (or whichever online shopping platform you prefer).

  • Click on your latest order.
  • Tell me how many online reviews it has.
  • Repeat for the prior three orders you have made.

I’d be willing to wager that 90% of your purchases have a 500+ reviews. Meaning 500+ people who brought that product took the time out of their days after purchasing the product to leave a review. We live in a digital age where we are inundated with data. I work with data for a living. We analyze the data and make sense of it. Everything has a review. We review our drivers on Uber, we review our toilet experience at the airport, we review our online shopping, we review our own families sometimes (different family therapy apps). These reviews have a critical function of bringing often thousands of people on an experience with us, to make a purchase with us. It democratizes our purchases and makes us more comfortable.

Every time I order something online, I always obsess over the online product reviews, as I am sure many other online shoppers are guilty of. Not only do I look at ratings, but I also look at comments, photos, and descriptions that people spend their time providing. To me, these are critical in making my decision. I rarely make a decision on the edited and doctored professional photos the business provides. I want to see what it looks like in real life, how it functions. I also rarely understand size or dimensions from the official measurements or description, but when I see the product on someone bedside table for instance, then I can get a sense of the size. When I contemplate the root cause behind this, I think it is not only convenience and information but also a sense of online democracy that online reviews provide. In this way, online product reviews provide consumers with reliable democratic product information and also provide businesses with an idea of what people truly like in their product and what they can improve especially compared to competitor products.

For us consumers, online product reviews allow us to see what our predecessors who have bought these products have thought of their purchases. It gives us a democratic way to understand if we will like the purchase and if it will meet our expectations or not. Having this kind of insurance for other impartial consumers allows us to make informed choices and make fewer less-than-satisfactory purchases. These are the benefits when we are researching products we are already keen to purchase. There is also value in online product reviews, however, for items we are not even planning on purchasing. For instance, online book reviews are how I choose which books I will buy and read next. I rely on that marketplace of book reviews to tell me which book I would next enjoy. This additional information we receive as consumers streamlines our lives and ensures we are purchasing the best products and not wasting our time with things that we will not enjoy or find use out of.

For businesses, online product reviews provide a source of impartial consumer preference research. There is a plethora of reviews out there, and they can use this qualitative information (and quantitative when it comes to product ratings) to understand what consumers like or dislike about certain products. They can use this information to innovate on new products and improve existing products to be more appealing to consumers, which would of course lead to better profit outcomes for them. They can also see how their competitors fare in online product reviews. Customer service and experience is also a continually growing factor in profitability of consumer-facing businesses. Business spend millions annually on consumer testing and focus groups and consumer data. This plethora of online democratized data can provide critical insights as businesses grow and improve on their operations and products.

This democracy of online reviews also holds producers accountable. Consumers have the power to run a business down. If there are enough negative reviews, no one will choose to buy that product until the business address the concerns or issues. It also ensures that businesses do not misrepresent their products. Even if a business lies about its product in the online description, soon the reviews will overwhelm and make that necessary correction. Consumers also have the power to recommend alternative competing products to prospective customers, thus directing away business. As a result, businesses are held accountable to the consumers’ preference and cater to it. This additionally provides for the democracy argument of online product reviews.

At the core of it, online product reviews have empowered the individual, and through doing so it has given a wealth of insight to businesses. As Brad Katsuyama astutely observed, “Society has changed so dramatically that it’s empowered the individual, and technology has a lot to do with that. Years ago, if you had a bad experience at a restaurant, you could complain to the manager. Maybe you could picket. Now, you go online and write a review that may go viral.” And even if it does not go viral, many others will follow you or see your review and vote with their wallets.