When reviews stop being useful

Customer reviews are ubiquitous on the web today. Its hard to visit any site that sells a product or experience that doesn’t utilise customer reviews (usually on a five point scale). Whilst I acknowledge that the little five stars are not about to go anywhere soon, there is a scenario where they stop being useful.

Weddings, Zip wires and Mayan temples

In September I got married and went on honeymoon to Central America. As a consequence, In the last year I have found myself thinking (amongst other things) about the following three things:

Wedding venues: Where do me and my wife want to hold one of the important days of our lives?

Rainforest zip wires: Which company should we use for flying over the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest?

Mayan ruins: Which of the 1000 year old long lost Maya pyramids poking out of the rainforest should we visit?

To quickly summarise 12 months, both our wedding and honeymoon were incredible. However, one thing thing that didn’t help us in planning was a customer review. The problem is, its very hard to find a wedding venue, Costa Rican zip wire or Maya temple that doesn’t come with a ridiculously good review…

Customer objectivity and bias
Its easy to see how any of these three activities will naturally come with excellent customer reviews, they are great things to do! Read any of the descriptions of the activities above and I challenge you not to inherently imagine how splendid (or awesome for my North American friends) they can be.

A photo of the author zip lining above a Costa Rican rainforest

How can anyone not give this five stars? But there are dozens of companies in Santa Elana, Costa Rica

However, when you look a little deeper at these activities (and talk with people who have done them) you spot two factors that helps explain the high ratings of customer reviews:

Unique or rare events: Typically these types of experience are unique or very rare in our daily lives. For example, most people who visit Costa Rica, rarely do more than one zip line trip.

Positive emotions: These kinds of experiences elicit a highly positive emotional response from us (well you’d hope so on your wedding day!)

In other words, If you only do something once and it felt great you are likely to give it a high score when filling out a customer review. Whilst this in itself is not a problem (I don’t begrudge people having a good time!) it does make the selection process when trying to purchase one of these experiences more difficult.

Your purchasing decision is harder
As a prospective customer looking to purchase one of these rare, positive experiences I simply stop using customer reviews. They just don’t enable differentiation in the selection process.

For more common experiences, customers are able to extrapolate and provide better critiques because they have a greater base of experience to allow comparison. For example, a business traveller may stay at several hotels a year and they generally don’t tend to be a particular highlight of their calendar year. Therefore, a customers reviews can be more objective. Thus I find Trip Advisor more useful for booking accommodation than trips to Maya pyramids in Guatamala.

Is this really a problem?

Everybody seems to be having a good time right? True. I guess my problem is that not all five star experiences are created equal. Anecdotally from our honeymoon travels, ourselves and several other travellers we met visited multiple Maya ruins across Central America. What quickly became clear is that some ruins were much better than others and yet they all had high scores on Trip Advisor. If you’ve only visited one set of Maya ruins then you will give it a great review, they are inherently cool. The paradox is that because you only visited one maya site (or got married once or zip lined once etc) you have no base of reference on which to base your experience.

A screenshot of Calakmul ruins on Trip Advisor with a 5 star review

The ruins at Calakmul with a five star review on Trip Advisor

A screenshot of Tikal ruins with a five star review on Trip Advisor

The temples at Tikal with a 5 star review on Trip Advisor

Contradiction and content implications

I’m not silly enough to suggest that having a five star review is a bad thing. What I am suggesting is that it should be possible to identify types of experiences where reviews will be less useful to prospective customers because of the combination of ultra rare and positive emotive circumstances I have been discussing here.

If we can identify these types of experiences, it enables us to consider what other factors we could potentially use to help differentiate these experiences for prospective customers. For example, if we know that reviews are less useful for decision making, then how does this change our content requirements for our individual product page? Is there additional content that we can add that is the clincher. For example, the fact that your zip line company offers couples zip lining options (how romantic on your honeymoon).

Despite me bashing reviews in this context, they will always be essential content requirements for customers. If only as an initial filter in decision making. The difficulty is that if all your competitors are proudly displaying their five star reviews then you too must puff out your chest and your “Trip Advisor Excellent 2013” award. You can’t afford to be the exception in the marketplace, even if in so doing your unique proposition is lost in a sea of five star reviews. A true contradiction if ever I saw one.

Thanks for reading!

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