Canadian consumers feel cautious about using online reviews of products and services used by other consumers, but nonetheless feel information from this source if carefully considered makes them more savvy shoppers, according to a Consumers Council of Canada research report.
Consumers appear to rely on the most unreliable method of all for judging the trustworthiness of individual consumer reviews -- 'gut feel.' However, consumers are not particularly satisfied to rely on their intuition about reviews, and believe review sites on the Internet need to do a good job of offering features that help them understand and compare reviews and reviewers, sort and sift reviews to read ones that are more or less positive, evaluate reviews and reviewers against their own needs and personal life contexts.
Consumers and experts consulted by the Council’s researchers say online review sites contain many false reviews, created for many reasons, including businesses seeking advantage, friends helping friends, employees supporting employers, and consumers getting even.
"When business or consumers are not honest in their reasons for writing a review they harm us all," said Consumers Council of Canada President Don Mercer. "A review does not need to be perfectly accurate to be of value to the marketplace. It does need to be honestly offered."
A variety of business models have arisen for services providing online consumer reviews, and each presents risk and benefits to consumers, depending on different potential sources of conflict of interest, which if unmanaged, can adversely affect the moderation of review content on sites, leading consumers to be misled, the research found.
Gaps in critical thinking skills or access to online consumer reviews can disadvantage some consumers, because consumers increasingly have turned to the Internet for information to support buying decisions about products and services.
Traditional sources of expert reviews, such as paid circulation magazines, appear, consumers say, to be disappearing, partly because they face competition from ‘free’ online consumer review sites. Many consumers say they favour expert reviews as part of their decision-making process. However, individual buyers sometimes find consumer reviewers who use products and services in ways similar to their own uses, leading to unique insights not provided by expert reviewers.
"Consumer online reviews, when enough of them are available and considered ahead of a purchase, can help a consumer," said Mercer. "But one review on its own should be taken with a grain of salt.
"Take care not to use a review to justify, rather than inform, a buying decision. A review may be found to fit almost any pre-conceived notion."
The research found sites that offer consumer reviews may have very different objectives in offering them, depending on how site owners define their objectives to make money.
"In some contexts, reviews, regardless of authorship, should be considered 'advertising' subject to the regulatory expectations of advertising," said Mercer. "In other cases, reviews may just be 'fair comment,' much as opinions appear in review sections or letters pages of newspapers."
Consumers have a difficult time identifying the motives and business models of review sites. The report recommends greater transparency concerning review site business models, so users can come to better-informed conclusions about a site's utility and reliability for their purpose.
The Council's report contains many more recommendations about how to improve protection of consumers in the rapidly growing online consumer reviews industry.
The Consumers Council of Canada has received funding from Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s (ISED) Contributions Program for Non-profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations. The views expressed in the Council’s report are not necessarily those of ISED or the Government of Canada.
Download the complete report.