Americans often rely on online reviews to judge the quality of a product before purchasing it. A new study says maybe they shouldn’t.
When comparing two products on Amazon, the one with the higher rating isn’t always the one rated higher by Consumer Reports. Almost half the time, the magazine rated the product lower, according to a recent study published in the Journal for Consumer Research. The study analyzed 344,157 ratings of 1,272 products.
It also found that price and brand reputation influenced online ratings. Amazon ratings were generally higher for more expensive products made by premium brands, above and beyond their scores on Consumer Reports. The study also found that average user ratings on Amazon were poor predictor of resale value when compared with scores from Consumer Reports.
“Most people consider the proliferation of user ratings to be a positive development for consumer welfare. User ratings allegedly provide an almost perfect indication of product quality with little search costs,” the authors said. But “our findings suggest that the objective quality information available in average user ratings is much weaker than what consumers believe.”
The relationship between the Amazon user rating and Consumer Reports score strengthened when there were more online reviewers. Still, price — rather than a five-star rating — was a better indicator of quality as it correlated to Consumer Reports scores.
“In light of these results, how should consumers change their behavior?” the study asked, noting that more than 70 percent of study participants said they turned to user ratings and reviews to gauge a product’s durability, reliability, safety and performance.
First, consumers should pay attention to how many reviews a product got online. The more there are, the better an indicator of actual quality. Consumers should also use other resources, ideally independent sources such as Consumer Reports, to help measure a product’s quality before buying it.