Can 5-Star Reviews Backfire?

In the new world of online reviews where users describe your products and services many customers will make up their mind about you solely based on the review content. Reviews are a powerful tool to close the sale but is there a danger in them overselling you?  Can skepticism form in the consumer instead of trust?

skeptic consumer

Reviews, for many, have become their “digital” word of mouth referral and they have become a primary referral channel. As we have noted in the past  Online Reviews Are The Human Backlink.

The desire to market perfection can actually erode the possibility of trust.  We have previously pointed out research that indicates that having all 5-star reviews is often not trusted by consumers. The story, however, is actually deeper than that.

Perfection Is A Tough If Not Impossible Expectation

An unrealistic body of reviews can set the wrong expectations that almost guarantee that your customers won’t be happy.

What is really important is that your reviews set accurate and reasonable client assumptions about your business. Assumptions that you can achieve and perhaps even exceed or you run the risk of dissatisfied customers whose expectations exceeded the reality of your business.

This phenomenon has been documented in recent research published in the Harvard Business Journal, When Positive Product Reviews Backfire for Retailers. The analysis details a large scale case study where increases in star ratings increased product sales. But it resulted in increased product returns that on balance, negatively impacted over all profit. From the research:

We find that online customer reviews available at the time of purchase do affect customers’ likelihood to buy a product. If reviews are overly positive, this leads to a substantially higher purchase probability: a one-point increase in review valence results in an increased purchase probability of approximately 10% (9.14% for electronics; 14.60% for furniture).


However, because these overly positive reviews inflate customer expectations about the product (that’s why they buy it), customers can experience greater disappointment upon receiving the item if it doesn’t live up to its rave reviews. This then leads more people to send the product back.


We found that the effect of overly positive review valence on return rates is similar: the return probability increases by approximately 10% (11.16% for electronics; 10.34% for furniture) with a one-point increase in review valence.


This results in lower profits for retailers, due to higher total return costs that offset the gain in sales. Thus, overly positive review valence can backfire by raising customer expectations too much.

We think much the same thing happens with reviews for local businesses. If reviews are overly optimistic, customers will be dissatisfied that the actual experience did not meet their expectation.

I work with one client that runs a Japanese restaurant in the mountains above Santa Fe, NM. They long ago decided NOT to carry sushi as they felt that they could not deliver the quality that they were striving to achieve. While they have made that clear on their website, most reviews touted their overall food quality without noting the absence of sushi. Some visitors still assumed that because they were a Japanese restaurant that Sushi would be on offer. They got this review

Read Murad K.‘s review of izanami on Yelp

There is a saying in business that it is best to under promise and over deliver. But the customer, had expectations that were not able to be met. In a sense this is the best 1-star review that they could have hoped for. While it is largely undeserved it sets a clear and unambiguous message that the restaurant doesn’t carry sushi.

Embrace Accuracy In Your Online Reviews & Ratings

Thus the business that strives to get only 5 star reviews and manipulates the system to get them, may just find that this increases client dissatisfaction rather than decreasing it. From where I sit, the optimal rating is one that accurately reflects the quality of your business and the review corpus offers a view of your business that educates your prospects as to what to expect.

If your final rating does not seem high enough, then work to ferret out the problems, improve your business and achieve a rating that does reflect the best of who you are.

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