77% of online shoppers use reviews and ratings when making purchases online. A user rating is just one person’s opinion about a product and all too often that person is actually the manufacturer itself. So why do we rely so heavily on user ratings when making purchasing decisions? Frankly, it’s because we haven’t had a better alternative.
Shopping online can be daunting. There are so many stores, so many options, and so much to know. It is hard to know where to start and even harder to know when you have enough information to stop and click the “Buy” button. Things can get particularly hairy when shopping for a product that you might not know much about. For instance, a seasoned photographer would have no problem sorting out the best cameras to buy, but what about a first time photographer who would like a camera to take on her family vacation? That person probably doesn’t have the time to get as educated as she would need to be to make an informed decision about which camera to buy. The sad truth is that for those of us who are non-experts, decisions about what we buy online tend to be little more than guesses based on a quick Google search and whatever comes up first on Amazon.
This is why user ratings have long been the savvy consumer’s best friend. They provide a way to get feedback about a product directly from people who have actually used it. When we know more about how other people feel about a product, it can help us make a better guess about how we will feel about it. User ratings help people make better decisions about their online purchases.
Or do they?
No one wants to feel like they don’t have the tools to make a good decision. It’s tempting to see user ratings as a way to create more transparency around products that we are thinking about buying, but the truth is that they often only muddy the waters further. User ratings have some inherent flaws that can make them much less trustworthy than they seem and can actually cause consumers to make worse decisions about their purchases than they would otherwise.
Let me give you an example. Here is a 5 star user review of an MP3 player from Amazon: “All in all, this is the best portable music player on the market today.” The problem? This is a review of the Apple 2nd Generation iPod from June 2006. Five years and 156 GB of storage later, we now have the 7th Generation iPod. The 2nd Generation can’t even compete. However, both models have the same 4/5 star overall user review score and pages of rave reviews.
Of course, no one does a better job than Apple when it comes to keeping their latest products in front of consumers, so most people would be unlikely to mistake a 2nd generation iPod for the vastly superior 7th generation model. But what if we were talking about a product that people tend to know less about? What about ebook readers, camcorders,or GPS devices? These are all products have experienced rapid innovation over the last five years and for which having a review be even a few months out of date can make a huge difference.
The issue is that user ratings only rate a product in the context of what is currently available on the market. In 2006 an MP3 player with 4GB of storage was exciting. Five years later with models on the market that have 40 times as much storage, 4GB just sounds sad. The 4GB iPod earned that 4/5 star rating when it came on the market because at that point it was one of the best MP3 players on the market. The problem is that when the next generation of iPods came out people stopped buying the 2nd generation which means that they stopped reviewing it. The user rating of the 2nd generation iPod is like a time capsule – it let’s us know a lot about what was going on at the time, but it doesn’t do us much good now.
This is an issue that we’ve thought about a lot here at Pikimal. Our mission is to help people make better decisions, and so we knew it was important to find a way to incorporate the best things about user ratings while mitigating the parts that can be misleading.
When I first created Pikis I knew that despite their drawbacks, user ratings were an integral part of the information needed to make a complete and informed decision. There are some things that user ratings just simply measure better than any other metric. Unquantifiable things like ease-of-use, convenience, and durability are examples of attributes that can’t be measured in units but can be important factors to consider when making a purchase. User ratings are a great way to quantify the unquantifiable and so they are included in almost every single Piki that we release.
The reason that we are able to make user ratings work for us is that, while user ratings are included in Pikis, they are only one piece of a bigger puzzle. We only use user ratings for things that are subjective and can’t be measured. For everything else, we have cold hard facts. For instance if you are searching for a car that is fuel efficient a Piki would rate that based on a car’s average miles per gallon. We can then compare that car’s fuel efficiency against any other car on the market and know how it stacks up. As new, more fuel-efficient cars come on the market it doesn’t create the same problems that user ratings create because we never measured the car by how fuel-efficient that car is perceived to be, but how fuel-efficient that car actually is.
With the Piki we’ve also made it possible to completely remove the user ratings from the equation and find products based solely on facts. This makes it easy to see the effect that user ratings may or may not have on Piki results and give our users the confidence that the decision that they are making is the right one based on the most up-to-date information available.