Consumer Review Trust Down but Usage Up

Trust in reviews has been declining since 2017, but consumers still rely on them to make decisions. Businesses must adapt review strategies and embrace the negative review.

Consumer Review Trust Down but Usage Up
Photo by kaleb tapp / Unsplash

Brightlocal has been surveying consumers about their attitudes towards reviews since 2010. The survey gives us insight into how those attitudes have evolved over a long period. One result that has intrigued me is the change in answer to the question: Do you trust online customer reviews as much as personal recommendations?

Consumers who trust reviews as much as personal recommendations

Data from Brightlocal consumer review surveys 2015-2022

Consumer trust in reviews reached a peak in 2017. It then showed a slight decline and leveling off between 2017 and 2019 and plummeted for 2020 and 2021. What gives? Why did trust drop so much and so quickly?

Viewed in isolation this creates a large question mark. However, when you look at the question of review utilization, the trust question becomes even harder to grasp. Utilization started to decline amongst the regular readers of review in 2017 and somewhat mirrored trust for several years. However readership bucked that trend during the pandemic and has gone up for the past two years.

Do consumers read online reviews for local businesses?

Survey responses for 2014 - 2021 to the question: Do consumers read online reviews for local businesses?
The survey question changed slightly after 2017 and the number of answers were expanded from 3 to 4. For clarity, I have aggregated the results so that they can be viewed over time. Data from Brightlocal consumer review surveys 2015-2022

If we aggregate the "occasionally" and "regularly" (yes) responses above, it becomes clear that while trust has declined, the vast majority of searchers continue to read online reviews for local businesses. The pattern of decline and then re-engagement over the past two years is still evident.

Do consumers read online reviews for local businesses?

Data from Brightlocal consumer review surveys 2015-2022

Perhaps the usage increase across 2020 and 2021 is an artifact of increased reliance on reviews during Covid. We can only speculate whether utilization will once again start declining after the pandemic fully passes. But during 2021 review readership reached record levels. This will be an interesting trend to follow as we come out of Covid over the next several years.

Explaining the Data

Fake reviews hit the news big time at the beginning of 2018 and persisted throughout 2019. Coinciding with the coverage, you can see on Google Trends that the number of searches around the term "fake reviews" peaked during that period. Clearly the question was (and still is) on searchers' minds.

One potential explanation for declining trust is that survey respondents, aware of fake-reviews coverage, don't want to be seen as "chumps" and thus indicate less trust (on surveys) but continue relying on reviews as before.

As noted, perhaps different work and lifestyle behaviors increased review readership and usage during Covid and it will once again decline post pandemic.

Another hypothesis, perhaps a more likely possibility, is that users are now reading and using reviews differently. Trust has declined in the overall value of aggregate reviews but that there is still value in the details. While folks might be suspicious of 5-star ratings, they now look at the negative reviews more regularly to fully understand what they are getting into.

Reliance on negative reviews to exclude choices anecdotally dovetails with my own approach. I typically first establish, though expert reviews or personal recommendations, several candidates to investigate. I then explore negative reviews, looking at the types of problems and time frames that they were experienced. Sometimes I can live with the negatives, sometimes I can't. If the complaint occurred in the past and seems to have dissipated, I will judge that criticism more leniently.

Others I've discussed the trust issue with often take a similar approach.

What Can You Do?

I don't think that you can view the decline in trust, indicated in the survey, as simply an artifact of the frailty of the human ego. The trust issue is real, regardless of its cause, and should be considered in developing a review strategy.

Likewise, there is not much a small business owner or agency can do about the meta trends around review trust. To a large extent that falls on the big review players like Google, Amazon, Facebook (and Yelp), which are largely failing to maintain a trustworthy review environment.

Hoping that legislators or regulators (i.e., FTC) might save the day is wishful thinking. Their efforts seem too little and too late to shift the trust dynamic any time soon. And if they don't hold the "big boys" to account, it won't matter.  

That trust-use gap is explained to some degree by consumers looking at multiple sites to confirm, directionally, that the reviews they’re seeing are accurate. BrightLocal found this and an Uberall survey discovered that 88% of consumers look at multiple sites as a hedge against fake reviews.

For a business this means making sure your scores are consistent and good across multiple review sites. If your Google, Yelp and BBB scores diverge too much, consumers will lose confidence.  A consistent brand story across every site is critical.

Building a Review Plan

Getting lots of positive reviews has always been the goal of most review solicitation programs. However given this changing landscape of user trust and their needs and desires around reviews it is time to switch the goals. It is time to move from quantity of positive reviews at Google to quality of reviews across the board of review sites in your industry.

Think Differently About Positive Reviews

A business should strive to get users to provide helpful reviews that detail explicit aspects of their offerings. The ask should be explicit and perhaps personalized to the reviewer to elicit more details about the category of goods or services purchased.

This will have the benefit of helping future customers and Google understand your business but more importantly will help the business better understand the  business and staff at a more granular level.

Embrace the Negative Review

Given that users still rely heavily on reviews, an additional approach is to lean into a review practice that respects the customer and embraces the negative review as a helpful component of your review strategy.

Assume that consumers don't trust a totally rosy review picture. Encourage all of your customers to leave helpful reviews even if they are negative.

Sometimes the negatives noted in a review are actually features of your business and future readers will decide, to your mutual benefit, not to do business with you as a result. If you don't offer a particular good or service why waste your or a customer's time?

But if the negative reviews reflect a failing on the part of the business make sure you fix the problems mentioned. And then, through your review responses and marketing, make those improvements clear to future buyers.

Trust in reviews may be declining but their overall utility to consumers is not.

Your business can best navigate this new review terrain by a broad approach to the review sites you use, moving from a quantity to quality approach and fully embracing the negative side of reviews.