Build a Trusted Brand

4 Consumer insights about online reviews that are standing the test of time

Wednesday, 24 January 2024
the role of reviews in internet trust

In today’s culture of information overload, the need for trust is on the rise — especially among younger generations. 2023 research shows that 79% of Gen Z say it’s more important to trust the brands they buy or use today than it was in the past.

The scales of “trust” have been fluctuating back and forth since 2009 according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, and their most recent findings dubbed 2023 the year of navigating a polarized world. 

It stands to reason that fluctuations in trust would encourage consumers to rely on recommendations from their peers more than ever before — and look to open and transparent review platforms as their preferred source of information about businesses and products. 

And that’s one of many consumer insights about online reviews that are standing the test of time. 

In 2020, we partnered with Canvas8 on a survey of more than 6000 consumers in the US, UK, and France to uncover how different types of online reviews created and damaged trust in a time when trust was very much on the decline.  

Even though the very presence of social proof such as reviews should, by definition, make a business more trustworthy, our 2020 findings revealed that not all reviews are equal in the eyes of consumers: where they’re written and the way businesses handle them had a serious impact on whether reviews helped or hurt consumers’ level of trust. 

But times have changed quite a bit since 2020, so we combed back through the most insightful findings from our research to see which ones are still ringing true today. 

Here’s what we found. 

Consumer insights: 4 consistent trends in the perception of online reviews

1. Online reviews are one of the most trusted forms of social proof

Online reviews sum up the popular opinion of shoppers with similar needs and preferences, giving consumers a way to cross-check their research with the wisdom of the crowd as they navigate the abundance of information about products and brands. 

The result is that consumers make smarter choices about what they buy and who they buy it from, so it stands to reason that those positive shopping experiences would make online reviews one of the most trusted forms of social proof about brands and products. 

The findings of our 2020 research backed that up: 89% of global consumers check online reviews as part of their online buying journey, and 49% of global consumers consider positive reviews one of their top three purchase influences. 

And in the UK, review websites ranked as the most trusted source of honest opinions about a company, product, or service — with UK consumers relying on online reviews more in 2020 than they had from 2018-2019.

It may or may not be surprising that those trends have held steady over time. In 2022, 66% of US consumers ranked online reviews as being the most influential factor on their buying decisions — ahead of information sources like search engines, eCommerce marketplace like Amazon, and social media. 

And according to a 2023 survey of more than 10,000 US consumers, 34% of people use online reviews to research potential purchases, making it the second most popular source of information next to search engines (53%). 

The writing’s on the wall: over the last four years, online reviews have proven to be among the most trusted sources of online information about businesses and products. Something tells us it’ll stay that way.  

2. Consumers prefer to write online reviews on an open review platform

We’ve established that review sites are now fully embedded into the shopping journey as one of the most trusted forms of social proof. But trends in consumer insights from the last four years show that not all review platforms instill the same level of trust in shoppers.

Part of that is because online review platforms can differ significantly in how they operate and what they allow businesses and consumers to do. 

For example, open review platforms allow any customer to leave a review for any company on a third-party website — of course, with a few stipulations. Reviews on an open platform are discoverable to consumers when they’re researching a company or product, and because they’re written by everyone — not just customers a business has personally invited — they paint an accurate picture of the company’s reputation.

Closed platforms, on the other hand, only allow customers to leave a review if they’ve been invited. Reviews written on a closed platform don’t get published on a third-party platform, so they can only be discovered when companies display them on their own website — and how they do that is up to their own discretion. That means they can choose to censor negative reviews, or even invite people who have never shopped with them to leave a fake review.  

So, what do consumers make of this?

According to our 2020 research, 55% of global consumers would prefer to use an open review platform, where they don’t have to be invited by a business to write a review. Along those same lines, 56% of consumers in the UK think it’s very important to know exactly how online reviews get published — and that’s only possible with open review platforms. 

The findings suggest that consumers’ preference for open review platforms is rooted in the value they place on free speech and transparency. Perhaps unsurprisingly, consumers don’t want to be silenced or edited when they share their experiences in an online review — and the idea of companies being able to remove unflattering reviews strikes them as nefarious.

With the wave of regulation shedding light on the fake review industry in the last few years, this consumer insights trend has only gotten stronger over time. 

A 2024 study found that consumers are worried about all manners of fake user-generated content, but fake reviews are the most troubling with 75% of consumers concerned about encountering them online. And less than half of consumers don’t exactly trust businesses to verify the authenticity of their own user-generated content, including reviews — but 70% would trust verification from a third-party like an open review platform. 

The emphasis on transparency, especially about practices for monitoring fake reviews, is echoed across studies new and old. So, it’s a safe bet that consumers’ preference for open review platforms is here to stay.

3. Consumers trust authenticity more than perfection

In 2020, we found that 49% of global consumers believed that many brands were guilty of manipulating customer reviews to improve their reputation — and that perfect reviews and ratings are seen as too good to be true. Over half of consumers (55% in the US and 52% in the UK) had more faith in imperfect reviews and ratings because less-than-perfect reviews prove authenticity. 

Authenticity was top of mind for consumers according to our 2020 research. We also found that a realistic mix of positive and negative reviews is a top motivator to purchase for 53% of global consumers, whereas only 21% of consumers would see a 5-star review and believe the product is a must-buy. 

Beyond the reviews themselves, consumers were also looking for brands to behave authentically in 2020, with 64% of global consumers preferring to buy from a responsive company over one that appears perfect. 

And based on new studies from the last few years, authenticity is still paramount to consumers. 

According to 2023 findings from Edelman, 79% of consumers openly interact with brands by consuming content or sharing feedback, and they evaluate whether a brand is trustworthy during those exchanges. For 51% of consumers, a lack of authenticity from brands during those interactions would make trust a nonstarter. But if brand trust is established, 67% of consumers would stay loyal and advocate for the brand, even during a public misstep. 

Reading between the lines, authenticity is a key ingredient in brand trust then and now. And with 71% of people saying it’s more important to trust the brands they buy from today than it was in the past, we suspect that authenticity will stay top of mind for years to come. 

4. Review censorship is not tolerated by consumers

Given the trends we’ve covered, it’s no surprise that our 2020 research found that consumers were strongly against review censorship: 70% of global consumers believed that the censorship of customer reviews is a serious concern, and 62% of global consumers would stop using platforms if they knew they were censoring reviews.

In 2020, review manipulation was understandably seen as a breach of trust, with 45% of consumers believing it leads to wasted money and 42% believing it hinders freedom of speech.

And consumers were just as focused on uncensored accuracy in more recent years, with 46% of people saying that businesses aren’t doing enough to ensure trustworthy information in 2023. 

It’s a similar story according to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that 61% of people worry that business leaders are purposely trying to mislead the public by distorting information. 

In 2024, 63% of consumers are putting the onus on brands when it comes to ensuring that information presented in online reviews is accurate and complete — and they want third-party proof of it. When asked if they’d have confidence in a trust signal indicating that a company’s reviews have been audited and verified by an independent third-party platform, 73% say they’d trust it. 

Consumers across the ages are invested in finding the truth, and they expect both businesses and review platforms to align with those values. That includes shutting down review censorship that gets in the way of accurate and trustworthy information.

And with the FTC proposing new rules to crack down on review manipulation and censorship, we’re hoping review censorship becomes a thing of the past.  

 Key takeaways about trustworthy online reviews 

  • Over the last four years, online reviews have maintained a top spot among the most trusted sources of online information about businesses and products — and with skepticism only increasing about whether businesses are doing enough to ensure trustworthy information, it’s likely to stay that way.

  • Consumers’ preference for transparency around the way reviews are collected and moderated has held strong over the last four years — and open third-party review platforms with clear verification standards and moderation practices are more trusted than closed review platforms. 

  • Brands with a picture perfect image can be a red flag to consumers — for the last four years, consumers have found authenticity more trustworthy than a perfect online reputation. 

  • Consumers have had a zero tolerance policy for review censorship over the last four years, and they’re standards for proving review integrity with third-party verification are only getting higher.

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