Contact Us

5 Stars or Bust: Why the Star Rating System for Reviews is Broken

For years, the star rating system has been a staple of online reviews. From Amazon to Google to Facebook to Yelp, those pesky stars are everywhere. Don't forget about the review's ever-present counterpart: the hordes of business owners imploring you, the customer, to leave feedback.

As a concept, it makes a lot of sense. A simple star rating is easy to understand and helps customers make decisions at a glance. But as businesses and technology have grown, we've gotten a skewed idea of what these ratings mean.

Inflated expectations: are five stars the new normal?

If all ratings were on a linear scale, then 5 stars would represent the absolute best rating, and a rating of 3 would be average. But look at any online rating system and you'll soon see that this is not the case. 5 stars has become the new "average" or "normal" rating, with the lower stars indicating increasing levels of displeasure.

We've been trained to expect 4.5-5 reviews, no matter what. Anything less than those numbers might as well be a one or a zero. A 4.1 seems like it's the new 3.5 in some circles, which is unfortunate because it's so different from what those ratings used to mean. The idea behind the system is that opinions would be honest if customers knew that every review counts and that their review would have an impact on the business's overall rating, but it's too little, too late.

I mean, think about it -- when was the last time you gave a 5-star review? Was it really 5-star service? Probably not. In a world of constant 4.5-5 star averages, even a 4 star can look suspect. When you're used to seeing nothing but perfect scores, anything less than stellar seems like a failure.

How star ratings hurt small businesses

The star rating system especially hurts small businesses. While every company has to start somewhere, having fewer reviews means that each one carries more weight. One negative review can take a 5-star business to 3.5 stars overnight.

Large companies have the law of large numbers on their side. Any single review doesn't carry much weight because it's mixed in with hundreds or thousands of other ratings. Not to mention, their market share and influence will naturally be larger than a business that is just starting out -- which means they need ratings in the first place!

For a small local business, every review and rating is gold. A single bad review can mean the difference between staying afloat and closing their doors for good.

The squeaky wheels of online reviews

Here's another thing to think about. How many times have you heard the phrase "the squeaky wheel gets the oil"? This is usually said to mean that any opinion, voiced loud enough, can look like it is much more widespread. The same goes for both positive and negative reviews. And boy, do online ratings bring out the extremes.

Many people only go through the effort of leaving a rating if they had either a really good time or a really bad time. Or if they were incentivized to do so in some way. All three of those reasons affect the integrity of the rating system. Here's how:

  • If an individual has a bad experience, they might leave immediately and probably give the business/product one star. There's no thought given, only emotion.
  • If someone loves something, they might not even think about leaving a review until another person says something negative or asks them what their thoughts are on it.
  • The point: there is an innate bias towards negativity, and it's hard to get an accurate reading of a business/product from ratings when there is such a large disparity.

The problem with incentivizing reviews

The way that many businesses try to offset the above problems is by offering discounts or free products in exchange for a review. This does increase the number of reviews, but it misses the point of customer feedback in the first place.

When people are given an incentive to leave a review, they're more likely to leave a positive review, regardless of whether they actually enjoyed the product or not. This can be misleading for other customers, who might rely on these reviews to make a purchase decision.

Another problem with incentivizing reviews is that it can lead to people leaving fake negative reviews. This may be done to try and get a refund or compensation from the company, or it could even be done by competitors! No matter who does it, the reputation damage can be very real.

Seeing that overall average drop like a rock can inspire panic in even the most shrewd business owner. Suddenly, they're scrambling to try and figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. They may even go so far as to hire others to write fake reviews for them, just to make their company look better.

When to leave that negative review

Ideally, a negative review should only be left after you've tried to contact the company and resolve the issue. This gives the business a chance to make things right.

However, there are some cases in which leaving a negative review is the only recourse. It may be the only way to warn others against ending up in the same situation. For example, if you paid for an item and were straight-up scammed, by all means, leave that negative review.

The point? It's okay to leave negative reviews, but make sure you understand the reasons behind doing so. An angry 1-star without context helps no one.

Five stars or bust?

The bottom line is that the star rating system is broken. It's no longer an accurate gauge of whether or not you'll have a good experience or receive a good product. It's been skewed by incentivized reviews, negative bias, and the squeaky wheel effect.

If you're looking for an honest opinion about a business or product, look for detailed reviews that go beyond just star ratings. And if you're thinking of leaving a review yourself, make sure it's fair and accurate. Otherwise, it does more harm than good. To find out more about how to make your business stand out, contact us.

Recent Posts

The Pros and Cons of "Design by Committee"

There's an old saying that goes: "Too many cooks spoil the soup." The idea is that when too many people are directly involved in the creative process, the final product could end up being a disappointment to everyone. Some web and graphic designers have similar feelings about "design by committee." This term refers to a […]

7 Practical On-Page SEO Tips for Your Business

Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most powerful marketing tools for any online business today. Simply put, an effective SEO strategy will make your company visible to the greatest possible number of customers by ensuring a high ranking on Google's search results. Of course, SEO involves a lot more than just building links […]

Backup Strategies and Systems for Your Business

Last week I turned on my workstation to find that my main hard drive had failed. That sucked! Luckily I had good backups, so the only thing I lost was time and some money to replace the drive, but it sparked some conversations with other agency owners about their backup systems. The things I heard […]

Domains & DNS Definitely Demystified

There is a lot of confusion about domain names and DNS. What they are, how they work, who does what, and how all the pieces fit together. This video and transcript will help clear it all up.

How We Do What We Do: Peak Performance Website Process Overview

Before working with a new Digital Marketing partner on your website projects, it's important to know how they approach their work and whether that's a good fit for what you need. This video gives a high level overview of how we approach every new project so you can make that decision with as little effort as possible.

What You Need to Know Before You Start Your Next Website Project

After mapping out your business' brand-image or building your own portfolio, you feel it's time to take the next step and launch your own website. With the seemingly endless selection of website builders and tools available, it shouldn't be that hard, right? All of your colleagues seem to have a website, so it's definitely not an impossible feat... Right?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Sign up for our monthly email list to receive valuable information.