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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.

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