On the Internet, Everyone's a Critic But They're Not Very Critical
The Web can be a mean-spirited place. But when it comes to online reviews, the Internet is a village where the books are strong, YouTube clips are good-looking and the dog food is above average.
One of the Web's little secrets is that when consumers write online reviews, they tend to leave positive ratings: The average grade for things online is about 4.3 stars out of five.
People like Jonas Luster aim to introduce a little negativity. A private chef, Mr. Luster recently beckoned fellow San Francisco area diners to "quit with the nicey-nicey" in a blog post titled "In Defense of Negative Reviews." His own average rating on restaurant-review sites is 3.6. He even awarded celebrity chef Alice Waters's Chez Panisse restaurant a 1-star rating after he felt he had been served an overdone duck.
"I am a meanie," says the 36-year-old from Fremont, Calif. "My pet peeve is menus that say something is cooked 'to perfection.' Perfection is a state you never attain."
Mr. Luster is part of a movement on the Web that's taking aim at 4.3, a figure reported as the average by companies like Bazaarvoice Inc., which provides review software used by nearly 600 sites. Amazon.com Inc. says its average is similar.
Many companies have noticed serious grade inflation. Google Inc.'s YouTube says the videos on its site average 4.6 stars, because viewers use five-star ratings to "give props" to video makers. Buzzillions.com, which aggregates reviews from 3,000 sites, has tracked millions of reviews and has spotted particular exuberance for products such as printer paper (average: 4.4 stars), boots (4.4) and dog food (4.7).
If the rest of the Internet is filled with nasty celebrity blogs and email flame wars, what makes product reviews sites so lovey-dovey? "If you inspire passion in somebody in a good way or a bad way, that is when they want to write a review," says Russell Dicker, the senior manager of community at Amazon.
His boss, Amazon's Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, follows that pattern. He has posted five-star reviews for products like Tuscan brand whole milk and some "ridiculously good cookies" sold on the site. Mr. Bezos's only non-five-star review: one star for a science-fiction movie, "The 13th Warrior."
Culture may play a role in the positivism: Ratings in the U.K. average an even higher 4.4, reports Bazaarvoice. But the largest contributor may be human nature. Marketing research firm Keller Fay Group surveys 100 consumers each week to ask them about what products they mentioned to friends in conversation. "There is an urban myth that people are far more likely to express negatives than positives," says Ed Keller, the company's chief executive. But on average, he finds that 65% of the word-of-mouth reviews are positive and only 8% are negative.
"It's like gambling. Most people remember the times they win and don't realize that in aggregate they've lost money," says Andy Chen, the chief executive of Power Reviews Inc., a reviews software maker that runs Buzzillions.
That's why Amazon reviewer Marc Schenker in Vancouver has become a Web-ratings vigilante. For the past several years, he has left nothing but one-star reviews for products. He has called men's magazine Maxim a "bacchanalia of hedonism," and described "The Diary of Anne Frank" as "very, very, very disappointing."
The vast majority of reviewers on Amazon "are a bunch of brown-nosing cheerleaders," says Mr. Schenker, who reviews under pseudonyms including Jerkface. "In an online store selling millions of items, there's bound to be many, many awful ones," he says.
Mr. Schenker suspects that Amazon intentionally deletes negative reviews so it can sell more products. It did kick him off the site last year and, he says, won't even let him make purchases. The company wouldn't comment on his removal, but a letter he says he received from Amazon describes his posts as "rude, harassing and abusive to others."
Other critical reviewers say they get flak for their brutal honesty. Mark Nuckols, an American teaching finance in Moscow whose Amazon book ratings average a three, says he's concerned by what he senses is a practice of "pre-emptive deletion." When he posted a "mildly critical review" of a recent children's book by Tom Tomorrow, it never surfaced. When he tried to post a review of another Tom Tomorrow book, it didn't show up, either.
An Amazon spokeswoman wouldn't comment on Mr. Nuckols's experience, but said that the company allows negative comments if they don't contain distasteful language.
Some suspect companies goose their ratings. This summer TripAdvisor.com, which averages just above a four, posted warnings that some of its hotel reviews may have been written by hotel managers. But review sites say the incidence of fakes is tiny, and many pay people to delete puffery.
Other sites admit they have a positivity problem and are taking novel steps to curb the enthusiasm. One way is to redefine average. Reviews of eBay.com's millions of merchants were so positive that eBay made 4.3 out of five stars its minimum service standard. Beginning this month, it is switching to a system that counts just the number of one- and two-star reviews. Sellers who get more than 3% to 4% of those ratings could get kicked off of eBay.
Another site, Goodrec, decided to ditch the five-star rating system altogether, replacing it with a thumbs-up and thumbs-down system. Amazon now highlights what it dubs "the most helpful critical review" at the top of its reviews page.
Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive of Yelp.com, which posts reviews of local businesses in cities around the country, bragged in September that his site's reviews were more diverse. The average review on Yelp is 3.8. Many assume online reviews are "only rants or raves, resulting in consumer Web sites composed solely of ratings on the extremes," he blogged. "A broader range of opinions can give consumers a more complete view of a business," he says.
Being more negative is something that comes with practice, says Elizabeth Chiang, a 26-year-old financial consultant, who posts a lot of local business reviews on Yelp. When she began writing them in 2006 she was easily impressed by the wide variety of bars and restaurants in New York. "I thought everything was awesome," she says.
But after reflecting upon her reviews, she realized recently "it's kind of meaningless if every one is great." Now Ms. Chiang writes a review only after trying a restaurant at least twice, and has lowered her average to a 3.6, on about 250 write-ups. In a recent review, she said that one cocktail tasted like "listless, ennui-crippled sugar water."