Many people turn to online reviews to help them decide on a variety of products and services, whether it’s a new book, a car, or a room at a hotel. But a new U.K. study shows these reviews are often heavily influenced by the reviewer’s psychological state.

In fact, the researchers suggest we read online reviews with a healthy dose of skepticism; in other words, with a “pinch of salt.”

“People have time and cognitive constraints that regulate their decisions, and compared to conventional transactions in brick-and-mortar stores, their ability to directly evaluate the product quality is much more limited when buying online,” said lead author Panagiotis Stamolampros, a Ph.D. researcher from Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England.

“This is where online reviews come in as a tool to potentially reduce customers’ risk and uncertainty and to help them make the correct product choice. However, the question remains, should online reviews be trusted?”

For the study, UEA researchers analyzed more than 215,000 online reviews for 1,022 London hotels, provided on TripAdvisor and by visitors from approximately 90 countries.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, show that the length of time between product or service consumption and posting is one factor that often affects the review.

For example, the sooner customers post a review the more they tend to “zoom-in” on their experience, focusing on the more concrete aspects, even on small details, and the more negative they are. As the time increases, however, reviewers ‘zoom-out’ and give a more positive view, focusing instead on the general experience and more abstract aspects.

With services such as hotels — the focus of this study — the geographical distance between the hotel and the visitor’s country of residence, as well as the cultural differences between the countries, can also influence how they rate their experience.

The researchers found the greater the distance between the home country of the reviewer and the country visited, the more positive the rating.

“We believe this is to do with the feeling that the more distant you are from your point of reference, which is connected with all the petty annoyances that you have to deal with in daily life, the more positive you are,” said Stamolampros.

However, in the case of cultural distance, the relationship is the reverse. “Distance does not always lend enchantment to the view. People like the idea of visiting different cultures but do not always tolerate surprises,” said co-author Dr. Nikolaos Korfiatis.

“We are raised and formed under the social behavior and norms that characterize our countries. When we meet something unexpected, that we are not used to, and perhaps not acceptable in our own culture, then the natural thing is to be negative towards it.”

The authors say the findings have implications for both consumers and managers. They recommend that consumers should look for reviews from people who are culturally close to them, as they will be more representative of what to expect.

“People will continue to buy products and services online as faster, cheaper delivery processes are developed, and easy return and refund processes reduce the risk. As such, people will continue to consult online reviews when making their decisions,” said Stamolampros.

“However, we should understand that the inherent factors we examine here affect how individuals form their expectations and evaluations. Not all opinions expressed online will match customers’ personal preferences and we may come across things that are not compatible with the expectations formed from reading the reviews.

“Consumers should therefore take what reviews say with a pinch of salt.”

Managers wanting to improve service should aim to get reviewer feedback as soon as possible, according to the researchers. Hotel managers could also be more proactive in communicating possible cultural differences or acceptable behaviors.

Source: University of East Anglia