Written in the Stars: Implementing a Product Rating System

Blame it all on Amazon.

The pioneering e-retailer was among the first to enable users to rate the company’s products. This was a bold move and somewhat counterintuitive. Although some brick-and-mortar businesses provided comment cards for customers to fill out, these businesses typically did not put them all (positive or negative) up on the wall for everyone to see. At best, they would make a few of the positive ones available as “customer testimonials.” Putting the negative ones up, too? Preposterous!

But Amazon made it work, and nearly every e-commerce retailer on the Internet followed suit. And Amazon didn’t stop there—it let other users judge the usefulness of each rating and report abusive comments. This level of user interactivity is one of the cornerstones of Web 2.0.

Yet product ratings have their drawbacks, too. A rating system adds a new level of complexity to a website, and it must be managed. Is the extra hassle worth it?

Here are some pros and cons:

Pros

  • A solid rating system, in which all points of view are represented with comments submitted by real, identifiable people, lends credibility to your site. Allowing both negative and positive comments about your products speaks to your integrity as a retailer and connects you with your customers.
  • A rating system can drive sales. For certain products, such as clothing and shoes, shopping online is risky because customers can’t try them on before buying them. By having access to unfiltered customer commentary, shoppers can make better decisions, sometimes buying a higher-priced item because of its good reviews. Better-informed shopping, in turn, reduces returns.
  • A rating system lets you know what’s really important to your customers. For example, if you sell smartphones, you might learn that customers really care about screen size, battery life, or durability and not so much about the camera’s picture quality. This might inform a change to your marketing tactics.

Cons

  • Ratings for a given product are more relevant and valuable when there are more of them. A product with only two reviews—one glowing 5-star rating and one 1-star rating because the product wasn’t quite the right shade of blue—averages out to a mediocre 3. Shoppers who sort by rating might miss an excellent product, thereby reducing sales and subsequent positive ratings for that product.
  • Similarly, shoppers might shy away from a new product that has no ratings yet.
  • You have to be careful about abusive or vindictive commentary. You are perfectly within your rights to remove postings that are blatantly offensive and clearly unrelated to the product’s actual quality. However, if you start removing more than the occasional post, you may be seen as trying to skew the ratings, and this will destroy your credibility.

So, how do you reap the benefits of product ratings without giving yourself a load of extra work? Here are some ideas:

  • Let the customers own it. Yes, it’s on your website, but the customers have to own it. By allowing them to rate the raters and report abusive postings, actions you take are seen as responding to the demands of the community and not your personal bias.
  • Be an occasional participant. Customers will sometimes leave comments in which they ask the retailer a question, and if you fail to respond, you are seen as ignoring them or unaware. Although it’s a pain to monitor all the posts for this, making timely responses shows that you care about your customers and what they have to say. In your responses, you have to come across as honest and forthright—this is not the place for hype or a sales spiel.
  • Ask for feedback. A good portion of the product ratings you see are submitted by customers who feel very strongly one way or the other, leading to a lot of 5-star and 1-star ratings but very little in between. To elicit feedback from customers who aren’t as passionate, you need to ask them. A friendly automated follow-up email a few days after purchase will garner additional commentary.
  • Have a written policy. Laying out the ground rules regarding who may post feedback, and under what circumstances, will help prevent abuse. Amazon’s customer feedback policy is a good starting point.

Most e-commerce platforms include some sort of rating system. If you choose to implement one, make sure it has the features you need, both from the customer’s perspective (ease of use when making and reading comments) and yours (ease of management and usefulness of reporting). By managing it properly, you can build a community of loyal (and profitable) customers and focus your business accordingly.