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Helpful Reviews are Ranked First, So Unhelpful Ones Should Matter Less? A New Study Reveals the Curious Case of Angry Reviews

By Keith Morelli

Dezhi Yin

TAMPA (September 30, 2021) -- For consumers who are increasingly buying products from online sources, like Amazon, Etsy and other trending suppliers, scrolling down to a product’s “Top Reviews” or “Most Helpful Reviews” section has become a routine part of the process.

But what do the reviews of products or services really tell us? Are those most helpful reviews really that helpful or influential in our purchase decisions and choices? While anger is a commonly experienced emotion among unsatisfied customers, why do we rarely see angry reviews in the list of most helpful reviews? If angry reviews are unhelpful, then are they less damaging? Do angry reviews drive consumers away? How should retailers respond to such negative reviews?

“The assumption here is that the most helpful reviews are also the most impactful or persuasive, and they deserve more attention from consumers,” said Dezhi Yin, a USF Muma College of Business associate professor who co-authored the study. “Not surprisingly, among an exploding number of reviews for any product or service nowadays, the ‘most helpful’ ones are usually what product manufacturers and retailers are most concerned about.”

The focuses of the researchers are two-fold, he said. They examined the commonly accepted assumption that helpful reviews are persuasive and are more impactful on future consumers' decision-making, and the commonly observed emotion of anger expressed in reviews.

Yin and co-authors Samuel Bond and Han Zhang, both professors at Georgia Tech, examined the issue of product reviews in an impactful paper titled “Anger in Consumer Reviews: Unhelpful but Persuasive?” published this June in MIS Quarterly, a premier journal for managers and information systems practitioners and academics.

“The motivation of the paper,” Yin said, “is the feature of helpfulness voting that is provided by nearly all the review platforms including Amazon. This widely adopted feature allows readers to vote on the helpfulness of each review, and it allows review platforms to highlight the ‘most helpful’ reviews and list them at the top.

“One of our key findings was that helpful reviews are not necessarily persuasive or impactful on consumers' attitudes and purchase decisions and unhelpful reviews are not necessarily less persuasive,” he said. “As an example, angry reviews are typically discounted by consumers as less helpful than non-angry reviews, but they counterintuitively influence consumers' attitude and choices to a greater extent.

“The notion that ‘too much anger’ can reduce the perceived value of a review is reflected in guidelines of some review platforms,” Yin said. For example, TripAdvisor explicitly discourages reviewers from ranting. “Given that participants in our studies consistently rated angry reviews as ‘irrational’ and ‘unhelpful,' this advice appears sound.”

Dissatisfied reviewers, Yin said, should be encouraged to “take your time [and] provide your reasoning. Such guidelines may be more practical than asking reviewers to avoid expressing anger, while also producing reviews that readers perceive to be more rational and helpful.”

More importantly, the study challenges the commonly held belief among researchers and practitioners that more helpful reviews exert a greater impact on consumer attitudes and purchase decisions and provided compelling evidence that this assumption may not hold for reviews expressing anger.

Angry reviews may be unhelpful, but they are persuasive and impactful nonetheless, Yin said. As a result, marketers, manufacturers and retailers should take any word-of-mouth expressions of anger seriously, even if it is seemingly trivial. Angry reviews rarely appear in the list of “most helpful reviews,” but they should not be taken lightly.

It is also increasingly common for manufacturers and retailers to respond to negative user reviews on their own websites or review platforms to which they were posted, he said. This approach appears to be effective if it highlights to readers the “irrational, unhelpful” aspects of the angry review.

“On the other hand, because angry reviews are persuasive,” he said, “responses can also emphasize positive attributes of the product or service, to counteract the negative impressions elicited by anger.”

The findings also offer useful suggestions for the design of review voting systems on retailer sites or review platforms like Amazon. They usually use helpfulness-based sorting to order reviews presumably because of the assumption that helpful reviews are more persuasive in shaping customer decisions, Yin said. However, this study provided an emotion-based exception to this assumption and suggests that sorting based solely on helpfulness votes may be less effective than intended.

 “The paper's findings that unhelpful reviews can be persuasive nonetheless are fairly surprising,” he said, “and they offer critical implications for review platforms, retailers, marketers and manufacturers faced with the task of managing consumer reviews.”