The Beauty of User Reviews

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WHEN IT COMES TO BITS of user-generated content, product reviews are some of the most important. You've seen them on sites like Amazon.com and Buy.com, and you've probably used them yourself when researching a purchase.

As I've said over and over, content is king. Typically the more information you can provide to your shoppers, the more likely they are to make the purchase. As anyone who's doing it now knows, generating good content is hard work. It takes a lot of time and you need high-quality, experienced people. They know the product, they know how to write well, and they want to get paid.

The beauty of user-submitted product reviews is that your customers create the content — for free! Shoppers typically place a much higher value on user-submitted reviews than on the typical marketing-speak that accompanies most products online. There are all kinds of statistics thrown around about how people are more likely to buy something if it includes a review. No one knows how much more likely, especially across various product types, price points, and so on. Most experts agree, however, that reviews significantly increase conversion rates. So in short, it's a smart thing to do.

Most modern e-commerce platforms come with a review utility either built in or available as an add-on. If not, you can always get a review/rating system custom-developed.

If it's not built in, and you don't have the resources for something custom-developed, there are companies that offer third-party review systems that can be integrated with most e-commerce platforms. The two most frequently mentioned companies that offer this capability are PowerReviews (www.powerreviews.com) and Bazaarvoice (www.bazaarvoice.com).

One of the most frequently asked questions about customer reviews (or user-generated content in general) is, how do you control it? For instance, how do you handle negative reviews, or reviews that were obviously written by someone under the influence of a controlled substance? And what about good ol' fashioned curse words? The generally prescribed guidance is as follows:

Negative reviews: Leave them up. Don't censor them, because as soon as someone catches you removing a negative review, or not approving a legitimate negative review, your credibility will be shot and your reviews seen as worthless. Notice that I emphasized legitimate. Product reviews should be seen as a utility to provide information from one customer to many other customers about the product at hand. Reviews are not a soapbox where you have to put up with some loudmouth ripping you or the manufacturer apart. For example, you wouldn't post a complaint from a customer who thought his 300 lb. frame would look good in a nice tight set of medium leathers (especially since they were half off).

Negative reviews also help you get bad product off your site sooner rather than later. They also can provide necessary ammo so you can go to the manufacturers to get them to address significant weaknesses in their products.

Basically, people expect to see some negative reviews. If the only reviews on your site are positive, no one is going to buy that. At best, the reviews will be highly suspect.

Wrong reviews: The next type of "problem" reviews are of the incorrect or very ill-informed variety. If someone posts a review that's obviously off base on things like technical features, usually you'll still want to let the review stand. If it's a glaringly stupid point of view, other readers will often pick up on the goofiness and brush it off (most modern review systems even have a method to allow this community feedback feature by allowing review readers to mark reviews along the lines of helfpful, not helpful, and so on).

You can typically amend the wacky review in question with a note (make sure you mark it clearly as your comment) with correct information. Just make sure that you don't allow a product review to turn into a forum with a lot of back-and-forth commentary.

The only real case where you might have to be more heavy-handed is if someone posts something like "this product will make your bike explode and also make you sterile." Obviously if the accusation is unfounded, it could lead to a call from the product manufacturer's legal team with a nice cease-and-desist order for slander. However, if it is true in this case, you might want to stop selling it even before you get any more corroborating negative reviews.

Foul reviews: The final type of review you have to worry about is when someone gets a little blue with the language. Now, depending on your brand image or your customer's expectations, colorful and honest reviews may be your claim to fame and you can just let it all hang out. Even if you are more conservative, typically it's acceptable to let the bulk of the review stand and just replace the more colorful passages with something like asterisks.

NO SHILLING ALLOWED

And finally, because I know some of you are thinking this, I'll bring it up: Never, ever, under any circumstances, write your own glowing reviews for products in the reviews section to entice people to buy something. Your opinion on the product goes in the merchandising copy. If people ever find out you're shilling your own stuff in your reviews, it's game over for your trustworthiness and reputation.