The big impact of a single negative review
Seeing just one negative review, among positive reviews, is enough to make people 42% less likely to buy a product.
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You want to buy a fancy shirt for your best friend’s wedding.
So, on a quick break from work, you visit an e-commerce store you trust, type ‘shirt’ in the search bar, and quickly scan the results page for some decent-looking ones.
You spot a shirt that seems to have the most and best reviews. It looks like a great option so you click on it.
You scroll down to the reviews section, and the very first thing you see there:
A negative review.
The reviews further down are all positive, showering the product with praise.
But now you have a seed of doubt. And you’re much less likely to buy it.
Here’s what scientists at Bocconi and INSEAD found.
P.S.: It’s not only about the first reviews a person sees. The very first review of a product can make or break a product, as it disproportionately biases the reviews that will come in after.
Try to not show a negative review among your most visible reviews
Channels: Reviews | Social proof | Ecommerce | Product page | UI
For: B2C. Can be tested for B2B
Research date: July 2023
Try to not show a negative review among the first, most visible reviews you show (e.g. by simply showing the most recent reviews first).
Update the rules of which reviews you show first (e.g. most relevant, not most recent), quickly address negative reviews, and - of course - offer excellent quality and service.
When people see a negative review among your first reviews they will be much less likely to buy - even if your average rating is excellent.
When people see one or more negative reviews on a list of reviews of a product, they are much less likely to buy the product - even if average reviews are excellent.
In an analysis of over 68,000 product page visits of a large online retailer, researchers found that:
People were 41.80% less likely to buy a product if the first reviews shown on a product page included a negative review among positive reviews (vs. positive reviews only)
They were also 9.7% more likely to browse for alternatives
Each negative review people saw made them 26.87% less likely to buy
The negative effect is stronger when a:
Product’s average rating is high
Review is about the product’s functionality (e.g. compatibility) or customer service, rather than personal preferences (e.g. color)
Product is utilitarian (e.g. microwave, insect-repellant candle) rather than hedonic (e.g. gaming console, scented decorative candle)
🧠 Why it works
When we intend to buy something, we usually explore products one at a time, gathering information as we go.
Once we click on the product page of a highly-rated product, we are already optimistic about it.
Therefore, a positive review on the product page reinforces our choice and increases our probability of purchase.
On the other hand, a negative product review makes us doubtful, so we seek alternative products to compare against.
The more products we add to our product comparison as a result of this doubt, the less likely we are to pick the first one.
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The study classified reviews of 3 stars or less as negative - and 4 stars or 5 as positive. It did not measure the impact of a 1-star review in comparison with a 3-star review.
The study was carried out on a large online retailer in 2015. Since then, the market has become more saturated and ecommerce brands found new ways to compete for people’s attention. Competition to hold attention may be even fiercer now.
All the product pages included in the study had the same review section format: 5 reviews shown at the bottom of the page, plus a link to read more reviews. Different designs and structures probably modify the effect.
🏢 Companies using this
Many retailers have already replaced the “Newest review first” logic with a more advanced display option (e.g. “Most relevant reviews”).
In France, Fnac.fr hides customer reviews on their product pages until the visitor clicks to see them — after which the reviews are sorted by recency.
In the UK, Tesco still shows the newest reviews first, toward the bottom of the product page.
In the US, Walmart displays the most helpful reviews from verified purchases by default and Amazon calls these ‘Top reviews’.
Amazon’s ‘Top reviews’ section has a custom review display logic, which seems to prevent exceptional negative reviews from being displayed first.
⚡ Steps to implement
Implement an advanced review display logic on product pages, so you don’t place a negative review at the top of the list just because it is the most recent one. Your new display logic can include additional sorting variables, such as relevance and amount of helpful votes.
Address negative reviews as soon as possible. For example, you could promptly offer the disappointed customers a solution or a refund, to remove the negative review or change it to a positive one.
If a negative review is rude, consider answering it with clever humor. You won’t get rid of the review, but if done right those that see your response will be more likely to buy from you.
🔍 Study type
Market observation (analysis of 68,960 product page visits on a major online retailer in the UK covering 575,084 product reviews)
The Impact of Negative Reviews on Online Search and Purchase Decisions. Journal of Marketing Research (July 2023)
Remember: This is a new scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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