3, 4, or 5 Stars…What Does That Really Mean?

Published by Aqqaint on

How are we defining reputations these days?


I ask myself this more and more. Each time I buy something online or look for a new restaurant, I am plunged into the world of online reviews. I am now spending the next 15 to 30 mins or more sorting through reviews on Amazon, Yelp, Airbnb, etc. lost in endless sea of stars and comments.

I would say that the five-star review system has become the most valued currency of the sharing economy and eCommerce as a whole. You simply can’t survive as a business or consumer without it. This is a little frightening. Especially, considering we now see the review system everywhere we look. It’s used to rate schools, neighborhoods, parks, playgrounds, and more. There is very little we don’t rely on a five-star rating for these days, but how reliable are these reviews and who is behind them?  The answer might surprise you!

Who do you trust?



Why do we place our trust, both as sellers and consumers, in a system of stranger-based reviews? Simply stated, there is no better option. When we shop online or decide which restaurant to eat at, or which Airbnb rental to choose we are boxed into relying on a five-star review. That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. I’m not alone either. “65% of consumers do not trust product ratings on eCommerce sites”.

Reputation and trust go hand-in-hand

There was a time when reputations used to mean something. When it was earned over a period of time and had to be maintained with people who knew you. Now, we have detached ourselves from each other and from the products we buy through these online reviews. And it’s more important than ever to get this right as we continue to move more of our purchase power and decision-making online. So what makes a person or company trustworthy?

Trust is fundamentally based on four core principles: 

  1. Credibility – demonstrating expertise through actions and views over time
  2. Reliability – setting expectations and living up to them over time
  3. Intimacy – a closeness or connection developed over time
  4. Self-motivation – excess self-motivation leads to a breakdown of trust

Unfortunately, the current five-star review system does not satisfy any of these core principles, yet we continue to trust reviews to make most of purchases and even some of our biggest life decisions, like which neighborhoods to live or cars to buy.

Something to consider…

Take an Airbnb reviewer as an example. Most people stay at someone’s home once, and leave a review based on their singular experience with the host. The host’s online reputation is collectively based on one experience per person from a wide variety of strangers with different values, backgrounds, expectations. We stay at someone’s home and pass judgment on their communication, habits, and home all from a single stay. That’s just not accurate.

How can everything be the best thing out there?

Everything seems to have 4 to 4 ½ stars! This is apparently where years of reviews have landed us. It seems no matter the product, service, or person we are all right around 4 ½ stars. We are all just at the tipping point of TOTAL EXCELLENCE. Except it’s not true. Behind the scenes, companies are offering huge discounts and sometimes paying outright for your reviews. In some cases, you can even pay for negative reviews of your competition. So 4 ½ stars or 5 stars or 3 stars really doesn’t mean a thing unless you have the ability to back that review up with some additional information about the reviewer. And for all the reviews out there, a surprisingly small number of us are actually leaving them. MIT found that only about 1.5%, or 15 out of 1,000, people write reviews. 

Time for a change!

Maybe it’s time we set the bar a little higher and turned to our instincts to reach out to family, friends, colleagues, etc. when we are looking for recommendations. 92% of people say they “trust friends and family above all other forms of advertising”. Remember a five-star review system is a marketing tool invented to make online purchasing more attractive. We don’t have to continue to give it power. We can develop a better system. I remember a quote from an old boss who used to say, “Trust but verify” It’s time we all took those words to heart a little more.

Tell us what you think, have you ever spotted a review you knew was too good (or bad) to be true?