Building an eCommerce Review Platform

This is one in a series of eCommerce Strategy posts. You can read the rest here.

“Let’s do it like Amazon” is a common phrase heard across eCommerce strategy rooms everywhere. The problem is you’re not Amazon and designers at Amazon have spent a long time optimizing the site for their customers. What works for them doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.

Reviews are a key feature of Amazon that is nearly impossible for other sites to copy. Their network effects are simply too large to overcome. As Jared Spool explains:

While only one in 1,300 purchasers of the product writes a review, the number who indicate a review was helpful is even fewer. For the Harry Potter volume, which is Amazon’s best selling product ever, it was about 0.0014% or about one in 7,300 purchasers of the product. The most helpful review garnered only 566 votes, even though it was written on the first day the book was released and Amazon has sold more than 2,000,000 copies since.

The challenge is that reviews have a huge effect on online sales. Spool’s firm, User Interface Engineering, has measured that the promotion of helpful reviews on Amazon has increased sales by 20%. That is one out of every five customers completes their purchase based on the strength of the reviews.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to building a review system. Designing a review system that matches your online store’s customers, products, and goals is crucial in going from decent to great.

Since there’s no silver bullet solution, I’ve analyzed review platforms across the Web and made recommendations around each one.

The Most Helpful Reviews

Similar Sites: Amazon, Apple, iTunes, App Store

Ecommerce helpfulThe first reviews displayed for Letterpress on the App Store

Jared Spool’s User Interface Engineering (UIE) measured that the “Was this helpful to you?” rating was worth $2.7 billion each year to Amazon. This method of crowdsourcing helps bubble the best reviews to the top, whether positive or negative.

Consider also that reviews should never be sorted chronologically – the most recent review is really no better or worse than one from five years ago. Sorting by the “most helpful” will help relevant reviews bubble to the top.

Potential Pitfalls: You will need a lot of reviews and even more customers interacting with those reviews for this mechanism to produce a meaningful result.

Recommendation: If you have a small percentage of products that receive reviews, consider hiding the most helpful box on the longer tail products. Consider that this may cause confusion due to lack of consistency.

If you do implement this review method, it’s crucial to prevent customers from gaming the system. Amazon does this in two ways: (1) customers can only rate reviews once every 24 hours and (2) when they do rate the review, it takes 24 hours for the change to be reflected on the site.

Faceted Reviews

Similar Sites: Zappos, Babies ‘R Us

Zappos facetsFaceted reviews on Zappos

Some eCommerce sites are very focused on the types of products they sell. Faceted reviews give customers specific criteria to measure products. This helps on the “scannability” of reviews and the store can provide an immediate summary of each product, making comparison shopping much easier.

Potential Pitfalls: This method takes manpower and a deep understanding of your products to know what facets customers will be interested in within each category. Customers may also may be turned off by the requirement for too much information to leave a review.

Recommendation: Only apply this to a focused store (clothes or shoes) and have product experts develop the facets. Consider simplifying your facets by only including things like pros, cons, and other thoughts. Also, make all facets non-required to decrease the effort for leaving a review.

User Facets

Similar Sites: Newegg, JCPenney

Newegg userfacets
User Facets at Newegg

The most interesting review is by the person who has written many reviews and breaks away from their average rating. For example, if they average 4 stars in their reviews and on a particular occasion they write a 2 star review, you may want to know the reason.

Sites like Newegg and JCPenney have implemented a self-reporting mechanism where reviewers can rate themselves on particular facets.

Potential Pitfalls: There’s an inherent bias in a self-reporting mechanism. A Newegg customer might report a higher level of tech proficiency than they really possess.

Recommendation: Consider building a logic layer that helps filter reviewers by people who most often write reviews and buy often from your store.

Managed Reviews

Similar Sites: Jetsetter, Gilt Taste

Jetsetter’s Professional Reviews

While most eCommerce sites with a large catalog should feature an unbiased source of reviews, it’s possible to employ a content strategy approach to reviews by carefully curating what you sell and crafting reviews about those items.

Potential Pitfalls: Professional reviews take time and effort, and if your catalog has a long tail, it might not be cost-effective to professionally review each item. Professional Reviews might also be perceived as biased when coming from the person/company selling the item.

Recommendation: The sites that successfully employ this type of review tend to be more boutique sales sites who are focused on providing a few items that are considered the best in a given category. The key is to be genuine. Shoppers can see right through a generic, disingenuous review. Be sure the writers are experts and have taken the time to use the product.


A concept for a testimonial on a home builder site

There are times where your business doesn’t necessarily cater to the traditional reviews system. For example, a few months ago, we worked with a home builder where it didn’t make sense to allow customers to write a review for each floorplan. The home builder took a different approach by developing five to seven customer stories that profiled the families, explained the build process, and gave a testimony of how the owners like their home today.

Potential Pitfalls: Testimonials and stories don’t scale. This platform will only work if you have a limited scope business, like a home builder.

Recommendation: Only go down this path as part of a larger content strategy plan. Invest in telling stories, not just giving a quotable blurb of what customers think.

Video Reviews

Another extension of managed reviews are video reviews. These are a way to make customers feel more connected to the product. Video is also a fantastic way to target tablet viewers since they tend to watch video 28% longer than desktop viewers.

Potential Pitfalls: You can’t be entirely dependent on videos since not everyone can watch something with audio while they shop. The scale issue also comes into effect.

Recommendation: Target the most trafficked items in your portfolio. Make sure the production value in your video is high. You don’t want someone on a webcam in a dark room talking about the product. Bring in an experienced host and have them interview subject matter experts.

Consider exploring video in other areas as well. In the home builder example above, the company is exploring the idea of their chief architect engaging in video tours of the homes, describing unique features that might not be obvious to interested buyers.

Building Your Reviews Platform

As you build your platform, take time to analyze the options above and find what best fits your business. If you’re a large site, you may not need to bother with managed reviews, but if you’re just getting started, you can use reviews to gain a competitive advantage.

Remember, keep your reviews honest and focused on helping the customer. Don’t build your strategy with the goal of only increasing sales.

Have you seen other platforms employed effectively, whether as a site owner or a shopper? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

February 19, 2013