Category Archives: Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews

Growth in research on the language of online reviews!

Two years ago  I wrote a post about how excited I was to see 2 presentations about online reviews – other than my own – at IPRA (the International Pragmatics Association), the largest international conference about Pragmatics, which is held biennially.  Interest in this topic continues grow as was seen at this year’s IPRA in Belfast, where there were 7 presentations on the topic.  (Incidentally, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland = total playground for sociolinguists!)

My colleague, Tuija Virtanen, and I organized a panel for this year’s IPRA called “Analyzing Prosumer Discourses: Consumer Reviews, Customer Feedback, and other modes of eWOM.”  The panel was international in scope, with speakers from Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, and the US.  Tuija’s presentation dealt with various ways of conceptualizing the rather abstract notions of responsibility and accountability as they are made relevant in consumer reviews: in her case, in book reviews on Amazon.  Michael Barlow’s corpus study examined differences between hotel reviews written by male and female TripAdvisor reviewers; interestingly, he found virtually no gender-based differences in variables such as word frequencies, review length, lexical variation, as well as the other variables he looked at.  Irene Cenni’s presentation built on her prior work, comparing TripAdvisor reviews written in Dutch, Italian, and English; this time with a particular focus on service encounters.  She had a number of very interesting findings, which she plans to publish soon – stay tuned!  The two remaining presentations (my own, and Maria Rosaria Compagnone’s) looked at businesses’ responses to restaurant reviews.  I focused on features of “linguistic impoliteness” found in restaurants’ responses to 1- and 2-star reviews, posted on both TripAdvisor and Yelp.  I showed examples of restaurant owners firing back defensive-sounding messages, which included features like sarcasm (“So much for knowing your Florida seafood.”), dismissing the reviewer’s comments (“As for the rest of it…whatever”) and excluding the reviewer from future contact (“Hopefully this reviewer will stay true to their word and make this their last visit.”).  I thought these responses were unprofessional…until I saw Maria Rosaria’s data! Maria Rosaria’s Italian restaurant owners posted much more aggressive and hostile responses on TripAdvisor – including one death threat!

Besides our panel, there were 2 additional presentations dealing with online reviews.  One of these was about extreme positivity in Airbnb reviews: the presenter focused on UK data, but the trends were nearly identical to what Judith Bridges and I wrote about in our Airbnb paper, published earlier this year.  The other was a more exploratory study examining differences in Chinese and Anglophone reviews and responses.

The next IPRA will be held in Hong Kong in summer 2019.  Will the number of online review-related studies continue to grow?  I’m looking forward to finding out! 🙂

Time references in online reviews

Next month, the “Language and New Media” special interest group  of the British Association of Applied Linguistics will be discussing my forthcoming Discourse, Context & Media article about time references in online reviews.  The focus of my research was on how online reviewers make a lot more references to the remote past, compared to the present and the recent past.  This is in direct contrast to the strong orientation to “what is happening right now” that is characteristic of many other types of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs).   I also found that remote past references tended to rely more on grammatical resources rather than lexical resources — for example, grammatical aspect, prepositional phrases, and adverbial clauses.  The reverse is true for present-time references, which are usually conveyed via a single word: now, today, just, etc.

The article’s publisher will make my article freely available online from Nov 23-Dec 8, and I’ll be doing an interview with the group’s convenor on Dec. 8, which will be available as a podcast afterwards.  Stay tuned for more details!

What Motivates Reviewers to Write Reviews?

“Who are these people?” is a question I occasionally get asked when someone finds out that I study the language of online reviews.  Of course, what they really want to know is what motivates only some people to write reviews, since this is not a practice that all of us engage in.  Are there a core set of features that characterize  a “reviewer personality”?  (The answer to this last question is “probably not.”)

Some scholars who have studied reviewer motivations have found that people are motivated by various reasons.  These range from a sense of altruism (that is, wanting to “give back” to a review site that they themselves have used and benefited from), to – no surprise here! – venting feelings of anger or frustration.  Others write reviews because they like the idea that their opinion matters to people.

Most recently, I was asked this question by writer Liz Segran.  She also interviewed a number of Elite Yelp reviewers, and she gained a lot more insights about review writing as a creative outlet.  Check out the story she wrote about this topic for Fast Company.

A Gray Area

The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews was featured in this Sunday’s New York Times.   (I know: OMG, wow, amazing, so cool!!!   ALL of those things! But I digress…)  Writer Michael Erard chose to begin his article with a short narrative about the time that my husband and I were pressured to write a review for a car salesman this summer.  Besides using the narrative as a way to hook readers’ interest in the topic (a keen insight on his part and a very effective strategy, judging by the number of messages I received from people who mentioned they especially enjoyed that part of the story!), he later makes the point that such solicited reviews represent a “gray area” on the spectrum of real to fake reviews.  This raises some really interesting ethical and practical questions.  Are solicited reviews qualitatively different from unsolicited reviews?  Can we consider them to be truly “authentic” or “genuine”?  I believe the answers to those questions depend a lot on how, why, and from whom a review is solicited – and what, if anything, is offered to the reviewer in exchange.

Let me give some examples.  Earlier in the year, I wrote a post about a wonderful little yoga retreat center we visited in Guatemala that was completely off the beaten path.  As we were checking out, the owner of the business gently reminded us that, if we felt so compelled, leaving a review on TripAdvisor would be much appreciated. To me, this felt like a very different type of request than when our car dealer plopped down in front of us a binder filled with other customers’ reviews, with the goal of showing  us what we should write on 6 specific websites that rate car dealers and dealerships.  Rather than making a simple suggestion, his hard sell tactic made me feel like I was being tasked with a homework assignment.

And it turns out that I am not the only one who’s annoyed by this type of request.  A recent study published in Psychology and Marketing  reported that “Research participants who imagined a scenario in which salespeople asked them for positive evaluations reported lower satisfaction with the service encounter than those who imagined not being asked.”  To me, this means that businesses should think twice about directly soliciting reviews from customers – and if they chose to do so, to give even MORE thought to how they actually formulate their request! (Those of us who study pragmatics understand that the words we choose, our tone and demeanor, and the context in which a request is made can make all the difference in the world.)

But is it any different if the person asking you to write the review is someone you know really well?

Here’s another example.  A friend of a friend (who is also an academic) told me about how several of his disgruntled students trashed his book on Amazon a few years ago.  He responded by asking a handful of his friends, who had read his book, to post favorable reviews of it on the same site, in order to mitigate the effects of – what he felt were – unfair reviews.  His friends agreed.  When I checked out his reviews on Amazon, there were now an equal number of positive reviews to negative reviews for his book.

A different colleague (let’s call him “Ken”) used to own a restaurant, and reports that he had a similar experience.  After being fired, one of Ken’s very unhappy ex-employees retaliated by posting negative (and untruthful, according to Ken) reviews of Ken’s restaurant on a local website.  This was back in the early days of reviews, and that particular site did not offer businesses a “right of reply space” to tell their side of the story.  So Ken asked some of his friends who had recently eaten at his restaurant to post some positive reviews, in order to “dilute” the impact of those negative (and unfair, according to Ken) reviews.  It has been over a decade since that happened, and Ken is no longer a restaurant owner; yet every time he tells me this story, it’s evident how hurt and angry and frustrated he still feels about this experience.

When a large company pays another business to handle their “online reputation management” by posting fake reviews to boost their own ratings, we are quick to condemn those actions.  But should we consider the last two examples to be equally unethical…or are they simply attempts to “level the playing field,” in response to (what some may consider) an unjust public character assassination?   To me, it seems we are looking at many shades of gray here, and we may want to carefully consider some of the finer distinctions among them.

 ‘Unofficial’ Book Tour

It’s been an exciting semester!  In October, I was invited by colleagues at Georgetown University to give two presentations.  I had a chance to interact with Sociolinguistics students taking a graduate seminar on Intertextuality, which was really thrilling because I got to think more in-depth about some of the findings I’ve written about in my book that relate to this topic.  For example, the tendency for reviewers to make references to things that other reviewers have written.  Or the references that reviewers make to various types of popular culture.   Plus I also got to test out some of the newest data that I’ve been working on with an absolutely brilliant group of students.  That’s always the most fun: setting up just a few parameters,  handing over examples of texts to people who are used to looking at discourse data, saying “Go!,” and then stepping back to watch and listen as students interact and share their fascinating insights.

I also gave a talk for Georgetown’s MLC (Master’s in Language and Communication) program, where I delved into issues of research methodology.  I basically contrasted the kinds of insights that I was able to gain by taking a quantitative approach with those observations that I could only make by conducting  close qualitative readings of my data.  In the end, I showed how both approaches could be used to provide different, yet complementary, perspectives on a corpus of online texts.

Speaking of brilliant students, I was blown away by the phenomenal turnout I received for my Homegrown Humanities presentation right here at USF the following week!  A friendly crowd of current students, former students, colleagues, and even a few new faces all gathered to hear about the greatest hits from my book.  (This was right on the heels of having received an “Honorable Mention” for Outstanding Graduate Mentoring at USF… I was really touched by all the support and positive messages  that I’ve received from my students this semester.)

I’ve just returned from another series of invited talks – this time at Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR. My campus visit was organized by my former colleague and dear friend, Adam Schwartz.  At OSU I had the opportunity to speak with a group of undergraduate students in a Gender Studies course about how normative gender ideologies are reproduced in several of the reviews I’ve collected.  We also considered a few examples where these kinds of ideologies about gender are critiqued and contested (mostly in parody reviews, like those written in response to the “Bic for Her” pen).  While at OSU, I also gave a talk to a larger group of students and faculty in Anthropology, which focused on reviewer identities more broadly.  The best part about these talks for me is always the Q & A that follows, where people share their insights, stories … and all sort of other  resources related to reviews.  Among my favorite new discoveries (thanks OSU faculty & students!):


Amazon reviews for “Women’s PhD Sexy Costume”  

I am feeling incredibly grateful for a very affirming, inspiring, and productive couple of months. And looking forward to the end of the semester, so I can finally get going on some new writing projects!​

Can you tell the difference between “paid” reviews versus “real” reviews?

Whenever people learn that I do research about online reviews, this is the NUMBER ONE question that I am asked.  Or some variant of it.

Let me start off by saying that I understand the concern about fake reviews.  However, I also believe that this is an area that’s sort of been hyped by the mass media.  Sure, we have all read about cases of people writing fake reviews for profit, as well as people trying to “game the system” in other ways. (After all, this happens in virtually every realm of human activity.)   But let’s remember that just because we’ve been able to identity, or detect, a few instances of unethical behavior, doesn’t mean that the majority of cases are like that.  Think about it – when we read a news story about online reviews, it is typically about someone getting busted for doing something that violates the rules…but when do we ever hear any stories about the thousands of people who have no ulterior motives in posting their reviews?

At this point in time, billions of reviews have been posted online.  Literally billions. From a simple economic standpoint, it is unlikely that *the majority of a billion reviews* could have been paid for.

Although I am by no means an expert on deception detection, here is a brief list of some of the popular “red flags” which, we are told, are signals that a review might be fake.  (Most of these tips will probably seem like common sense to you.)

1)      Be skeptical of a reviewer who’s only posted 1 review on the site.  The general rule of thumb is that the more reviews an individual has posted on a particular site, the more trustworthy that reviewer is likely to be.

2)       Beware of reviews that consist of empty superficial descriptions with no specifics of personal experience. Or reviews that just list a bunch of product features.

3)      Reviewers who spend a lot of time endorsing a competitor’s product within their review may also be suspicious.

4)      You might want to question those reviews that are 100% good or 100% negative –in other words, the ones that are categorical in their assessment.  So a “balanced perspective” is something to look for in a quality review.  In other words, legitimate reviewers often demonstrate that they are able to discern and discriminate between different features of a single product or service.

[For example, my early work on TripAdvisor showed that quite a few negative reviews actually did include some positive features.  So 1-star reviews would often also include positive statements such as the following: “One good thing was that the bed linen was fresh,” “The place was clean. That is the one good thing i can say,” “Firstly the good points… there were plenty of beach chairs” and “The good: It was a large room with a bed.” ]

I believe that I have some good news to add to this conversation.  Out of the 1,000 reviews which I sampled in a semi-random fashion for my book, very few struck me as potentially “fake” (in the sense of possessing one or more of the aforementioned “red flag” characteristics.)  On the contrary, most of the reviews in my sample were quirky, idiosyncratic, and full of so many odd personal details that I often found myself thinking: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

My book is out!

Last week, I went to my office on campus, and waiting for me was a big box, wrapped in a big mailing bag with a return address from Sweden.  In it, there were 6 hardcover copies of my book sent to me from my publisher!


Honestly, it felt a bit surreal to hold in my hands this tangible, concrete object that began — over 3 years ago — as a few loosely-connected ideas scribbled onto a half-sheet of paper in a HelloKitty notebook.

I held my breath as I first turned the pages, gradually exhaling a little bit at a time, as I checked that yes, it was really all in there,  the tables looked good, and the edits I requested had been made.

And then I spotted my first typo in Chapter 5.  It made me smile as I recalled an often-quoted phrase that one of my former professors used to say: “There is error in all we do.”I know that I am likely to catch 1 or 2 more typos as I study the culmination of my efforts more carefully, but right now, I am still smiling.



A Brief History of Online Reviews

I was recently asked if we know when the very first online review was posted. Although I don’t have a specific date, the earliest user-generated consumer reviews probably appeared online sometime in the mid- 1990s.

Let me elaborate a bit on that.

Of the 5 review sites that I have studied, Amazon is the oldest.   As a business Amazon was launched in 1994, and according to the company’s description, consumer reviews have been an important part of the site since its earliest days.  Other review sites, like Epinions, have also been around since the mid-to-late 1990s. However, as more of a widespread phenomenon, user-generated review content really started taking off in the era of “Web 2.0,” in the early 2000s.  And by the mid-2000s, review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, had become massive businesses as well as global phenomena.

Feeling pressured to write a review…and not liking it one bit.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I decided it was finally time to buy a new car.  For a long time, we had loved our reliable 2007 Corolla, which had served us well up to 120,000+ miles.  But, as a 1-car family that does a lot of commuting, we felt it was time to get a car that was newer and that would last us for another 7 or 8 years.  So we found a nearby dealership with an excellent inventory of “previously owned vehicles” (love that euphemism!).

Do you remember how, back in the day, shopping for cars used to be one of the most stressful experiences ever?  All that haggling, and feeling like you were totally at the mercy of the dealer in negotiating price and financing, and all that?  Today, it is completely different, with so much car information available online…you can even get detailed info about THE SPECIFIC car that you plan to buy! This really helps put the consumer in the “driver’s seat” (so to speak) where price negotiations are concerned.

Which is why we were absolutely delighted that, this time around, buying a car was a pretty positive experience. We felt well-informed, confident, and in control of the process.  Even our salesman was low-key and pleasant.

With one exception.  Although our salesman did not try to get us to consider an upgraded model, or even push the extended warranty issue too much…he DID (very oddly, in my opinion) “hard sell” us on posting a favorable review of him online.  Or several, to be more accurate.

For over 2 hours, he had been modest, down-to-earth, and completely likeable.   But suddenly, all that shifted, as he began to inform us that he was the most highly-rated and reviewed salesman at the dealership.  And then he brought out this big white binder filled with printouts of dozens of reviews written about him.  He told us to go ahead and browse through them, so that we could use them as models for how to write our own glowing review for him.  He then navigated to the dealership’s webpage with links to several auto dealer review sites, and he told us that (once we got home) we could write our review based on what we had learned from the examples in the binder, adding that we could of course just “copy + paste” that same review text into multiple sites. Uh-huh.

I found this super annoying.  I mean, of all people, *I totally get it* that reviews impact sales.  But perhaps a more low-key suggestion like “If, after a couple of days, you feel satisfied with the service you’ve received, it’d be great if you could go ahead and post a review on one of the sites linked to our dealer page”  would have been sufficient.  I don’t know what bugged me more… the hard-sell approach, or the feeling that I was having the whole online review process mansplained to me.

Fortunately for our salesdude, my husband is kindness incarnate, so a couple hours ago, he went ahead and posted a review  of our car-buying experience.   (I need to remember to ask him if he “copied + pasted” it into multiple review sites, as we had been coached to do, lol.)

What do you people think?  Have you ever felt super pressured to write a review?  If so, how did you react to it?

Do you have a favorite review?

I’ve noticed that over the last few months, right after I’ve given a presentation about online reviews, or when the topic of my research comes up in conversation, people have started sharing their favorite reviews with me. Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, there are people out there who actually have favorite reviews? Trust me, no one was more surprised (or excited!) to discover this than I was.

What this means, I believe, is that while some reviews are informative, others can be downright entertaining. And the REALLY talented review writers manage to both inform and entertain at the same time.

Here are just a few “personal faves” of Amazon reviews that people I know have shared with me in the last few months.

Roach Gel

Pam forwarded me this Roach Gel review, explaining that she loves the review because of the passion that this author put into writing it. She also finds the tone of this review to be totally hilarious. Apparently, lots of other people do too, according to the comments that appear below it. The slang expressions, the vernacular language used, and the pop culture references all work together to make it a pretty entertaining paragraph. (And, living in Florida, I know that insect issues can be very disturbing, so I, too, appreciate how this reviewer managed to turn an icky topic into a humorous text!)

Stone Coasters

Amanda, who shared the stone coasters review, loves it precisely because it’s the opposite of the previous review. The tone of this one is super formal, the main points of the author’s argument are clearly enumerated, and apparently, the author is someone who takes the quality of coaster surfaces very, very seriously. As she explained to me, she is amused by the paradox of this review: it offers such a careful description of what is quite possibly one of the most trivial products imaginable = coasters.

English Grammar for Dummies

Now this last one is obviously a parody. Not only is the content itself totally “over the top,” but if you look at the top of the page, you’ll see that the review has received nearly 6,000 helpfulness votes. 5,944 to be exact. (And let’s face it, while this book *might* have a wide reach, the other 5-star reviews have only received between 3-105 helpfulness votes. Hmmm, that’s a huge difference.)

In fact, the friend that forwarded this review to me via email (thanks Maria!) received it from another person who said that she had seen it on Facebook. This means that people are sharing their favorite reviews not only with me, but with other people, via social networking sites!

Btw, beyond what I’ve already mentioned about this review, it’s also worth pointing out that “Nikolai,” the author, has posted only this one review on Amazon, and has included no other identifying information in his profile. (These 2 characteristics are often given as indicators to look out for in potentially fake reviews.)

I have been fascinated by parody reviews for quite a while now, but that’s a topic for a-whole-nother post! Stay tuned…

In the meantime, if you happen to have a favorite review, please post it as a reply, or email it my way!