Lucky stars? Culture, distance impact online review ratings

Five stars, one star or something in between? Ratings you give a restaurant are likely affected by where you grew up, when you visited the eatery, and how far away that establishment is. What’s more, others look at how much emotion you express when evaluating the helpfulness of your critique.

Deep in the center of a West Denver suburb named Lakewood, there sits Casa Bonita, a 40-year-old landmark so well-known, it’s been featured on the TV cartoon show, South Park. Casa Bonita is a sprawling stucco behemoth of a restaurant, painted Pepto-Bismol pink and fronted by a large faux bell tower. Inside, there’s plenty to see, including a 30-foot-high waterfall, a cliff from which scantily dressed divers plunge into a very deep pool, and a gorilla who tries to steal your tacos.

Reviews of the eatery average three stars. “Nothing like it anywhere else!” gushed one recent visitor, who gave the restaurant five stars — a top rating — on TripAdvisor. “Good food and great fun,” said another who also offered the maximum stars possible. “Childhood memory needs to stay a memory,” said someone else, who lamented that he couldn’t offer half a star. Another one-star reviewer called the food “disgusting.” The title of his review? “Alpo dog food is back.”

Which of these reviews would you be most likely to trust? Which would you be most likely to write?

That depends on your native country, how long ago you ate at Casa Bonita, and whether you live nearby, according to research conducted by Yili Hong, a professor of information systems at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Hong teamed up with other scholars to analyze more than 100,000 restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor. The researchers found that cultural influences impact the degree of variance someone is willing to express when providing an online opinion. They also discovered that Mark Twain was right when he said, “Distance lends enchantment to the view.” The longer that it’s been since a reviewer visited the restaurant and the farther away that restaurant is, the more likely the reviewer will be to make his or her evaluation of it a favorable one.

Background and back talk

To evaluate how culture affects online picks and pans, Hong et al. correlated all those TripAdvisor critiques they examined with the reviewers’ home turfs. They also factored in findings from cultural psychologists who charted the personality tendencies of people from various countries. “While Americans say, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ the Japanese say, ‘The nail that stands out gets pounded down,’” the research team notes in a write-up of their study. That is, America rates high as what psychologies call an “individualist” culture, while places like China or Japan rate higher on the scale of “collectivism” or “conformity.”

Collectivist cultures stress the importance of fitting in, so they’re more likely to encourage social harmony and group bonding. In contrast, cultures that espouse individuality support autonomy, independent opinions, and the value of standing out.

Not surprisingly, Hong says his research found that “People from different countries will write ratings differently.” He adds: “People from countries with the individualistic culture tend to want to deviate from other peoples’ views, and they express a lot of emotions. But people from countries like China or Korea — those countries that promote conformity — they tend not to deviate from others.”

Those collectivist commentators also tend to express less emotion in reviews, which reflects the fact that emotion is more acceptable in individualistic cultures than conventional ones that value calmness.

So, how does emotion impact the perceived helpfulness of reviews, a feature readers can vote on in many review curation sites?

Overall, assessments that were highly emotional also tended to earn fewer “helpfulness” votes. “One reason could be that people generally perceive reviews as a channel to obtain information, so they want that information to be objective,” Hong says. “If the review is very subjective, the reader may wonder if the writer is either very happy at the time or having a bad day and just using this outlet to express an emotional dump on people.”

The power of time and distance

In a separate piece of research, Hong explored whether absence really does make the heart grow fonder when it comes to online reviews. It does.

Specifically, Hong and his colleagues looked at two types of psychological distance — time and space — and how those factors affect the way we consider things. “If it’s far away, you are more likely to use abstract thinking,” Hong says, noting that you’ll visualize traveling to another country differently than you’d map out a jaunt outside of your neighborhood. The trip abroad might get you thinking about all the historic sites, unfamiliar foods and sweeping vistas you might experience. The travel across town would likely prompt some mundane and concrete planning of what streets you’ll take to reach your destination.

Likewise, time has a distance component. “Temporal distance can be forward or backward,” Hong explains. “It could be based on your memory or based on the imagination of the future.” Still, temporal distance once again leads to a tendency for abstract thinking. “If you’re planning to go to Hawaii next year, you might think about beaches, palm trees, and the sunshine,” Hong says. “If you’re going next month, you might think about booking airline tickets, renting a car, and finding a hotel.”

And, just as going over all those pesky details is less entertaining than daydreaming about white-sand beaches, abstract thinking is more likely to result in positive reviews. What’s more, if the reviewer experienced both forms of psychological distance — temporal and spatial — the positivity is even more … well, positive.

Opportunities for positive feedback

Several studies spotlight the importance of online reviews to customers, so restaurateurs and retailers who garner reviews might want to leverage Hong’s findings to boost their star power.

For instance, a Harvard Business School researcher tracked how star ratings on Yelp impact revenues. According to his calculations, each star correlated to a revenue bump of 5 percent to 9 percent, depending on a list of variables. Another bit of investigation conducted by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, also examined the power of Yelp ratings on restaurant popularity. In this project, scholars found that restaurants with a 3-star to 3.5-star rating had a 20 to 40 percent chance of being packed at peak hours, while those with a 3.5 to 4-star ratings had a 40 to 60 percent chance of being sold out.

A survey conducted by BrightLocal, a software firm that specializes in search-engine optimization, found that 88 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as they trust the personal recommendation of a friend or acquaintance. So, it pays for businesses to nurture positive feedback.

Hold that thought

To that end, Hong recommends that retailers and restaurateurs wait a bit before elbowing customers to weigh in on their experiences. “If you look at the industry practice, typically companies will try to get your review as soon as possible. Our research indicates you want to wait a while before you nudge people to write a review,” he says.

He also thinks reviews, in general, might be more impactful if curation platforms like Yelp or TripAdvisor help consumers know what makes a review more likely to earn a “that-was-helpful” click from readers. He says showing examples of good reviews, as Yelp does, might elevate the online exchange. Sites “could give some hints, some prompts, for review writers,” he says. “They could tell you that if you write a longer review, it’s more helpful … something like that.”

But, ultimately, restaurant owners and shopkeepers will wind up wishing upon a star for lots of five-star ratings. “Because, in the end, you can’t control your customers,” Hong concludes.