In a 5 Star World ***** Who Wants Second Best?

If you shop online (and if you’re reading this, you probably do) when was the last time that you purchased something that wasn’t 5 stars?

The online shopping world abounds with star rating systems, or their ilk.  If you buy on eBay, you probably wouldn’t even consider buying from someone who had less than a 99% feedback rating. If you look at reviews on CNET, Consume Reports, etc. you hesitate on that purchase if it isn’t an ‘Editors Pick’ or a top rated product in its category.  Considering buying that album from iTunes? Going to see a movie? Finding a contractor…  This list could go on.

The fundamental driver of this is the notion everybody has that they deserve the best.  But when you pick something with 5 stars, is that what you are really getting?

Aside from blue jeans (the one thing the human race has perfected), its hard to imagine that there is one product that satisfies everyone.  5 stars just means the people that take time to rate stuff online, and arguably find this rating valuable, rate that product very highly.  This is a very small percentage of the online population IMHO.  Accuracy here is fighting a large selection bias.

But if you have a product, and you can’t get to first place, is there any benefit to trying to be second?  I don’t think so.

The people that use ratings as their primary decision criteria will not buy your product.  Why would they?  You can offer a lower price than the #1 option, but then you really are just giving away money –and potentially a lot of it– to grab a few people that are willing to take second best because of a lower price.

If you are faced with this situation, you are better off instead selling to the audience that isn’t buying stars.

As usual, Malcolm Gladwell says it best:


3 Responses

  1. I certainly count stars when they rate the performance of sellers (abebooks and ebay), and I probably would if I were buying a piece of hardware, but I don’t pay any attention to stars when I buy a piece of entertainment (music, books, DVD).

    Enough of my favourite albums are poorly rated by “the people who take time to rate stuff online,” and I’m used to liking some things that most people just don’t.

    I do often follow the “people who bought this also bought” links (and I’ve found some great stuff that way), but if I like the sample/description/hype of something, I’ll buy it regardless of the rating.

  2. Thanks Muffy,

    There were comments here, and on my ‘Apple Kill the Radio Star’ post on how useful the recommendations can be in addition to the star rating systems (like the “people who bought this also bought”). I did some digging, and there are companies that actually specialize on this for web-site back ends… these people could have a lot of influence!

    Check out:



    The link above is to a blog post by Seth Godin who points to several challenges with these rating systems:

    1) They often include ratings from people who didn’t buy the product.

    2) Early versions of a new product attract a certain type of person: “the people who buy the first generation of a product are more likely to be enthusiasts. They are more forgiving. They like new things.”

    3) Reviews don’t reflect the product, but the passion people have for the product. Few people are going to take time to write about something that they feel deserves 3 stars.

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