What’s new in customer reviews

May 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Think customer reviews aren’t important to e-commerce sites? Think again. Even if your site is using all of the traditional e-commerce tools — prominent and accessible refinement controls, guided navigation, easy-to-use comparison charts, and so on — customers may still need help choosing. And most have come to rely on input from other shoppers via reviews.

Consider the 800-lb. gorilla, Amazon.com. During its 14-year existence, users have come to trust Amazon as a place they can turn to when deciding what to buy.

In the early days, Amazon may have been the only game in town. Now, there are myriad competing outlets for the same products.

So why do users continue to overwhelmingly choose Amazon? Brand recognition is part of the answer, of course. Many people simply think “Amazon” when they think of shopping online.

But in an age when consumers frequently search for what they want to buy before choosing where to buy, the brand of the retail outlet goes only so far. The other factor driving users to Amazon is the presence and recommends of other users.

Savvy shoppers know that if they start at Amazon, they have a good chance of seeing dozens, if not hundreds, of reviews by users just like themselves. These reviews cut through the marketing veil and present the true story of how the product performs in the real world.

These user reviews, more than anything else, form the foundation of social commerce. They allow the retailers to build a bedrock of trust for the products they sell.

But creating that sense of trust, in the case of Amazon, took many years — not to mention a visionary head start in the e-commerce field. That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost for the rest of the field, however. Several third-party social commerce specialists can provide a substantial, ready-to-use body of trusted, user-generated content.

Social commerce technology providers such as Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews offer a network of consumer reviews and other user-generated content that spans a wide range of retail outlets. The idea is that in the aggregate, the reviews and ratings of hundreds of individual e-commerce sites can equal or surpass the social content — and inherent consumer trust — of a giant like Amazon.

This can be helpful to retailers offering a variety of brands or products for which consumers may need guidance when choosing. From day one of a site’s presence on the Web, product pages can be filled with ratings and reviews that help guide the consumer from browsing to purchasing.

Through features like Bazaarvoice’s BrandVoice, a merchant can launch a site prepopulated with reviews syndicated directly from the product manufacturer. Likewise, the reviews entered on a retail site can then be syndicated outwards to various comparison sites, complete with backlinks to the retailer to funnel new customers in.

User-generate content and SEO

As venues across the Web have begun to embrace social commerce, collateral advantages have appeared beyond the initial goal of increasing user trust and confidence. The presence of user-generated content on a Web page naturally increases the level of overall content. This leads to higher rankings as search engines improve their algorithms to minimize the scoring of “skeleton pages” with little content.

What’s more, user-generated content is specific to the topic at hand and is bound to have a high concentration of the keywords relevant to the product. This, too, will drive up search rankings and improve overall SEO.

Diapers.com, a PowerReviews client, saw a 33%-plus increase in sales conversions from search traffic due to the vendor’s inline SEO functionality that guides users from customer-review generated search results directly to the product pages where the items can be bought.

Beyond improved SEO, user reviews also provide a highly targeted body of market research, instantly available for use in enhancing product placement and product selection.

But if a retailer’s site is using an aggregate service to provide its reviews, what happens if that service goes away? Both PowerReviews and Bazaarvoice limit this risk by providing to the customer a download of all of their reviews, so they could be used separately from the service if needed.

Both Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews are expanding into other areas of social commerce, including providing user-generated FAQs for products and entire user stories tied to specific products. These services expand the scope of consumer content, allowing the average person to provide more of the meat on an e-commerce site.

The power of user-generated content, anchored by user reviews and ratings, has shaped the growth of e-commerce since the beginning. As the Internet becomes increasingly social, commerce on the Internet will follow suit. Accepted models of social commerce will be joined side by side with growing amounts of user-generated content and ties to social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of lines of copy are written for free by bloggers and everyday consumers across the globe. New APIs allow seamless integration of this content into the e-commerce business stream.

Allowing it to appear on retailers’ product pages as unsolicited testimonials, further providing that comfort level to the shopper that someone else, just like her, is thinking about the same products that she is.

“Reviews are the tip of the iceberg,” says Sam Decker, chief marketing officer of Bazaarvoice, “and we see retailers starting to take this beyond this one feature and becoming much more strategic to compete for their customers’ engagement and spend.”

But no matter how vendors integrate these new technologies, for the retailer the bottom line remains the same: What works in e-commerce is whatever turns a browser into a buyer.

Randy Yarger is lead engineer at Fry, an e-commerce systems provider based in Ann Arbor, MI.

More power to the small players

Social commerce content provider PowerReviews is targeting small- and medium-size retailers and brands with its new PowerReviews Express. The on-demand version, which launched in December, “breaks every barrier we know for retailers, so reviews will be on almost every retail site within a year or two,” boasts the vendor’s vice president of marketing Darby Williams.

As another way to leverage its product for more revenue, the vendor in April 2007 launched Buzzillions.com, a clearinghouse of sorts that contains all of the products offered by all of its clients. This, in theory, creates a one-stop-shop for consumers to review, rate, discuss and, of course, buy.

Does it work? Dawn Bronkema, director of e-commerce marketing for general merchant Meijer, believes this model helps both PowerReviews and its clients. “Since PowerReviews’ content is aggregated to a portal site, Buzzillions.com, we attract many customers from Buzzillions.”