Granite Geek: With online reviews, ‘In mobile we trust’

Published: 7/29/2019 3:52:02 PM


When it comes to online reviews, I have a rule: They’re all propaganda.

If they’re positive, they were placed by the restaurant/hotel/manufacturer. If they’re negative, they were placed by a competitor. None are real and I ignore them all.

This might be a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but what else can I do? Online reviews are very easy to fake and we have no good way to judge their validity.

Lauren Grewal, an assistant professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, has found that some people have an interesting, and probably subconscious, response to this problem. They put more trust in reviews that come from smartphones rather than computers.

“That’s the key thing: It seems to be a cue that people can use for credibility, for value,” said Grewal.

This intriguing discovery is the product of a clever piece of research that examined reviews on TripAdvisor and compared people’s actions.

In their paper, called “In Mobile We Trust” and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Grewal and Andrew Stephen of the University of Oxford analyzed around 1.5 million public reviews posted on TripAdvisor between 2012 and 2015.

Why TripAdvisor? It’s a travel site where members can post their opinions about locations – such as one person’s gripe that the New Hampshire State House has “Small grounds, dubious statues,” which is entertaining if not terribly useful – but the key point is that it flags when a review is posted from a “mobile device” like a smartphone. That provided the comparison data they needed.

Grewal is a marketing professor who is interested in “how consumers take in digital content, and how differences in digital content subsequently influence behavior.” The idea of seeing if there is any smartphone-vs.-computer effect came about in a conversation with Stephen, her grad school adviser.

They examined how many “helpful” votes were received by reviews and compared their source, and also ran five experiments to see how and if such reviews affected purchases. They found that when people knew a positive review was written on a mobile device, they were more likely to like it and buy the product. But why?

“Our initial inclination was that mobile was seen as being more recent, or seen as having a more concrete aspect to it, which led to higher credibility and accuracy,” she said. “But that’s not what we found.”

Instead, the key point seems to be that it’s a comparative pain in the neck to write something on a telephone as compared to a computer keyboard.

“Mobile is seen as more effortful. It takes a little bit more physical effort to write a good view on a small device,” she said.

The thinking is that you’re less likely to go to all that effort unless you’ve got something legitimate to say. “It’s one of those subtle cues that you don’t think about, you don’t search out for it. It could sway you without you explicitly considering it,” Grewal added.

This makes perfect sense to me, although it hadn’t occurred to me earlier.

There’s a catch, however. It only applies to positive reviews.

This limitation, the paper said, reflects the fact that people tend to value negative information more than positive information. (By the way, that is why politicians attack each other instead of talking about issues – we fall for it.)

“With negative reviews, as consumers are placing more weight on the information provided in the review, they are less likely to use heuristic cues, such as the mobile effort heuristic, as part of their decision-making process,” the authors wrote.

I think there’s another factor: Fake-review-generating software seems less likely on smartphone apps than on desktop computers, so we think mobile reviews are more likely to come from real people. I’m not sure this is true, but it could certainly affect opinions.

There’s another potential caveat to this finding. It may not last.

Grewal, 29, says she’s part of the “always-on-the-phone” generation but is also in the transition between flip phones and smartphones. Typing with your thumbs on a little phone keyboard came long after she had mastered typing with fingers on a full keyboard. For children today, that order may be reversed. To them, not using a mobile device may be the more “effortful” approach.

And, of course, if voice-generated text software becomes widespread, any difference will disappear. But for the time being, it’s a fascinating phenomenon.

Talking to Grewal showed me that the entire issue of how people judge online comments is way more complicated than I’d thought.

“There are other types of cues that can exist in reviews that cause discounting,” she said. For example: ​​ “Reviews that were written close to an experience and negative were more likely to be discounted – they are perceived to be venting.”

“There are a lot of other cues that people use for fake reviews,” she said. That probably explains why more people don’t adopt by baby-and-bathwater routine; they get the feeling they can separate the wheat from the chaff.

“Despite skepticism that’s around content online, it is still considered one of the most valuable ways for consumers to feel they’re getting safe information,” she said.

I’ll keep that in mind as my thumbs work through the 17th review I’ve posted this week about the Granite Geek blog. I just wish autocorrect wouldn’t keep changing “insightful” to “insincere.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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