92 percent of consumers use online reviews. That means only 8 percent of America’s population isn’t looking up what others are saying before they make their own purchase. Not only that, not quite half of the population – 44 percent – believes that only reviews from the last four months are relevant when making a purchasing decision.

That’s a lot of pressure on companies to keep up a fully charged, positive spin online with customers. That pressure can lead to another impressive statistic about online reviews. A full third of consumers will only trust reviews if they believe they are authentic – and that means customers are trusting online reviews less.

The Art of the Online Review

It used to be that we had to rely on the experts to try things out for us and tell us which was best. An entire industry sprung up around these experiments and reports and publications like Consumer Reports are still used for this purpose today. But while the expert feedback is always good, what matters even more to the typical consumer is what others have to say about their experience. If something is good enough for a friend of mine, it’s probably going to be good enough for me.

A first we could only rely on word-of-mouth recommendations. Now we have the wide world of the internet at our fingertips, simply bursting with reviews and customer experiences. It’s a challenge to find a retail website that doesn’t offer customer reviews of specific products, while other websites – like this one – collect reviews about a number of businesses and industries.

With more than 90 percent of consumers now checking out new local businesses online, it stands to reason that more than 90 percent of the population is also making decisions about these businesses based on the reviews others have left. Restaurants and cafes are easily the most popular type of business reviewed online, but it is possible to find reviews about doctors, hotels, airlines, clothing, books, dentists, realtors, schools and even driving instructors. Consumers are searching, reading and basing their decisions on all of these reviews.

Choosing a Good Business

Simply having a review or two online isn’t enough to satisfy most new consumers. On the other hand, having thousands of reviews isn’t much help either since most customers only read the ten most recent reviews. Many read fewer than that.

It would probably surprise business owners how much information would-be consumers pull out of reviews online. Not only is the potential customer reading to understand another patron’s experience, but they are looking at the number of stars other customers have left for the business as well as how well the review was written and even the age of the reviewer. A forty-year-old isn’t looking for the same sort of café experience as a sixteen-year-old, of course.

Overall, however, it is the star ranking – the most visual aspect of reviews – customers react to most. Most only select companies with at least 3 stars. Almost half will only work with businesses that have earned at least 4 stars out of five. But regardless of stars, some individuals find themselves impressed and swayed by a company that makes it a point to reply and respond to posted online reviews. A company willing to try to publicly acknowledge and address an issue gets a favorable boost from customers.

Trusting Reviews

There is one tiny hiccup for customers in the world of online reviews and it is growing larger with time. Customers are trusting reviews less than ever. An increasing percentage of consumers will only trust a review they feel is “authentic.”

While this is great news for the public’s increasing ability to think critically online and not be swayed by nonsense, it presents a challenge to companies. Customers are skeptical. Reports of companies being able to cherry-pick reviews, dropping negative ones in favor of more positive ones, makes people raise eyebrows. The emergence of an entire industry paid to post positive reviews on products certainly doesn’t help.

It’s not just fake positive reviews customers must be wary of. Some unethical companies, or even unethical fans of a company, may post negative reviews about a competitor, posing as an irate customer.

The increased volume of online reviews has naturally led to an increased number of possible issues, leaving customers cautious and businesses on edge. The best solution for building trust with online reviews is to read a larger variety of reviews from a variety of viewpoints. Go back a few weeks and check how reviews are trending. Fake reviews will almost all ways stand out from the real ones over the course of time.