SAN FRANCISCO – Last week a shopper nicknamed Bassi bought the Venture 2 Rain Jacket from The North Face's website and reviewed it, writing it was "wonderful" and "remains stylish while keeping you warm."
Two days before that, "Hippyengineer" wrote on the same site that water shook right off the jacket, but "I just wish it had a breast pocket." Last month, "Ed in Seattle" noted the coat was truly waterproof, even when he took his dog out for a walk in the rain.
Each review appeared on the North Face web site. And the REI website. And the Nordstrom site.
These are just three examples of review syndication, a growing effort by retailers to boost online sales by creating an alternate review ecosystem from Amazon, where an estimated 55% of U.S. online shoppers now begin their product search. Even Walmart, the No. 2 U.S. general online retailer, uses syndicated reviews as part of its ongoing effort to wrest more of the e-commerce market away from archival Amazon.
“Reviews are just table stakes now. If you want to sell online, you have to have them — and the more the better,” said Forrester e-commerce analyst Sucharita Mulpuru.
With 8.4% of all U.S. retail shopping now done on the web, according to the Department of Commerce, reviews will only become more important, raising the urgency for companies to offer plentiful, crowd-sourced insight.
For consumers that rely on these reviews to choose between one brand or model and another, it's important to know that a bounty of reviews doesn't necessarily mean killer demand for a certain toy or appliance. And few probably realize that a company, behind the scenes, has a hand in distributing reviews to various sites.
The online review space has had its share of scandals, including a raft of reviewers that Amazon sued in 2015 because they were posting fake reviewer to goose sales.
The three main companies that distribute reviews say they make clear that these reviews first appeared elsewhere, with a tag that shows the originating site. They also all say they don't edit or censor reviews to make them positive.
“The data shows that the more reviews a product has, the more likely they are to sell, even if the are reviews are negative,” said George Eberstadt, CEO of TurnTo, based in New York.
“If you’re looking at two identical items and one had 500 reviews and one has five, people assume the product with all the reviews sold 500 times better than the other one. Even though it’s not true, it affects sales,” he said.
New York-based TurnTo is one of a few companies that channel these reviews among a web of retailers. BazaarVoice and PowerReviews, both owned by private equity firms, are two others.
All offer a suite of software and support for brands. These range from "nudge" emails sent a few days after a product arrives that encourage the customer to write a review, to software and human scanners to make sure those reviews don't contain obscenities. The companies are paid by the brands on whose sites the original reviews are written.
On average, retailers receive 58% of their review content from syndication, according to PowerReviews.
In the case of North Face, the San Francisco-based companied hired PowerReviews to aggregate reviews customers wrote on its website and then disseminated them to retailers that sell North Face gear, including REI and Nordstrom. On Walmart.com, reviews for Lego products sold come from the Lego site, syndicated by PowerReviews.
REI uses syndicated reviews with the goal of providing as many authentic peer reviews of the products it sells as possible, with the intention of offering customers transparent, honest, information so they can make better informed decisions on their purchases, the company said.
North Face, Nordstrom and Walmart did not respond to USA TODAY requests for comment on review syndication.
Seven is good, thousands better
Reviews are crucial to what retailers call "conversion," turning browsers into buyers. A study published last year by researchers at Northeastern University found that items for sale on a website that included reviews were up to 270% more likely to entice browsers to buy than items that did not have reviews.
In many ways, reviews are the online equivalent of the salesperson in a brick and mortar store for online shoppers. If you were looking at an outdoor electrical outlet, you’d ask the salesperson which was most waterproof or lasted longest. Online, if there are enough reviews then chances are someone will have commented on the sturdiness of the product.
Without reviews to help a shopper decide, he or she often ends up on Amazon, which often offer thousands of reviews of each product. Often the shopper ends up completing the purchase there.
“The only way longterm that retailers and brands are going to be able to compete with Amazon is through collecting and having user-generated reviews," said Mike Lewis with BazaarVoice, the largest review syndication and marketing company in the United States.
Studies have shown that seven is a magic number when it comes to product reviews. Fewer than seven and there's a higher chance shoppers will go to a different site. "And if the product’s available for sale, you’re likely to buy it there. But once you get over seven reviews, that’s good. If you have 1,000, that’s better,” said Forrester's Mulpuru.
To get to seven and beyond, review syndicators bring in reviews from outside. So an espresso machine manufacturer's reviews might appear on the sites of many of the homeware companies where its machines were sold, from Sur La Table to William Sonoma to Crate & Barrel.
Credibility is key
A USA TODAY scan of reviews on multiple sites found most clearly showed where the review had come from, with an icon and text that described the originating site.
Reviewers agree to having their words posted on other sites via the Terms of Comment that they agree to when they originally post the reviews, though as with most terms of service agreements, it's unclear how many review-writers actually read all the fine print.
All three main companies reject reviews if they contain personally identifying information about the reviewer, profanity or inappropriate images, are blank reviews or about the wrong product.
But once you agree to share your thoughts with the world, know that you may find that review anywhere.
There's no way to opt-out of having a review syndicated "except for simply not posting the review," said Moog.