Ratings Are The New Brand
In 2009 I placed my first Amazon order. It was for a Tivoli AM/FM radio. I remember seeing it in stores and magazines at the time. It was lauded for its superior sound, sleek design and smooth dial. But mine stopped working after a few months. And so did the replacement Amazon sent me.
Over the next few years, I bought roughly 4–13 products on Amazon each year. Then came 2015, when I joined Amazon Prime, and 2016, when my wife and I had a baby. My Amazon usage suddenly surged. I placed 108 orders just last year, which included nearly every baby product you can think of.
It soon became obvious that I wasn’t alone. Approximately 60% of American households are now members of Prime, spending roughly $1,300 annually. This is a major evolution in consumer behavior, contributing to the close of retail chains nationally.
The often-cited reasons for Amazon’s growth have been its fast shipping, large catalogue, great customer service, and suite of perks for Prime members, such as Prime Video and Prime Music. These are all undoubtedly critical. Yet I believe there is another major factor: Amazon’s product ratings.
The Rise of Ratings
The number of product ratings published on Amazon have grown exponentially over the years. In 2013—the latest year for which complete ratings data are publicly available—there were over 26 million ratings published. That’s a 145% increase from the prior year, and a 366% increase from the year before that. You can only imagine that in the four years since 2013, when Amazon has experienced its greatest growth, that the number of ratings published each year has sky rocketed.
Why Ratings Matter
What’s meaningful about these figures is that Amazon’s product ratings are published by customers—people that actually use and evaluate products as you would.
While a professional reviewer may go to great lengths to test a product, their efforts pail in comparison to how customers will have collectively used and evaluated a product. Customers use a product while possessing varying sophistication levels. They subject products to every conceivable condition. And they get exposed to ancillary aspects of the consumer experience, such as customer support. So when one of these customers submits a rating for a product, they are providing a valuable data point.
In collecting millions of these data points, Amazon has quietly built the largest customer feedback database to ever have existed. Search for any product type and you will see that many of the product results have been rated by hundreds, or even thousands of people. When one of these products receives a high average rating (e.g. 4.8 stars), then the chances are that it’s a great product.
Personally, I have come to rely on these customer ratings when making purchase decisions — trying to find that sweet spot where a product has a high rating from a lot of people. And UI researchers have found that 70% of people ages 25–34 shop the same way. Ratings have changed how consumers make purchase decisions. Traditional notions of brand and hype are taking a backseat.
Amazon’s Search Problems
In some ways, buying products on Amazon is easy. If ratings don’t matter to you, and you know exactly what you want—such as paper towels—then you can complete your order in minutes; or even seconds by using Amazon’s Dash Buttons, Subscriptions, and “Buy It Again” recommendations.
However, if you came to Amazon to shop—that is, to compare products and their ratings, prices and features—then you’ll likely have a hard time. For instance, search for “bluetooth speaker” (the modern equivalent of my AM/FM radio), and you’ll get 112,635 results.
- The first results page alone features 35 seemingly identical speakers listed in an inexplicable order. Some of them are rated by a mere four people, while others have ratings as low as 3.9 stars.
- Twenty of these products are labeled “Best Seller,” an appealing yet misleading designation granted to products based on their hourly sales volume in a particular category. It isn’t an indicator of quality. The categories themselves are obscure classifications that are rarely relevant to one’s search term. Here, one of the top results is a “Best Seller” in the “Car Subwoofer Boxes and Enclosures” category.
- One of the products is labeled “Amazon’s Choice,” a more unique designation awarded based on a product’s price, availability and ratings. However, “Amazon’s Choice” products are frequently inferior to other products based on these parameters. And for this search term, “Amazon’s Choice” is suspiciously the AmazonBasics bluetooth speaker, a product made by Amazon itself.
- Over a quarter of the products on the first results page are prominently featured simply because they are ads.
- You don’t know which products are new, and which are outdated.
- It’s hard to tell which products are basic speakers, and which are higher-end.
- The product names are long, confusing and packed with keywords, such as this one: Wireless Bluetooth Speaker, ZOEE S1 Outdoor Portable Stereo Speaker with HD Audio and Enhanced Bass, Built-In Dual Driver Speakerphone, Bluetooth 4.0, Handsfree Calling, FM Radio and TF Card Slot
- While the sorting mechanism lets you filter by “Avg. Customer Rating,” it doesn’t take into account the number of people that rated each product. So a product with a five star rating can be listed by the top, even if it was rated by merely four people.
These issues are then amplified when you click on individual product pages, each of which contains many new data points to consider.
Overall, you’re likely to spend a lot of time deliberating, scrutinizing ratings and experiencing decision fatigue for just one purchase.
While Amazon has gotten many things right, it clearly still has issues. Issues that are inevitable when you’re trying to build the world’s largest marketplace; where you leave product classification to algorithms and crafty third-party sellers. So there is still room for much improvement.
A few week ago, I launched a product called MostPopular.xyz. It offers a radical approach to product discovery that is inspired by Amazon’s ratings phenomenon and search problems; as well as similar elements that exist in other popular online stores.
MostPopular.xyz lets you discover the highest-rated Amazon products, iOS apps and Chrome Extensions across hundreds of carefully thought-out categories.
How it Works → Rather than getting thousands of results when you search for a product, you get one. This one result is chosen based on an analysis of the number of customers that review each product and their average rating. Other data is also considered, such as availability, price, purchase/download volume, release date, ratings fraud indicators, and more.
So if you’re looking for the best yoga mat, email app, Chrome tab organizer, or just a basic bluetooth speaker, you get one result that most people love. It makes discovering great products incredibly efficient, and can be used as a one-stop starting point, or simply a reference during your search for something to buy.
Building MostPopular.xyz was an incredible journey. It’s the first site I built entirely from scratch, and the development process really deserves a blog post of its own.
I would love to hear what you think about the product and to evolve it based on your feedback. Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and sign up for updates below.