Finding the Truth in a One-Star Review

Social media has allowed customers and companies to engage in unprecedented communication. It has also allowed customers to review and share experiences like never before. I remember a few years ago when I got my very first job, my manager explained to me that when customers have a bad experience they will usually tell up to 40 people, but when they have a positive experience we would be lucky if they told half that amount. I’ve often wondered how these little statistical facts have changed now that social media has changed how people share their experiences.





One area of the social media review function that has always intrigued me is the validity of a one-star review.

Obviously, there are companies that give poor service, and customers have every right to share their views. Not to mention, other customers absolutely benefit from this information when they are deciding where to spend their hard-earned money. However, I often feel that the abundance of one-star reviews ends up saturating each other and then the truly negative experiences that people have are just lost in the noise. This has proven a real need to be able to distinguish between different levels of negative experiences, beyond the simple 5-star rating system.

I often wonder: how bad does an experience have to be to be rated a one-star? I’ve seen one-star ratings for everything from a late delivery of a pizza to a veterinarian mistakenly putting down the wrong pet. For this reason, I have come up with a few tricks to find the truth in negative reviews.

First, when I see a reviewer give a scathing review of a place, I look at other reviews made by that person to make sure that they are not just a chronic complainer. I still remember seeing one Google user that gave 5 different Wal-Marts in Ottawa a one-star rating without giving a comment…obviously this guy has a grievance with Wal-Mart in general not just one particular store or experience.

Next, I look for reviews that are associated with detailed comments. A one-star review without any comment or with a simple “gross” or “terrible” is not informative or detailed enough for me to take it seriously. In order to truly understand a review, I only give credence to reviews that give specifics about a situation. This also allows me to see if a story has credibility because a story with consistent details is hard to make up.

In reading the comments, I then narrow down the thought process of the reviewer. I see if the reviewer had unrealistic expectations ahead of time, which could have been the cause of the negative experience. I often think that people who give McDonalds a one-star review have some strange standards…it’s McDonalds what were you expecting? However, I must admit that I also question the standards of people that give McDonalds a 5-star rating!

Here is a video clip about famous chef Anthony Bourdain’s opinion on the restaurant review site Yelp:


Now this is not to say that I do not put any faith in bad reviews, I just dig deeper before I make my decision. For me personally, I tend to look at patterns in bad reviews. I ask myself a few questions: Did multiple people complain about the same issue? Were these reviews spread out over a period of time? Does this person just have a personal vendetta or is it a legitimate complaint?

An issue that is complained about by multiple people is obviously a legitimate complaint because more than one person was able to spot it. If the review is from a few years ago and there has been no mention of it recently then it is likely that the issue has been fixed, but if the same issue has spread accross an extended period of time then it likely is not going to be fixed anytime soon. Finally, if a person’s complaint is not echoed by other people then it is very possible that this complaint is speciifc to the indviidual customer and not the company.

By following this process, I have found that I have been able to find some truth in one-star ratings.

One really good trick that I use to find out the truth is that I look for positive reviews and then I see if they mentioned anything remotely negative, even if they did it hesitantly. I often see highly-rated positive reviews where people say “Everything was great, but I must admit I did not really like…”. This type of information is more reliable than a purely negative review where someone is just venting. When you can get a happy customer to say what is bad about a company, this is often where the real truth is found because they do not have any real gripes with the company, they are just commenting about the facts that they observe.


Tell me in the comments about your opinion of online reviews. When you see a one-star rating, do you immediately accept it or do you look deeper? Have you ever left a one-star review? What was the threshold that you used to not rank it higher?

Facebook: Is a one-star review reliable?

Twitter: How often do you give a one-star review?



One thought on “Finding the Truth in a One-Star Review

  1. A couple of years ago, I went to by a power pack for a trip. When I told my daughter I had found one, she asked about how it was reviewed. When I told her there were no reviews, she very quickly told me not to buy that one and to only buy one that had good reviews. I think that’s when I started paying attention! Last month, I was in the market for a new coffee machine. When I found one that interested me, I looked at the reviews. One person said it was the best coffee they ever had and another person said it was the worst, complete with grounds!! I ended up buying the machine to try it and brought it back the next day because it was sooooooo sloooooow to brew! That was never mentioned! The only time I left a one star review was not product related. There was a conflict in a shipping charge and the company would never return my (many) calls. I posted on Facebook with the same results and they even ignored the Better Business Bureau! Needless to say, they lost a steady customer.

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