On Complex Opinions


We’ve often noticed that people tend toward extremes when assigning online product ratings. For Amazon products with an theoretically average (3 star) rating, more than 65% of all ratings lump into either the best or worst score – a ‘bimodal distribution’ in stats-speak.There are many potential reasons: a lack of clear criteria for different ratings, a desire to influence the displayed score, shameless promotion, spite, and so on. Whatever the reason, the end result is that many rating systems are essentially a thumbs-up, thumbs-down proposition and often give misleading information.
Fortunately, the lack of sophistication doesn’t carry over from quantitative ratings to text-based reviews. From what we’ve seen in the distribution of ratings, we might expect text-based reviews similarly to espouse straightforward points of view. Instead, most text-based product reviews actually contain ‘complex opinion’ – writing with at least one observation contrary to the overall argument. (There are some notable exceptions to this trend.)
As an example, in this Amazon listing for a Casio camera, 61% of the 46 English-language reviews mention both a positive and negative aspect of their experience. Considering the average review is only about four lines long, the amount of even-handedness is surprising. Other merchants, such as Best Buy, include designated fields in their review systems for Pros and Cons to encourage more considered opinions.

We find posts with complex opinion to be particularly valuable for three reasons:

  • The poster has nuanced thinking, and therefore a relatively more insightful perspective
  • The contrary point is important enough to mention, despite the poster’s overall impression
  • The poster is engaged enough with the topic to write a complex post
By looking at what draws fire from fans and compliments from critics we can track trends and derive insight into opinion far beyond simple positive/negative assessments. Interestingly, brands are starting to see value in allowing negative reviews as well, believing that permitting the negative lends an air of authenticity more credible than all-positive marketing speak.
It’s been said that, “We learn our virtues from our friends who love us; our faults from the enemy who hates us.” We like it the other way around, too.

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