Submitted by Lee Perlman, New Jersey Attorney.
When Camilla Vásquez and her husband, Rubén, went to a dealership to shop for a new car last June, they found the salesman affable and low-key. To their surprise, Dr. Vásquez said, the hard sell began after the deal was sealed. That’s when the salesman pulled out a binder of online reviews he wanted the couple to use as models for reporting on their shopping experience.
As a consumer, Dr. Vásquez was annoyed by the pushy tactics. But as a linguist who studies the language of online reviews, she was intrigued.
Back in 2009, Dr. Vásquez had begun studying hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, drawn to the narrative detail that some reviewers chose to include. “People were complaining about their experience, and some were really funny and also very writerly,” she said.
Wondering whether other reviews also tried to entertain as well as inform, she analyzed 1,000 reviews of hotels, restaurants, movies, consumer products and recipes from five sites: Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, Epicurious and Netflix. As she explains in a new scholarly book, “The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews” (Bloomsbury), the patterns in reviews reveal insights about the state of the English language and the mind of the modern consumer.
In general, the length of a review corresponded with an item’s price. On Amazon, for example, the longest reviews were for $500 blenders, while reviews of tea were shorter. The most frequent interjections were “wow,” “yeah,” “yuck,” “yikes,” “sheesh,” “yum” and “yippee.” Slang terms that showed up most often were “meh,” “whatever” and “the bomb.”
And adjectives were not always what they seemed. Wherever it appeared, the word “delicious” was always unambiguously positive, but not so with “good.” On all five sites, “good” often appeared very close to the words “but” and “not,” indicating ambivalence.
Reviewers often wrote statements like “It’s good, but I’m not in love with it,” or “It’s good but not fall on the floor dance a jig good.” Often, to retain its positive meaning, “good” had to be intensified with an adverb like “really,” “so” or “very.” She concluded that “good” on its own was undergoing a semantic shift, so that it often meant merely “acceptable.”
Also important were words like “expected” and “disappointed.” These predominated in both positive and negative reviews because people were comparing the actual product or service to the image or expectation they had in their heads, often from advertising. In this sense, a review is a report on the match between reality and expectations. And in a society where advertising can present even routine purchases as life-changing, “There are people who actually believe there’s a perfect product out there,” Dr. Vásquez came to realize.
She also tracked recurring chains of words, what linguists call n-grams. Among the most frequent three-word phrases, or three-grams, were “in the room” and “the front desk.” From these patterns, she surmised that consumers who stayed in hotels were about equally focused on the room’s quality as they were on customer service.
Frequent four-grams included “in the middle of,” “the rest of the” and “at the end of.” That fits with Dr. Vásquez’s observation that when people write about hotels, recipes or diaper bags, they like to tell stories. Narratives, she found, are more likely to appear in negative reviews than in positive ones.
Dr. Vásquez isn’t the only linguist taking a look at online reviews. In April, the computational linguist Dan Jurafsky at Stanford and others from Carnegie Mellon published an analysis of nearly 900,000 Yelp reviews of more than 6,000 restaurants. They found that reviews of more expensive restaurants generally contained longer sentences, suggesting a link between income and education levels. Also, the linguists suggested that writing a bad review was a way to cope psychologically with a negative experience.
Many people who shop online encounter all sorts of online reviews without giving them much thought, except in one regard: their veracity. Dr. Vásquez says she is often asked about fake reviews. A typical red flag is that they are usually posted by someone who has no other reviews listed and they don’t describe the product or service with certain details.
In 2011, researchers at Cornell University discovered that fake reviews tended to use more superlatives than real ones and used “I” and “we” more often. Companies use algorithms, presumably built on these linguistic principles, to remove fake reviews. But there may be more telling indicators. Dr. Vásquez says that one possible sign of a fake hotel review is an absence of spatial information about the room.
Then there are the reviews that a company asks customers to write, like the type Dr. Vásquez encountered at the car dealership. They are not outright fraudulent, nor are they to be viewed completely without suspicion. Solicited reviews occupy a kind of gray area, and she says it is hard to know how many are out there, as most reviewers don’t disclose whether their comments were solicited.
Despite a popular focus on fraudulent reviews, Dr. Vásquez says they are a small fraction of all reviews, so she focused her efforts on the elaborate storytelling and displays of expertise in reviews on the five sites she studied.
As Youngme Moon, a professor at Harvard Business School, noted in her book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd,” consumers come to know a lot about certain categories of goods and services. A review is a demonstration of their knowledge. And on some sites, consumers’ reviews can look a lot like lifestyle mini-blogs. (Hey, look at me, I shop at Patagonia, and I demand a lot from my shoes.)
Dr. Vásquez found that 25 percent of the reviews she studied showcased the writer’s expertise, with sentences like “I cook a lot of duck” and “I’m on baby #2, so I feel like I learned a lot from the first one.”
In general, Dr. Vásquez found online reviews to be remarkably well written. “If you are going to be taken seriously, sounding like a literate person is part of what you want to convey,” she said. Thus, people tend to write in complete sentences and structure their reviews. Some go further, including dialogue, flashbacks and other literary devices, as if experimenting with the genre as a creative outlet.
People are becoming literary connoisseurs of the online comment field. This has helped drive the popularity of parody reviews on Amazon for products like banana slicers and pens for women or reviews on TripAdvisor of the Grand Budapest Hotel, the fictional resort featured in Wes Anderson’s recent movie of the same name. Dr. Vásquez says she will be writing about these types of reviews next.
In talking about her research, she met other people who actively collect reviews, and she has favorites of her own, such as a Netflix review of the movie “Biutiful,” written as a haiku: “The nose of Bardem/Its flatness brings him closer/To the screen, and death.”
“I like reviews that surprise and delight me,” she said. “I see this as an active and creative expression of what writers have the power to do.” In other words, online reviewers are more than consumers.
Originally published by the New York Times, here.