Retailers’ online reviews can be letting them down even when they are all positive, either because they are obviously fake, or for more subtle reasons.

A survey of attitudes to online reviews among 2,000 UK consumers suggests firms can benefit more from reviews – without paying for them, or improving their products.

“There is no need to leave customers adrift on a sea of unreliable reviews,” says Matt West, CMO at Feefo, the global customer analytics provider that commissioned the survey.

“We have solutions based on machine learning and natural language processing that accelerate customer-insight. This empowers businesses to cultivate higher levels of trust among consumers, generating very positive results on a company’s bottom line.”

The survey found that 74% of UK shoppers are influenced by online reviews, even though 75% are worried they might be fake.

“Consumers are increasingly sceptical about online reviews’ authenticity,” says West. “Businesses can do more to overcome (this obstacle) through the deployment of advanced technologies such as sentiment analysis. If they don’t, they risk losing out on a valuable source of engagement and market insight, jeopardising their own reputations for customer service.”

Sentiment analysis is the process of computationally identifying and categorizing opinions expressed in a piece of text, especially in order to determine whether the writer’s attitude towards a particular topic, product, etc. is positive, negative, or neutral.

The survey confirms the growing importance of reviews. 66% of respondents said online reviews were what they looked at first after comparing the prices of products and services. For a high-cost purchase such as a house or car, respondents said they will read an average of 55 reviews.

The research shows 81% of customers start their product research online no matter where or how they end up buying, and that in the absence of independent verification, they fall back on a mixture of gut-feeling, common sense and experience when they look at reviews. 69% said they trust fellow shoppers’ recommendations and 76% said the tone of reviews is as important to them as the star ratings attributed by reviewers to a product or service. Another 60% said language and tone are among the top three factors likely to inspire trust in a review.

More than eight-out-of-ten (81%) said they read several negative reviews to see if there is a consistent thread or theme. The majority (54%) are suspicious if there are no negative reviews, while just less than half (49%) said they do not trust anonymous reviews.

The survey also found customers are more likely to leave a review if they are asked to do so, and, not surprisingly, that the strongest incentive to leave a review is a financial reward.