We've all spent some time checking out online reviews. While businesses want nothing but good reviews, a new study shows that sometimes mixed reviews can actually help drive up sales. Here's why.

Review systems and review sites come under fire regularly for the ways their reviews do and don't fairly represent the products and services they describe. A frequent complaint is the way that a scattering of bad reviews, some of them given for foolish or personal reasons, can scare potential customers away. But a recent study shows that sometimes bad reviews can work in a business's favor, by giving potential customers a sense that the business delivers a product that's interesting and is catered to their particular taste or needs.

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To be fair, this won't work with products like laundromats or paper plates. Taste and preference don't factor into these things. All people want to know is if the reviewed item will get their clothes clean and keep their food from hitting the floor. Any variation in these reviews is a pure negative. But when it comes to reviews of restaurants or movies, a few bad reviews are chalked up to the individual tastes of the reviewer.

And certain bad reviews can be a boon for sales. A bad review that criticizes a computer for having "too many features" could be seen by people who are more proficient with computers as a positive recommendation. A review about the food at a restaurant being "too low-brow" can encourage customers who want to be casual.

In fact, the recent study showed that businesses could actually use this information to their advantage. After showing a group of volunteers charts that showed the distribution of ratings in a review system, the researchers found that the volunteers were likely to ignore bad reviews if they thought that the reviews reflected merely the taste of the reviewer, rather than the quality of the product. By "proactively" marketing their product as something that is subject to taste — even if it's just taste in the packaging of the product — rather than grounded in quality, companies can steer consumers into disregarding bad reviews.

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For those of us that aren't marketing sub-par consumer products, bad reviews can still be a source of great information. I often concentrate only on one-star reviews to decide on which products I want to buy. A good review is typically bland. But bad reviews actually help me determine if a product is right for me. When it comes to instruction books, I look for bad reviews that complain that the book was "too basic." When it's time to eat, I look for food that's "really sugary," or restaurants that "give you too much food." Sometimes the best way to find out about something is listening to its critics.

Image: Hobvias Sudoneighm

[Source: Why Is The Crowd Divided?]