Friday, February 03, 2006

Article Note: On the Effect of Online Book Reviews

Citation for the article:

Lin, Tom M.Y., et. al. "Effect of Internet Book Reviews on Purchase Intention: A Focus Group Study." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31.5 (September 2005): 461-468.

I read the article in print.

The title of this article caught my attention because I do select a lot of the items for our collection based on reviews. I do use online reviews, and one of the things I have thought about is the issue of anonymous reviews, though not as much these days. I think a lot of librarians think about that because our profession places a strong emphasis on credibility of sources and authority. Yet the article reveals that to many book buyers, this is not an issue at all. While the article is mostly geared to online bookstore marketing, it still has some useful information for librarians.

The research is significant because of the proliferation of online book reviews on company Web sites as well as individual Web sites. I take that last to mean blogs as well, though blogs are not actually mentioned. This may be yet another area for further research, one that was not suggested by the authors. The article's literature review looks at how the authority and authorship of book reviews has changed from professionals to amateurs. Two definitions:
  • "Consequently, in this study we define Internet book reviews as all public reviews of published books by readers on the Web sites of bookstores, publishers, or private individuals" (462).
  • "Schiffman and Kanuk pointed out that purchase intention is a measure of the possibility that a consumer will purchase a product: the higher the purchase intention expressed, the greater the possibility of a purchase" (462).
The authors extrapolate from the literature that Internet book reviews do have an effect on purchase intention. To prove it, they conducted a series of focus group interviews with college students. They looked at review length, positive or negative reviews, order of reviews on a site, and anonymity. In terms of number of reviews, this is still up the in the air. The authors suggest that while the number of reviews has an effect, there is no way to know the optimal number of reviews. In other words, there is no way to know how many reviews is too many. However, a large number of reviews is seen as an indication that a book generates interest in readers. The focus readers stated that positive and negative reviews do have an effect. In terms of the order of reviews, the finding was that the more negative reviews up front, the lower the effect on purchase intention. As for anonymity, this did not seem to bother the members of the focus groups. Reasons for this include:
  • That a reviewer is seen as someone who has something to say about a book, that people will review a book if the book moves them to respond to it.
  • Anonymous reviews are common.
  • Even if there is a name on a review, it does not mean that it is the person's real name. (This sounded quite cynical to me, yet it seems very true. All one has to do is take a look at Amazon's reviews and some of the names people use.)
The authors suggest that Internet bookstores should pay attention to these results which affect their consumers' purchasing intentions. They also offer suggestions for librarians:

"Additionally, librarians could reference the results to assist their borrowers to manage and utilize Internet commentaries and Internet word-of-mouth communications. For example, a book information system such as an online catalog could provide a linking service and a publishing window for Internet book reviews. A borrower could use this catalog to arrive at a better judgment abotu the value of a book and, subsequently, to publish a review of the book" (466).

This sounds like some of the ideas that have been floating around the L2 meme. We have heard talk of making OPACs more interactive. Some public libraries have done this, but they have also used tools like blogs to allow their patrons to publish reviews and comments on books and other items. This seems to be yet another confirmation of something that can work. The authors close the article with this suggestion for further research:

"As this research proposes that Internet book reviews can affect consumer purchasing decisions, further study could focus on how librarians can unify the comments of specialized teachers or academic professors in an Internet review forum, which could then be used for better collection development" (466).

This suggestion addresses the concern that many librarians have about Internet reviews: that anyone can go in and write a review regardless of expertise. What is exciting about such a medium is what seems to scare some folks. Yes, it can be a risk, but now and then one has to take risks. I said it addresses the concern because the suggestion is unify the comments of teachers and professors, who are deemed to be authoritative. Now, this may be a good idea, but I am not sure how it could be implemented. Well, maybe it is a matter of collaboration: finding experts like teachers and professors and librarians to come together and pool their collective knowledge to create a review tool that will be useful. One of the complaints people have about resources like Choice and Booklist is that they seem to provide only positive reviews, often just an echo chamber. I know I have wondered about that myself, and it is something I find irritating with Choice reviews, that some professor in the middle of nowhere U.S.A. points out a flaw or two with a book and still goes ahead and recommends it. I don't find that very credible, so if we were to make some sort of unified resource, we would need to do a lot better than that. It would be an open resource to all. Anyhow, some food for thought. The article mostly confirms some issues that many of us probably knew already.

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