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How To Engage Customers In Your E-Commerce Website

One of the most influential factors in our buying decisions is the opinions of our friends and relatives. Likewise, a large majority of online shoppers now trust what other customers say about the products they buy more than the e-tailers themselves. The reason is that we trust people who are “on our side,”1 even if we do not know them personally.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

This attitude was described as the “Amazon effect” by Joshua Porter in his book Designing for the Social Web. He observed during his tests that people always started shopping on Amazon first. Their main reason was not that Amazon was better or that they had an Amazon account; they simply knew that on Amazon they could always find trustworthy information provided by people like them. They wanted to know the “truth,” not an idealistic vision of the product decorated by marketing cliches.

Positive And Negative Effects Link

User feedback like Amazon’s could prove to be a valuable service for your customers and could trigger several positive effects. It doesn’t really matter how much information you present about your product, it will still be biased by its nature. Reviews with personal stories and remarks from people who just had an experience with your product, though, can elicit trust in a way that a simple product info page could never do. Detailed information about the reviewer creates a personality (and obviously a realistic story about the product) with whom we can identify. Good stories are easier to understand and remember. They show us how a product works in the real world and with real usage. They also provide a sense of objectivity and authenticity to potential customers.

First of all, reviews and ratings generate conversions as in the case of Hayneedle (formerly Netshops), which increased its sales by 26% after displaying user feedback. This percentage could be even higher, according to PowerReviews6. While the fear that negative feedback might harm sales is not entirely unfounded, do not be too concerned, because reviewers are twice as likely to write positive reviews than negative ones7. Even if you lose some sales of your mediocre products, you’ll win in the end because you will have sold many more of your superior ones.

Moreover, negative reviews are not all that bad. As John McAteer, Google’s retail industry director, says, “No one trusts all positive reviews.” In the absence of negative reviews, visitors will assume that all of your reviews are fake. No service or product is perfect. Potential customers want to know what could go wrong with it. But if they cannot sympathize with a negative reviewer, they may be inclined to purchase your product. (Also, see also further reasons.)

People sometimes want to read only negative reviews because they already have a positive impression of a product and want to know about disadvantages (intentionally or unintentionally) not mentioned by the provider. An unfair negative review could entice people to write positive reviews to mitigate the negative one and defend their favorite.

A review on Hammocks.com9 (a sub-site of Hayneedle10).

Getting quality feedback could help you cut back on the number of products returned, and you might want to think about eliminating products that have gotten low ratings and focus instead on popular ones. Customer contributions could keep product pages fresh, which is important to young shoppers, who seek out social content and customer ratings11. Users tend to have less trust in outdated reviews. Perhaps a product has been improved but is not reflected in the post. Or vice versa: perhaps a newer version of the product introduced some new bugs which haven’t been discovered yet.

An online shop with fresh BlackBerry reviews. The page would be even better if newer content appeared at the top.

Content and good keywords could help your search engine optimization efforts as well. To allow Google to find everything in one place, present all comments and reviews on one single page — very much like Amazon does it. Also, keep in mind that in most cases people do not mind scrolling12, whereas clicking and waiting for content to load can be irritating.

User-generated content has some further risks, too: for instance, competitors could invade your website to plant fake reviews. To avoid this, moderate the review section and invite users to report any concern they have with a review. Moderating reviews is a powerful tool, but you need to make sure that you use it responsibly. If you are not careful, you could develop the habit of deleting reviews that actually do serve your business. Moderate only those reviews that state untruthful things or that are abusive or do not contain any helpful information. Otherwise, simply adding your opinion to a comment is better.

Be transparent, open-minded and authentic: reply to the negative comment and explain why in your opinion it is wrong or what other features of the product or service could mitigate the negative experience the user had. In fact, if your comment is meaningful and helpful, you may be able to win loyal customers by providing them with alternative options that are perfectly tailored to their interests. If you have a substantial group of enthusiastic reviewers, the good reviews and positive effects will drown out the negative reviews.

In the following sections, we’ll analyze how you can make it easy for users to give quality feedback and share it with other visitors. We’ll focus on ratings, reviews, the interaction facilitated by them, as well as some aspects of sharing. Obviously, there are many other ways to involve users (and we may get to them in one of the following articles), but mastering these will boost your business.

These recommendations mainly concern usability. Obviously, they alone won’t get people to immediately start writing many reviews and rate your products. Use offline and online marketing techniques to get all cylinders firing, and then build on whatever momentum you generate. Contact buyers after a sale to get their input. Use coupons, incentives, contests, prizes and email campaigns to motivate them. Implementing these techniques is a must if your target audience is not already passionate about your product.

Ratings Link

Collecting ratings is a quick and dirty way to collect valuable product information from users. Ratings can be given in a second, and so they do not interrupt the user’s main activity and (usually) do not require them to log in. While ratings are a simple tool, make sure they are simple and straightforward: even tiny deviations from conventions can affect their usefulness.

For maximum effectiveness, it seems reasonable to use simple metaphors such as stars for ratings (1 — 5) and thumbs up / thumbs down for voting (vote up, vote down). A website with loyal or tech-savvy users might try to add value or humor by using symbols other than stars or hands, but sometimes it’s just not worth getting creative. A particularly educated or expert audience might appreciate 10 stars. It is probably not a good idea to use an unusual number of stars, like seven, which will rather confuse most people.

Enable people to rate with one click, and light up empty stars (or whatever your symbol is) on mouse-over to suggest that the area is clickable. Even if the function of ratings is quite obvious, help out visitors with description of each level, like “Perfect,” “Good” and “Miserable.”

ibeatyou14 has unique rating symbols and contains text descriptions.

Ask users to rate using a very direct, precise language: nothing can beat the good old “rate the product” wording which is as clear as it can get. Communicate clearly what users are being asked to rate: depending on the current context, it may be not clear if you are asking to rate a brand, a product or customer service. And make sure that rating labels are unambiguous for novice users, too. Even if users understand the rating system, they may not know whether the ratings have been given by customers, the website owner, the manufacturer or independent experts.

When users have clicked on a rating, clearly show the results, for instance using a different color like RYZ does, which clarifies that their vote has been accounted for and prevents them from voting again.

RYZ clearly displays ratings using various colors.

Shopzilla16 uses custom but easily understandable icons.

Indicate the number of votes each rating has received, because one five-star rating from an enthusiastic user isn’t comparable with a hundred five-star ratings from different customers. The relevance of the voting depends on the number of votes given to the product. It may be a good idea to show every rating tally in a small table, as iTunes does, because slight variations could reinforce the belief among users that the opinions of customers are balanced.

Amazon372418 displays detailed ratings right in the listing.

Always show ratings in sections where you actually display the main description of the product, and allow users to order and filter by rating on the search result pages. Position the ratings beside or close to the product name to enable quick scanning. The information is key, so let users find it easily.

Ratings appear near product names on Argos20. The “Customer top rated” tab is an easy way to see what’s popular.

Getting Reviews Link

It is cruical to make the process of adding review as easy as possible. Users will not be very motivated to contribute anything at the beginning, so allow them to write a review simply by hitting a ‘write a review’-button located close to the ratings at the top of the page. If your product has variations or versions, indicate which one they’re reviewing.

You could ask customers to write reviews by e-mailing them, but be careful with timing. Customers may need time to form an opinion about your product. With an electronic device, they may know whether they like it within days. With a book, they may need weeks or months. In the latter case, asking for a review after a week could only annoy the buyer who will be very likely to block or ignore your e-mails in the future.

The “Write a review” link on Barnes & Noble22.

Amazon372418‘s simple review interface.

While the quality of reviews is crucial, you might want to invite users to choose from a predefined list of pros and cons, allowing them to suggest additional ones, which become visible after you moderate them. Letting users set their profile — such as by indicating whether they are a “heavy user,” “occasional user,” etc. — and explaining how to use a product best could give customers some useful hints. Your reviewers will probably not be professional writers; give them hints and tips on how to write a good review, even showing examples if possible.

iTunes26 shows tips to reviewers.

Defining pros and cons on Compact Appliance353028.

Users should be able to preview their own review before submitting it. Let the users correct mistakes and information that they provided. What sounded harsh in the beginning, may have turned out to be a minor issue in the end, compared with all advantages a certain product has given the customer in the end. Also, don’t forget to mention how and when the review will be process and published. Will it be moderated or will it appear right away? Provide users with a genuine estimate, not vague terms.

Compact Appliance353028 asks for additional information from the reviewer. Requring too much is not a very good approach, but potential customers will be able to get a better understanding of the reviewer, his environment, location and interests.

How To Display Reviews Link

Being optimistic, you are probably prepared to receive dozens of reviews on your page, so making them easily scannable is crucial. Ratings can be displayed in a number of ways: apart from an overall overview of ratings, featuring an average score, the number of votes and their distribution, you also need to clearly display single ratings and reviews. The latter should display not only a review itself, but also maybe a summary or an excerpt, date of the review and as much information about the reviewer as possible.

The truth is that potential customers need to be able to connect with the person who provided the review; an anonymous review may be helpful but it is not trustworthy. Once we connect a review of the person with his personal activities, his work or his professional information, the information suddently seems much more reliable and trustworthy.

The well-structured review on Yahoo Shopping32.

Display the author’s name as a link and the most important information about them, such as location, rank and type of user. By clicking on the link and scanning their other reviews, users can evaluate the reviewer’s trustworthiness. You might also want to reward active reviewers. Give them a separate sub-page where they can introduce themselves and show all of their reviews at once. You could also display a list of top reviewers in the sidebar. Providing bonuses or discounts for most active users is a bit tricky as it may influence their objectivity in the reviews and have biased reviews as a result. And people are damn good at detecting bias and losing confidence in a company.

A introduction of a reviewer on Rate it all

Getting in touch with Rate it all reviewers is easy. They are real indeed.

Comet displays the reviewer’s name and location, which may help users evaluate the usefulness of their opinion.

It is important to communicate to the customer the opinion of other customers about a review. If many users find the review useful, reply to it or sympathize with it in any possible way, the user will gain trust about the authenticity and objectiveness of the review and of the reviewer. Display how many people found the review useful and also how many didn’t find it useful. You can even sort your review by their “usefulness ratio”. Offer users a possibility to reply, report a concern or answer the “was this useful?” question at the bottom of the review.

Compact Appliance353028 makes helpfulness information visible but doesn’t overemphasize it.

Amazon372418 has tiny buttons to gain feedback about the reviews.

Being able to sort and filter reviews enables the quick scan of reviews. The most obvious options to offer for sorting are helpfulness and rating. But there are many more options, like the type of user and date, such as in the case of Buzzillions.

Buzzillions4139 offers several ways to sort and filter. Key information — such as pros, cons, best uses and bottom line — catch the eye.

Another example by Buzzillions4139 uses information provided by the customer to display the most popular products.

Rotten Tomatoes43 uses percentage points to measure quality.

A complex but well-designed rating interface on Gamespot45

Interaction Generated By Reviews Link

Reciprocity is a most important concept related to social interaction. People who read reviews are often tempted to react to them. They may think that getting this valuable information for free obliges them to give something back to the community46. Whether a review or feedback to the reviewer, and whether small or big, it does not matter. Enabling feedback on reviews could minimize the effect of rants or unfair reviews that people feel the need to rate down or comment on.

Voting on reviews could enhance the quality and trustworthiness of reviews. You could present reviews that are ranked highest for usefulness at the top. Voting provides feedback to reviewers and encourages reviewers to engage in healthy competition47 for reputation and the attention of visitors. The tool is most frequently used by people who are not customers as a way to express their opinion. Allowing them to vote encourages them to get involved.

Rate it all allows users to comment and send detailed yet simple feedback using the “Helpful,” “Funny,” “Agree,” and “Disagree” buttons.

Commenting on reviews brings real interaction and adds genuine value to the reviews in most cases. People can use them to give quality feedback to reviewers, correct mistakes, recommend other products, link to useful pages or write full reviews about related products. Rather than delete negative reviews, you could use comments as an honest way to respond to criticism of your products.

Comment threads for reviews can be transformed into real conversations that explore the pros and cons of the product in a much more interesting and natural way. Use indentation to display replies, or show them in a simple sequence with a “Respond to this” link.

Conclusion Link

Making it easy for users to keep your product pages alive is a crucial aspect of an e-commerce website. Your environment should be inviting enough to involve your loyal customers as well as unhappy customers to submit their reviews. Negative reviews can be as useful as positive ones, or even more helpful. In particular, if you respond to reviews, addressing issues and suggesting solutions, you can easily turn a negative comment in a positive one. And if your loyal customers support you, you gain an opportunity to elicit trust for customers that would probably dismiss your product page with perfect 5-star reviews. Once you have started with reviews, you could create a question and answer section, a tagging system, video reviews, marks for favorite content, product discussion forums and so on.

When you implement ratings and reviews, focusing on communication is critical. A visually adequate presentation is crucial to digesting this information. Apply patterns that best match the user’s mental process of digesting this information.

Ratings can stand on their own but could also be combined with reviews. Empty review sections and complicated forms will be significant barriers to success. Involve yourself in the communication threads and answer questions. Use social networking at the beginning, but support it with the authentic, genuine communication methods. When your system works as planned, focus on the reviewers; make your website a pleasant and encouraging place where users feel free to express their opinions.

Further Resources Link


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Andras Rung is a Hungarian usability expert who has worked for various institutions and companies since 2002. He is the co-author of the first Hungarian usability book and author of the usability blog Ergomania.

  1. 1

    nice job, I like it , thanks

  2. 2

    Always nice to see marketing being part of webdesign and -development.

    Though useful reviews and to a lesser extent ratings are not practical nor attainable for all but the largest websites.

    On Amazon, one out of 1,300 purchasers will write a review. To get 20 reviews, 26,000 sales needed. If you have a 2% conversion rate (typical for e-commerce), you need 1.3 M customers for 20 reviews. That’s why Target has so few reviews.

    On why Target got just 3(!) reviews for a very popular Harry Potter book. They bought the entire rating system straight from Amazon. The mom-pop e-commerce store will never get fair and balanced ratings, so why even bother? A heap of padded or false ratings and reviews might engage your visitors, but in a negative way.

    • 3

      DazzleCat Digital Agency

      June 9, 2010 12:32 am

      “Always nice to see marketing being part of webdesign and -development.”

      Did you think they were unrelated in today’s world (sarcasm I know)?
      Product reviews are clearly used for sale conversion reasons. From Url rewriting to dynamic generation of meta descriptions; which successful website/brand is not built with marketing as contributing leader in design and development decisions?
      Can marketing really be ignored when aiming for success?

  3. 4

    good writeup. i’ll try to apply some of these tips :)

  4. 5

    Good tips, thanks! Gonna try some tips sometime :)

  5. 6

    Gerd Wippich

    June 8, 2010 9:37 am

    Very interesting topic, thank you very much Andras!

  6. 7

    I like the ideas here. But really, it’s tips on how to get reviews not engaging in general. If we were talking engagement, in addition to reviews, we’d talk about making it easy to share the products in Facebook or suggested blog posts appearing on product pages, or using a engagement-friendly e-commerce platform like ShopIgniter

    Maybe a follow-up article that takes a more comprehensive look at engagement?

  7. 10

    Thanks for sharing, I will use it on my website =)

  8. 11

    Hoang Thinh

    June 8, 2010 3:21 pm

    Excellent article, thank Rung András.

  9. 12

    Great blog post. That statement is true. Consumers are looking for trust on the web. There are many companies out there promoting trust, and you can purchase their seal for a monthly charge. I am thinking of putting it to the test. How about putting some products for sale on one or more of those big comparison sites, put a link on your front page (trust) and see if the conversions don’t increase.

    • 13

      It was really important to include a link to your shop wasn’t it?

      • 14

        Smashing Editorial

        June 8, 2010 11:53 pm

        You are right, I removed the link, it was obviously advertising.

  10. 15

    the right article @the right time.

    much appreciated!

  11. 16


    Plz give some line height in your heading tag bcoz “Engage” “g” is cutting in bottom.

  12. 17

    Interesting… Thank u very much..

  13. 18

    Priceless … Bookmarked :)

  14. 19

    funny cause just now I was starting to put together our company’s review section and I just by chance thought to myself, “I wonder if smashing’s got any helpful insight?”…perfect.

  15. 20

    Great article. Informative and well thought out. Definitely one to hang on to.

  16. 21

    Who cares!!! My boyfriend thinks the same with me. He is eight years older than me, lol. We met online at~ Ag_e_mi_n_g_l_e.c.o.m ~a nice and free place for younger women and older men, or older women and younger men, to interact with each other. Maybe you wanna check out or tell your friends.

  17. 22

    Rung András

    June 9, 2010 11:31 pm

    Thank you for the feedback! It is true that this is a part of the whole engagement strategy but you can not discuss all aspects in detail. You can control your site and its usability. Social media optimization (smo) is much more than being active on facebook or twitter.

  18. 23

    June 10, 2010 5:22 am

    Great advices, like that, thank you.

  19. 24


    June 10, 2010 8:17 am

    This article is a great idea, but like most web based discussions, we are jumping the gun.

    First of all, there is no good e-commerce solution for WordPress yet, so what good is an article explaining all the ins and outs of customer attraction when we spend all our time modifying crappy e-commerce apps that have more bugs than a starship trooper can deal with.

    I am not saying the content of this article is bad, all I am is saying is that I think we need to do one thing at a time in sequence:

    1. Make a kick ass bulletproof webshop application. (either a wordpress app or a cms/shop – and don’t say ‘magenta’ cos that software is so damn complicated and over stuffed with unnecessary ‘features’)
    2. Make great articles to support the huge scope of imagination and market trends.

    • 25

      Hey, I’ll second the great WordPress app….are you going to create it??

  20. 26

    Amazing article! Thank you a lot!

  21. 27

    On many sites I rarely trust ratings. If I’m interested in some product, I will ask on blog or forum about its quality.

    An online shop with fresh BlackBerry reviews. The page would be even better if newer content appeared at the top.

    It’s confusing to read from down to top.

  22. 28

    I enjoyed the article, thanks!

    I do however feel that the article would have been better described as “How to engage customers on a e-commerce website using reviews & product rating” or something like that. Still…helpful article!

    I would love to find an article somewhere comprehensively explaining the do’s and don’ts of customer engagement on e-commerce websites. Giving examples and detailing elements like, layout, to little vs. to much product information, categorizing of products, site navigation, focus areas, all round customer interaction, on-line support etc.

    I suppose that all this info in one article would be called a book! Anyway, it would have been nice…

    • 29

      Yes, Etienne. your title is more appropriate for the content of this piece. But Rung’s article is comprehensive enough for this aspect on product review & rating. Actually, my boss asked me to summarize it and i told him every line of this article is important… I was wondering how i could condense it… but i will do my best to do as my boss wants me to. I will try to abridge Rung’s blog. :)

  23. 30

    This was a very helpful article. My company has been very interested in (yet extremely wary of) incorporating Ratings and Reviews. In my view, this set of best practices are spot on; which also means that it will be an even tougher sell in a risk-averse culture such as ours.

    For additional insights on this topic, readers may want to check out Jared Spool’s hour-long presentation called “Finding Treasures in the Amazon” which he posted as a UIE podcast last year.

  24. 31

    As a consumer I am very sceptical about co-consumer recommendations. In print or on the web. You can be sure these are edited and not so nice ones are left out. If they are authentical at all to start with.

  25. 32

    im dying to read more of Rung’s ideas. :)

  26. 33


  27. 34

    nice share

  28. 35

    Galin Stefanov

    June 9, 2011 12:56 am

    If u want to pay for book written by guru of e-commerce,just read this excellent book by Enyo Markovski.This boook can help you to know everything about e-commerce laws,give wonderful advices and etc.The book’s name is “The Laws of E-commerce Project Management”.Link :

    Check the Ecommerce Product Placement to be on the top os the Ecommerce Brach. Link

    Best wishes, Galin Stefanov!

  29. 36

    Sorry for posting a comment on such an old article. I wanted to introduce you to a product called WebEngage ( which is a customer engagement tool for e-commerce applications. WebEngage lets website owners collect feedback and conduct short targeted surveys on their website.

    Disclosure: I am co-founder and CEO at WebEngage.

  30. 37

    Great article. Twitted and recommended. Thanks for sharing your ideas.


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