The ironweed and ivy vines taking over my garden tell me I need a better weed wacker. So I've been reading online reviews and consulting a lot of friends.

Like many consumers, I'm finding both sources are a good supplements to the raw data available on the web, like the size of the motor and the diameter of the cutting line.

When a stranger tells me "this machine broke after three uses," I take it very seriously. And if someone says "this cut through my ivy like butter," that makes me smile.

Consumer Sentiments

Turns out, I'm pretty typical, according to a just-released survey of 2,104 consumers conducted by BrightLocal, which guides agencies and consultants with online search optimization. It's the fourth year the company has conducted the survey, which was sent to its panel of 5,000 consumers in North America. 

What surprised me was that 88 percent of consumers who said they trust reviews by total strangers online as much as they trust recommendations from their friends. That was up from 79 percent in last year's survey.

"Local consumers are placing more trust in online reviews that every before," said Myles Anderson, BrightLocal's CEO, who wrote an analysis of the survey, though it turns out that trust is somewhat conditional.

Of the 88 percent, 32 percent said they'd trust online reviews as much as friends only if there were multiple reviews to read. Three in 10 consumers said they'd trust the recommendations if they "believe the reviews are authentic." And 26 percent said it depends on the type of business.

Authenticity, according to Anderson, "is equally as important as quantity."

That said, there was also a sign that consumers are getting less skeptical about online reviews. Only 13 percent said they don't trust  online recommendations as much as those from friends, down from 21 percent last year.


Once consumers read a positive review, 72 percent take some kind of action. About 57 percent will visit a website and 15 percent will call a local business. Just 22 percent said they continue to shop around.

Curiously, 47 percent said reputation mattered most with doctors or dentists (47 percent).  Restaurants were about the same (46 percent, auto repair and car dealers cam in third (30 percent), and hotels finished last (30).

Delivering Quality

Reliability was considered the most important trait in a business' reputation, with 27 percent of the sample picking that. That was followed with expertise (21 percent) and professionalism (18 percent).

"A lot of online reviews will often highlight the perceived friendliness or courtesy of a local business," Anderson said. "However, whilst these are positive factors, we can see that reliability, expertise and professionalism are far more important traits for potential customers."

Star ratings matter, too. Ninety-two percent of the consumers said they'd use a local business if it had a four-star rating and 73 percent said they'd settle for a three-star rating. More than one in four (27 percent) would even accept a two-star rating, the survey said.

Meanwhile, none of this has helped to fight my weeds. My friends are divided in recommending two different weed wackers and both have online reviews in the 4.5 to 5 star category. One, however, is cheaper and is recommended strongly by a local retailer -- factors not considered in BrightLocal's survey.