Research Insights

How buyers consolidate product recommendations from various online sources

Expert opinion paired with recommendation agent more influential in buyers' product choice decisions

By Dr David Xu

In recent years, e-commerce has continued to proliferate, and a large number of product choices are available online. A lot of people aren't just looking at reviews, or expert opinions alone. Websites are increasingly providing product recommendations from multiple sources to help their customers reduce product uncertainty and choose a suitable product from a wide variety of alternatives. Remarkably, there hasn't been much research into this very real-world behaviour.

This study evaluates an increasingly common behaviour, people seeking recommendations from multiple sources, and explains how and why people integrate these different sources to make product choices. What recommendation source or sources combined has a greater influence on shoppers' purchase decisions? Opinions from fellow consumers, product experts who possess recognised product knowledge and provide objective product opinions, or online recommendation agents (RAs) that assist online shoppers by eliciting their product preferences and making product recommendations that satisfy such preferences?

Product recommended by more sources the better?

The traditional belief is that shoppers would pick a product that is recommended by a greater (vs. lesser) number of recommendation sources. Through three online experiments with over 800 participants from North America, we challenge this belief and point out that it is based on how many dimensions of product uncertainty (fit, description, and performance uncertainties) are best reduced collectively by these recommendation sources.

Expert opinion paired with recommendation agent more influential

The convergent recommendations of RA and experts triumph over others and are comparable to convergent recommendations among all three sources. The reason is that RAs best reduce product fit uncertainty, and experts best reduce product description and performance uncertainties. Experts and RAs complement each other by reducing all three dimensions of product uncertainty. The recommendation convergence between RAs and experts leads to the greater acceptance of the jointly recommended tablet products. This convergence was greater than that between experts and consumers, between RAs and consumers, or the recommendations from any single source.

Those online merchants that can implement only two sources due to resource or budget constraints must incorporate RAs and experts into their websites, as they play complementary roles in reducing product uncertainty. The present study's findings are relevant to practitioners who sell search products, such as electronic products (e.g., laptops, and TVs), office stationery (e.g., printers), and home appliances (e.g., dishwashers and refrigerators).

Incorporate more sources into e-commerce websites

As one practical implication, online merchants are advised to incorporate multiple sources into their websites, as about 80% of the participants in the study tend to access two or three recommendation sources. Hence, providing only one source may result in losing customers.

Integration of multiple sources into one website offers several benefits. First, online shoppers make an informed decision by having different points of view that help them understand the different choices available. Second, shoppers can save the trouble of searching on multiple external websites and appreciate the groundwork that website owners do for online shoppers to facilitate their product choice selection.

Solicit experts only from reputable channels

The other implication for e-commerce merchants is that experts should be solicited from publicly available and reputable channels such as CNET and Consumer Reports to make the expert recommendations valuable. They are less biased towards the website. Self-appointed experts may be perceived to have affiliation with websites and be biased. Hence, a website should avoid appointing private experts or training its own staff to be experts.

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