FandangoIf you are going to have online ratings and reviews on your website, community or app, they need to have integrity. Or they are garbage. It’s that simple.

Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight published an interesting, in-depth piece about how Fandango, the overwhelming leader in online movie ticket sales, is manipulating user reviews to cast movies in a more favorable light.

Usually, when a reputable online review site rounds the average rating to display a star-based rating, they will round to the nearest half star. For example, when my book received a 3 star review earlier this year on Amazon, it dropped my review average to 4.7. This meant that the book was listed as 4.5 stars, because they rounded down, to the nearest half star. Later, after I received a couple of 5 star reviews, my average went up to 4.8, and the book was 5 stars.

This is the behavior that we generally expect, as consumers. It’s not what Fandango is doing.

Fandango’s Manipulation

FiveThirtyEight looked at the 510 films that Fandango had sold tickets for this year. Of them, 437 had received at least one review. They analyzed the star reviews, comparing the displayed star count to the actual average rating for the film. They were able to do this because, if you dig into the HTML code on Fandango’s website, they actually display the meta data, including the rating value and number of ratings.

When looking at how the star ratings were rounded, this is what they found:

  • 109 films displayed a star value that was equal to the actual rating the film received. No rounding occurred.
  • 148 films received a boost of 0.1 (66 films) or 0.2 stars (82). These ratings were rounded in a way consistent with reputable services. A 3.8 or a 3.9 becomes a 4 star film.
  • 142 films gained 0.3 (72) or 0.4 (70) for their star rating. In other words, instead of a 3.6 or a 3.7 becoming 3.5 stars, they would become 4 stars. This is not what one would expect.
  • 37 films were raised by a full half star, meaning that a 3.5 would become a 4. Hickey suggests that this could be due to rounding up when a second decimal is present, i.e. 3.5 vs. 3.51. That seems like a reasonable explanation, but is unclear.
  • 1 film gained an entire star! Fandango blamed a glitch for the 38 movies that received a 0.5 star or more advantage, saying that it would be fixed.

When you add it all up, this means that 180 films (out of 437) were deceptively rounded. 98% of the 437 have a rating of 3 stars or higher, while 75 percent have 4 stars or higher.

For the 209 films with 30 or more user ratings, Fandango provided an average rating boost of 0.25. As Hickey notes, this should be close to 0, if the service was rounding both ways (up and down). But because they only round up, films only gain. Never lose.

You Want Your Ratings to Be Credible, Not Higher

Regular moviegoers rate movies much higher than critics do, generally speaking. That’s not the issue here. Personally, I consult online ratings and reviews regularly, but there are two areas where I don’t: movies and music. I don’t care what other people think about those two things, at least not in a sense that it will impact what I enjoy.

The issue is that Fandango’s skewing of reviews is dishonest, misleading and unexpected. They aren’t doing it to make reviews more credible, only to make them more positive. That’s no good. People already distrust online ratings for obvious reasons, but when you actually demonstrate that you are not to be trusted, it’s a battle to overcome that belief.

There are several things that you can do to improve the quality and trustworthiness of your online ratings and reviews.

Thing #1: don’t artificially inflate them yourself.