Online Reviews: Necessary evil and Faustian Bargain

A Bargain!

As a consumer, I generally like online reviews as they give me a way of evaluating a product. As a business owner, I’m highly skeptical of them because of how easily they can be manipulated, repositioned and scammed.

When my Google reviews went down due to Google Death, I was devastated. Years of kudos and praise disappeared from the universe. Fortunately I had them backed up but I still haven’t recovered fully from that drought.

Yelp is one of the most popular review sites on the internet today and Apple currently uses Yelp data in their mapping program (which in itself leads to problems). As a business owner, one of the most frustrating things for me is that 80% of our Yelp reviews aren’t regularly seen by readers. I created a gallery of them here (link) and it’s due to their proprietary “filter.” The Consumerist did a great article about why you should read the filtered reviews. I as a business owner already know that, but not all consumers do (but now you do!).

The filter tries to prevent fake reviews (I can tell you all the reviews of DoctorDave are legit as I communicated with every reviewer), but it fails to account for reviews that are coerced such as this story of a restaurant that agreed to refund a purchase if a 1 star review was replaced with a five star one. Simiilarly, businesses can intimidate customers after leaving negative reviews such as this mom who was allegedgly banned from a store after her son’s negative Yelp review or this moving company that threated to sue for a bad review or this story or a business that did actually sue a customer for a bad review all the way to the Virgina Supreme Court.

This isn’t just a Yelp problem. Companies are actually set up so you can directly buy reviews as this New York Times article chronicles. The article quotes experts who estimate 1/3 of reviews have financial incentives behind them and thus shouldn’t be fully trusted. I’ve blogged about this before here and here the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. Sometimes reviews are used as part of a protest campaign such as this one against the author of a Michael Jackson book.

Ultimately reviews keep an owner in check: offering rewards for quality work and punishment for substandard work and since we do great work, the system works for us. I’ve only been threatened with review terrorism once and refused to back down. I will not “pay” for you not to leave a bad review. Some poor customers have become such a problem on review sites, a special website called NastyClient is set up to track them and prevent businesses from running into them.

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