Online reviews, worth the paper they’re written on?

Today, this article on the BBC grabbed my eye. It’s about how the review site Yelp has admitted that a quarter of the reviews on its site could be fake. I’ve always found this interesting, because, long before the rise of the internet, a local business that I knew was featured on a popular consumer based TV programme, with a customer from 10 years previously complaining about their experiences.  The problem was that, in my experience of that business, this one customer had been very unlucky and also that (more importantly), the business had changed hands in the 10 years since the customer had been there.  But the damage was done, and the small segment that the company was given as a “right of reply” was not sufficient to argue their case.

Since then, I’ve always taken reviews with a generous pinch of salt.  My parents always say that they check review sites before they book holidays but discount the top and bottom 10% of opinions.  I think that’s fair, 10% of people are always pleased, 10% of people are never pleased.

The problem with the internet, that we’re all becoming far too familiar with, is that once something is there, it’s there forever, and if you take over an ailing business, hire a new manager or generally revamp yourself, you still have that lingering bad reputation to deal with.

In a way, it was always predictable that companies would fight back and give themselves positive reviews. After all, most companies believe that they’re doing a fantastic job, even when all evidence might appear to show the contrary.  Or that employees and well meaning friends may want to boost a company by giving it a positive review. I’m sure that most people who do it don’t even see it as dishonest, they just see it as giving themselves a leg up. Yelp filter their reviews and remove anything that appears suspicious.  They haven’t gone into depth about how they do this, but even they admit that it’s an imperfect procedure.

I’m afraid that being the cynical soul that I am, I’ve never trusted online reviews, they’ve always struck me as too open to abuse and to personal judgments (just because someone else likes something, why does that mean I will?), but I can see that there is definitely a place for them. I do however feel that when terrible reviews are posted, a business should be given the right to reply (maybe the waitress was a bit rude because the customer was a total jerk?).

How do you feel about review sites? Do you use them, and if so how do you feel they can be left less open to abuse?

There is only one place where I read and post reviews, and it’s a clothes shop.  To their credit, I posted a terrible review of a shirt once, and they emailed me to apologise and offer to replace the shirt AND my review stayed on their website.  My advice is to always take reviews with a pinch of salt, ignore the best and worst 10%, and (if possible) read further reviews by the same reviewer, in order to try to understand whether the expectations of that customer are the same as your own.  And you know what? Since I started doing that, I have been satisfied with a much greater percentage of my purchases.


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