Can We Really Trust Online Reviews?

Today, everybody has a voice. Whether rating books and consumer products on, reviewing businesses on sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, or commenting on industry-related blogs, digital word-of-mouth reviewing is here to stay.

For the most part, we all find this freedom of expression liberating — partly because if we choose, we can comment anonymously, although some news sites are rethinking this policy.

A positive review can help inform our decisions about what plumber to hire or which smartphone to purchase. And because the reviewer is offering his opinion freely, without compensation, we trust that these reviews are accurate.

But have you ever considered that perhaps not all reviews are created equal?

A recent study by researchers David Wooten, a University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor, and Grant Packard, assistant professor of marketing at the Laurier School of Business & Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, found some interesting research results that initially seem counterintuitive. Their article, “Compensatory Knowledge Signaling in Consumer Word-of-Mouth,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, states, “We’re finding [online reviews are] not so much about sharing knowledge, but about having something to prove.”

It seems some people are driven less by what they think about a product, and more by a need to be validated. As Wooten states, “The products you buy and display say a lot about who you think you are. We’re finding that the products you talk about and how you talk about them also say a lot about who you aspire to be.”

What’s not to like about honest reviews that enable you to make informed decisions? Nothing. But for all the good that online reviews provide, a weakness within the process exists: For the most part, no one is moderating or validating what can become negative, business-destroying reviews. Whether or not it represents reality, people have free rein to say just about anything they want.

For instance, my daughter works at a reputable dental practice. The practice gets lots of Yelp reviews, and while most reviews are very positive, some are scathing — perhaps enough to give a prospective patient pause. Some of the patients’ expectations for service are so unrealistic that when they get what they perceive as anything less than perfection, they blast out a blistering, one-star review instead of offering three or four stars (out of five) to indicate that while the service was good, perhaps even better than good, there may have been room for improvement.

There are also instances where disgruntled employees who have been let go by a company maliciously attack their former employer with untruthful reviews — remember, they have anonymity. (One tipoff that a review is potentially bogus is when it’s riddled with hyperbole, e.g., “If possible, I’d give them ZERO stars!!! They made me wait an ETERNITY before I was seen by the hygienist!!! STAY FAR, FAR AWAY!!!”)

Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to do with the service, product, or experience — it has to do with, as Wooten said, the person’s ego. For instance, I came across this review for a restaurant:

“During a trip to Guatemala, I stayed with a family and enjoyed authentic, homemade dishes. I know what authentic Mexican food tastes like, and this was too Americanized.”

She gave the place one star. That restaurant, by the way, was a Tex-Mex joint. What was the lady expecting?

So when someone disses your business and you feel it’s unjustified, what recourse do you have? Sites like Yelp strongly recommend not offering any rebuttal that may be interpreted as defensive, even if the negative review is completely unwarranted. Instead, they suggest offering the negative reviewer a peace offering. In the case of a dental practice, this could be half off the price of the offended party’s next checkup.

But when someone is unreasonable, has it out for you, or is just plain nuts, there really is no recourse to clear your good name. Once it’s on a site like Yelp, it’s pretty much there for good.

Today, there’s an entire industry — online reputation management — dedicated to helping companies that have been bashed on Yelp and other sites. Providers such as generate massive amounts of positive PR, which is posted on numerous websites and eventually pushes the negative ratings further down the search engine pages. But are online reputation management companies really worth their steep prices? Are they effective? I’m not sure.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to share your positive and negative experiences with online reviewing.


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See full post here: Hile Creative2013-08-15.