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In Online Reviews, How Much Negativity Do We Really Want?

Posted October 14th, 2014 by Andrew Goodman

Recently, I was pleased to see such extensive coverage of Nancy Peterson and HomeStars in a piece by Diane Jermyn in The Globe and Mail.

One common misconception that cropped up, and you see it often with accounts of today’s online review sites, is an assumption that you should see about the same number of negative reviews as positive reviews. Seriously? Even with a low-barrier-to-entry task like writing a short novella or opening a smoothie stand, you rarely see an even distribution. Those who take the risk to devote their time (or lives) to an enterprise, unsurprisingly, typically get a healthy number of 5- and 4- star reviews mixed in with a small number of complaints.

Review sites — at least most of the successful, far-reaching ones — aren’t simply places we as consumers go to wallow in negativity and complaints. Take TripAdvisor, a website that I suspect a healthy majority of us use and support, despite the inevitable warts. Since they created a designation called an annual Certificate of Excellence, determined by the volume of reviews over a certain threshold of positivity, you see many proud businesses displaying their certificates. Surely this helps them win customers. All this means is that TripAdvisor is pro-business and pro-consumer, possibly in just the right measure.

Some people are determined to smell a rat in all this. But I can assure you that HomeStars, TripAdvisor, and Yelp do everything in their power to sniff out fake reviews, and to develop richer and richer content so that consumers can find appropriate fits with businesses that suit their needs and tastes.

Think about what kind of world we would actually be living in if websites like HomeStars were strewn with a huge number of negative reviews, instead of the current situation that calls out a “few bad apples”. That would indicate that homeowners were getting ripped off right and left. We’d be living in a completely lawless and unaccountable world. Let’s remember, amid all the scary yet entertaining horror stories we see on reality TV (Holmes Makes It Right, etc.), that there are tons of reputable companies out there that do depend on maintaining their reputations long term. If anything, many of the contractors I’ve met and worked with don’t get enough praise, online or elsewhere. And yes, of course, this makes it vital that we set up systems to call out the bad apples.

Turning to my favorite subject, food, again, when you think about writing food reviews, isn’t it mostly to reward entrepreneurs and chefs who have taken the trouble to create a great experience for you? If Yelp (and life) were all about every second meal deserving a one-star rating, we’d all be walking around with food poisoning half the time. Our life expectancy would be significantly shortened. Mostly, we want to trade positive restaurant reviews. Sometimes, we want to say a place is overrated. A small percentage of the time, we’ll want to give thumbs-down. Personally, though, unless a business owner has really wronged me, I’ll simply reward them with silence. As a community, we can also weed out the bad guys by diverting plenty of positive attention to the good guys. So the bad guys might only get business from, well, folks who never read reviews.

I have to admit, when I read restaurant reviews I’m sometimes baffled by the negative ones. I’ve been to the Loving Hut in Toronto many times. The food and the service are fantastic. For some reason, though, one reviewer believes the food at this location just doesn’t taste as good in Toronto as it does in San Francisco. For enthusiasts of this location, does it even matter? The Loving Hut originated in France. I can guarantee you that the Paris location will taste more romantic and more expensive than the Toronto version does, too. However, for a place I can walk to from the office and get pretty much any vegan dish imaginable, it gets my five stars. The negative review here is simply misleading, possibly downright crazy.

Yelp review Loving Hut Toronto

The trustworthiness of review content is paramount, of course. Review sites do no one any favors if they’re biased, or “on the take.” So why is it that we assume that a positive review is a biased review? As a customer, I’m often biased in favor of a trusted vendor. That means I’m pro-business. There’s nothing fake about that.

3 Responses to “In Online Reviews, How Much Negativity Do We Really Want?”

  1. Michael says:

    Nice piece. Many business struggle with fake reviews and in fact; yelp agrees that about 25% of its review are fake. They might actually intend to do that though because they have a filtration system that is always under fire (non recommended reviews that can been seen on any business page towards the bottom) where some business feel that they are hiding the real reviews and leaving up the negative one for businesses to spend advertising dollars.

    Being a restauranteur myself, I felt the pinch from Yelp. My reviews were very inconsistent.. but I do believe that most that have a great time do compliment us, like yourself with silence. As good as that may be, it doesn’t help when those that feel otherwise are speaking out loud. So I’ve created where reviews that are posted HAVE TO BE from within a business. 1. We want to ensure the truth. 2. We don’t need to filter anything 3. We capture many more reviews which will give the user a better understanding of what that business is truly about.

  2. I have to call a spade a spade here. Yelp, in fact, has an explicity policy *against* solicited reviews and says it may take action against businesses that go out of their way to induce consumers to write positive reviews. Your service seems like it can only, currently, lead to solicited, positive reviews — since it is not a commonly adopted platform, the sample of users will be 100% skewed to those asked to become users. Currently this platform appears to harbor a built-in bias. What consumer wouldn’t want to write a restaurant review in the tour bus on the way to the next town, or from the comfort of their bedroom? Yelp, despite flaws, is a genuine content platform, and thus has become a standard. It has millions of users and is currently valued at $4.5 bn. Hard for me to view it as a failure.

  3. Frank Watson says:

    The review sites are a good idea when they do the right thing and police fakes etc and foster engagement. One major problem – more so for chains – is that people are less inclined to post a good review as they are to write a bad one. The anger over something motivates more than the bliss of a good experience.


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