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What to Make of Online Ratings and Reviews

With ratings now popping up just about everywhere online, you might wonder how much faith you should place in them.

Amazon, Yelp, Angie’s List and TripAdvisor are some of the more well-known, but there are hundreds of sites that set their sights on influencing you. It’s obviously in the best interests of a business to boost its online ratings. Good reviews and top ratings draw in customers, and also help businesses land higher results in online searches.

Consumer loyalty
Consumers pay a lot of attention to reviews when it comes to home services, restaurants, hotels and pricey items such as flat-screen TVs and cars. Overall, 54 percent of Internet shoppers don’t pull out their wallets without first checking consumer reviews, reports Bazaarvoice, a digital marketing firm.

Because ratings are so influential; however, businesses have incentives to inflate their scores. Companies may pepper sites with positive reviews. They may try to get negative reviews removed, or they may try to bury them so they don’t appear on the site’s first page of comments (which is all many people check). And companies have been known to post negative reviews about competitors.

High stakes
Since online reviews influence revenue, often, millions of dollars are at stake and companies want to try and appear to put their best foot forward. But that ambition sometimes comes with some pretty shady moves.

Here are a few of the unethical practices seen in this burgeoning web industry.

  • Small businesses have paid strangers to write glowing reviews of their product without ever having used it. Others have swayed customers with discounts for posting a positive review.
  • Businesses have paid people to post negative reviews of their competitors.
  • Small businesses have been strong-armed by websites’ ad-sales staff, who hint that paying for ads will induce the site to hide negative reviews and/or give advertisers favored positioning in search results.
  • “Reviews-for-hire” have become a lucrative business. That’s why bogus sites have cropped up, along with people willing to write an online review for as little as $5. Unlike years ago, when grammatical mistakes and poor English made fake reviews fairly easy to spot, these days many of the bogus reviews are hard to detect.

In response to claims of unethical practices, the online ratings sites say that their sophisticated software can reliably filter out fake user reviews; however, this is an unverifiable claim. They also deny that their employees use promises or threats to persuade local businesses to advertise with them.

Hardly policed
There is no nationwide, nonprofit ratings site for online local services and products sales, supported entirely by subscribers and carrying no advertising; nothing analogous to what Consumer Reports magazine does for national products.

However, the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook does this for local services (excluding restaurants) in seven metro areas: Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia/Wilmington, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington.

And the nonprofit Better Business Bureaus—whose ratings are based on a firm’s adherence to the BBB code and their record of successful resolution of customer complaints—are beginning to edge into reviews, too.


Resources: Kiplinger, Time, NEA Member Benefits

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