A review about reviews

Back in the olden days, if you wanted an opinion about a product or service you would ask your friends.

“Hey Bob, what’s that new Italian restaurant like?”

“Pretty good.  They do a great carbonara.  You should check it out.”

“OK thanks, I’ll do that.”

And just like that, you’ve sought and received a review on a business and formed a decision based on that trusted opinion.

With the evolution of the internet, we then started asking our online “friends” by reading independent review websites, product review sections within websites and social media posts.  Next, a few clever people realised that there was money to be made in reviews and a whole new industry popped up.  Now there are unscrupulous people who post fake reviews to boost their own business or to discredit others, or even more insidiously, there are “independent” review sites which are really not very independent at all, wielding far too much influence on our purchasing decisions.

Take Trip Advisor, formed in 2000; this “World’s most trusted travel site” was a platform where travellers could write about their experiences and provide recommendations and photos, offering a source of independent information on products and services, to allow others  to make more informed decisions.

But now Trip Advisor, (renamed to “World’s largest travel site” in 2013 after numerous court cases found their use of the words “honest” and “trusted” was a little far-fetched), is far from an independent review site.  For example, businesses can pay for premium listings, putting them higher up in rankings.  Businesses can also use Trip Advisor’s booking features (of which TA takes a cut), which again prioritises their business over others, no matter how many good reviews those other businesses get.  Anyone can post a review, which means a lot of reviews are fake, malicious, or planted there by the business themselves.

Just this month (August 2018) Meriton was fined $3M for engaging in deceptive and misleading conduct by preventing customers from leaving negative reviews on Trip Advisor.  Meriton did this through the “reviews collected in partnership” program provided by Trip Advisor.  This is where Meriton provide customer email addresses to Trip Advisor, who then email the customer asking them to leave a review.  Meriton “masked” these addresses by placing the letters “MSA” (Meriton Serviced Apartments) within the email addresses of those customers they thought would leave a negative review, thus causing the emails to bounce, and no negative review to be left.  While this is a case of Meriton manipulating the system rather than Trip Advisor, it is a great example of how the reviews on sites such as these may not provide the unbiased opinions you are seeking.

So, what should you consider when reading product or service reviews?

Firstly, take everything with a grain of salt.  This is the internet after all.  If the reviewer is anonymous, the review may be fake.  Remember that any reviewer comes from their own point of reference.  They might find a hotel room small where perhaps you would not.  They could be an inexperienced traveller with unrealistic expectations, or someone who is looking for a different experience on their holidays to you, or they could just feel like writing nasty things on the internet.

Secondly, don’t assume that just because the review is on a site that isn’t that of the actual company that it is not influenced by that company (or the host site) in any way.  This could be either through paid listings or perhaps manipulating reviews, thus artificially boosting the ranking of the company.

At the end of the day, the most valuable opinions come from those you know and trust – like our friend Bob who thinks that new Italian place is pretty good.  Give more weight to the opinions of people you know than those you don’t.

There are exceptions of course, some reviews are extremely useful and help others to make much better informed decisions about their purchasing.  Take a read of this fabulous review where a customer praised a company for replacing a product, no questions asked, after a rather unfortunate (and hilarious) series of events…

Feel free to leave a review below, reviewing this review on reviews. 🙂

(Learn more about the Meriton case here).