For Katie Lambert, it was anonymous postings on AOL’s Yellow Pages about her gym, Go Figure, in Westwood, Massachusetts. The gym, the postings said, was overpriced, crowded and chaotic. Lambert did not learn of the comments until a member alerted her. When some loyal customers found out about the review, they went online and responded positively, but the detractor always shot back. Lambert said she tried to approach AOL but could never reach anyone who could remove the material.
This paragraph appears in a NY Times article today illustrating the challenges to small business posed by user reviews from both the proliferation of reviews and review sites. The veracity and accuracy of reviews — and recourse against inaccurate or destructive reviews — was much discussed on the “Community Driven Local Search” panel at SMX.
The panel featured Pete Flint of Trulia and Brad Jaehn of ShopLocal, Andrew Shotland of LocalSEOGuide and Paul Ryan of Done Right. Ryan surprised the audience when he dismissed the generally positive assessment of community and social media as “a bunch of crap.” Ryan passionately raised issues of gaming, fraud, libel, user conflicts of interest and ignorance as pervasive problems with the culture of reviews.
The paragraph and anecdote above is consistent with many of Ryan’s critiques. Ryan’s comments (here’s a high-level summary) certainly addressed the “dark side” of the phenomenon, which poses a particular problem for small businesses that may not have the time to address or otherwise pursue “remedies” to unjust reviews.
Here’s a previous post that merely flags the issue of managing all the reviews content online for SMBs. However, in an online small business survey recently conducted with Opus Research and AllBusiness.com we found a generally positive attitude among the respondents toward user reviews and a willingness to embrace them. (More on that later.)
Community, online word of mouth and user reviews are here to stay. My overarching belief is that this is a positive phenomenon on balance – for both consumers and local businesses. Most people are “good” and trustworthy and don’t falsify reviews, positively or negatively. (Yelp has said most reviews on its site are positive.) But there are clearly exceptions. (One of Ryan’s points was that most people aren’t qualified to discuss many of the things they’re reviewing online.)
The next challenge for publishers and business owners is how to maximize the integrity of those reviews and offer some sort of recourse for aggrieved SMBs who feel they’ve been unfairly characterized or even libeled. In the case above user registration (removing anonymity from the post) would have gone some distance to “unmasking” the detractor who might have been a competitor or someone whom the business owner could have reached out to.
(Of some relevance here is Jason Calacanis’ post on ‘Web 3.0′.)
Along those lines, I have to commend the manager of the Sprint store I critiqued in my post last week. He and I have been corresponding by email and he’s certainly trying to address my problems and provide me with a positive experience. Accordingly, user reviews represent an opportunity for those willing to embrace reviews and remedy the perceived deficiencies raised by customers in their reviews.