The Paradox of User Reviews

Over at Search Engine Land in the “Locals Only” column today, Marchex’s Chris Linnett writes:

In and of itself, user-generated content is not the silver-bullet many have made it out to be. While it is absolutely a very efficient way to generate content about local businesses and services, there are pitfalls that may be overlooked in the clamor to see who has the most.

First, sheer volume can overwhelm a consumer. For a popular local business, you can sometimes find many dozens of user-generated reviews and ratings. But at the end of the day, users simply want to make informed decisions. Few of us have the time or inclination to sift through tons of reviews.

This is the paradox. User-generated content (ratings/reviews/recommendations) on local sites is hard to get. But once you get it, it can get overwhelming for the consumer.

Take Trip Advisor as a case-in-point. This travel site was one of the first to have hotel reviews. The site saw an “inflection point” in the amount of user-generated hotel reviews at some point in 2005. Suddenly there 50, 60, 100+ reviews of popular hotels. This NY Hotel (Casablanca Hotel), for example, has 277 reviews.

So “second order” tools have to come into play that summarize reviews and give people an opportunity to make decisions based on information “at a glance.” Accordingly, Trip Advisor now ranks hotels in terms of popularity and provides averages to help people make quick decisions.

There’s also the problem of what might be called “review inflation.” Similar to grade inflation in school, ratings seem to creep higher and higher. Take for example this search on Citysearch in Los Angeles, CA for “Mexican Restaurants.” Most of the listings on the page are “9.8” or “9.7.” I then have to move on to other criteria to make a decision.

At the end of the day (to use that tired expression) what user-generated content helps me do is discover businesses, activities and information that isn’t in the standard databases and helps me make decisions by exposing information that advertisers wouldn’t themselves reveal. To that end, negative reviews are often much more helpful than positive ones.

Yelp has created a social network around local entertainment, activities and venues. And it’s a bit of a different animal, for that reason, than Angie’s List, for example, which is largely about helping homeowners find contractors. For Yelp, user-generated content is not just about helping site visitors make local buying decisions, it’s a form of entertainment and engagement for site members.

Ultimately, however, user-generated content is a means to an end for most local sites: the end is building rich, trustworthy content and trust in a publisher’s site among users. That’s the objective.

3 Responses to “The Paradox of User Reviews”

  1. jd amer Says:

    This is a great post and more or less the reason I run my site ( the way I do. Reviews are great, but Lopico is more focused on quick aggregate of opinions. I started it because of the very problem with star ratings that you addressed. Instead of stars it is based on a straight voting system for businesses – this gives a real quick picture at which businesses are best and then if a user chooses they have reviews available. I also structure the reviews to address both positives and negatives of a business. I’ve been saying this for a while, but most seem to think that having a bulk amount of reviews is better. I disagree and think that having a huge number of reviews completely ignores the way people actually use the internet.

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