The Debate Over User Reviews

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 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.


16 Responses to “The Debate Over User Reviews”

  1. Understanding Google Maps & Yahoo Local Search » Local Links of Interest Says:

    […] Greg Sterling has a good piece on the The Debate Over User Reviews […]

  2. Bob Fichtner Says:

    Hi Greg,

    As always, great info. A colleague of mine just sent over a news item that directly pertains to the subject of the important of WOM.

    Nielsen: Word-of-Mouth Most Valuable Ad Platform
    by Wayne Friedman, Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007 8:00 AM ET

    FOR CONSUMERS, SLICK ADS AREN’T the deal-breaker. It’s what other people say about products that earns their trust. Word-of-mouth marketing is still valued among all other advertising platforms, says a recent Nielsen Internet survey.

    Seventy-eight percent of consumers say they trust other consumers’ recommendations over all advertising/marketing avenues. Next in the trust line: Ads in newspapers, at a 63% score. Consumers’ opinions from online blogs came in third at 61%. Brand Web sites were at 60%.

    Of the 13 different ad platforms Nielsen surveyed, new digital platforms–including some of that group’s biggest categories–took the last three spots. Search engine ads only generated a 34% trusting score; online banner ads were at 26%; and–dead last–was text ads on mobile phones.

    Traditional media, on the whole, did much better than new digital platforms. Television and magazine were in the middle of the pack, each with a 56% score; Radio was at 54%; and brand sponsorships, at 49%.

    Nielsen conducted this global twice-a-year study among 26,486 Internet users in 47 markets from Europe, Asia Pacific, the Americas and the Middle East.

    In general, European consumers were most distrustful of all advertising among nations around the world, with Danes (28%), Italians (32%), Lithuanians (34%) and Germans (35%) the lowest in the world. On the flip side, the most trusting were Philippines (67%), Brazil (67%), Mexico (66%), South Africa (64%), and Taiwan (63%). This more or less follows how consumers feel about word-of-mouth marketing among countries, with higher levels of trust existing in Asia-Pacific nations: Hong Kong (93%), Taiwan (91%) and Indonesia (89%). At the other end of the spectrum, those least likely to trust what they hear from other consumers come from…

    The actual content of web reviews and online WOM may not be the best, but people are listening to it and using it to make decision.

    I know personally that it is difficult to sift through conflicting reviews (“It’s great!” “It’s the worst thing ever!”) when I’m in the buying cycle for something.

    A huge hurdle from a consumer standpoint and a business standpoint – both large/national and small/local – is the proliferation of sites with WOM content. It’s so hard to keep track of it all. RSS helps, if a site offers it, but number of sites to stay on top of is just too big.

  3. Local SEO Guide Says:

    Hey Greg, one thing we didn’t really get into in the panel is the fact that, like it or not, online customer reviews are here to stay. So while the criticisms have a lot of validity, the train has already left the station. Maybe if there is some huge lawsuit there will be some dramatic change but that’s a big what if.

    So say what you will – online reviews may be extremely helpful, extremely harmful or just extremely entertaining, or all of the above – the fact is online reviews are now a part of how people make purchasing decisions.

  4. Consumer Trust, WOM and Online Ads « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Trust, WOM and Online Ads Related to the “Debate over User Reviews” post below are findings from a consumer survey by Nielsen that I had intended to write […]

  5. Jeremy Says:

    This quote made me smile… “most people aren’t qualified to discuss many of the things they’re reviewing online.” Last time I checked I knew whether my doctor cured my sinus issues (he did) or whether my smashed car window was successfully repaired (it was). No MD or auto fixing experience required, ha!

  6. The Local Review Spammer’s Guide: National Edition Says:

    […] reviews. There was quite a discussion about how trustworthy these reviews were. Greg Sterling has a recap of that discussion on his blog.  Paul Ryan, CEO of Perform Local which runs, made a big stink about the general […]

  7. Ask Bjørn Hansen Says:

    Yeah, I’m with Jeremy. People are reviewing their experience; how can they not be qualified to do that?

    From the Alexa and it also looks like most people don’t agree with Ryan. 🙂

    – ask

  8. emad Says:

    Hmmmm…I wonder if business models of the businesses for which these individuals work played a role in their opinions… 😉

  9. Word of Mouth and Social Media « Screenwerk Says:

    […] written quite a bit about social directories, online communities and word of mouth lately. Typically a large percentage of local business is […]

  10. ‘No Yelpers’ Says One Local Cafe « Screenwerk Says:

    […] of the user-generated content phenomenon and the problems it poses for small businesses. (See the similar discussion of the Community Generated Local Search panel debate at SMX […]

  11. Information Overload and Community Adoption « Screenwerk Says:

    […] is something of an antidote to these phenomena. Community has definite limitations and flaws but it also offers a way to navigate the sea of too many choices online. Search is highly […]

  12. Ask your Community vs. Find it Yourself at Ghost of Midnight Says:

    […] on the web… Community is something of an antidote to these phenomena. Community has definite limitations and flaws but it also offers a way to navigate the sea of too many choices […]

  13. More Evidence of Reviews’ Importance « Screenwerk Says:

    […] that 30% (of the 24%) in the comScore data wrote reviews because they were asked to do so. (And see my recap of the SMX panel on user review […]

  14. Reviews Force Engagement with Customers « Screenwerk Says:

    […] now) to “juice” their results or reviews on selected popular or influential sites. (See this debate.) Thus the challenge for the publishers of those sites is to stay one step ahead so that their […]

  15. Profile of a Local Search Reviewer Says:

    […] also users who write reviews to boast their presence in the online community.  Many people have debated whether or not business reviews are helpful to the readers who read them. Other’s have discussed which sites and formats are more […]

  16. Robert Says:

    Most consumers are faced with the issues of relevance and credibility when they search using major search engines and review sites. There are either too many irrelevant results, or they don’t know which review to trust. Social Raves ( lets consumers extend their social networks into a platform where they can share their experiences about local businesses with friends, and vice-versa. The intent is to help consumers build their own personalized, authentic, and reliable reference source on great local brands and businesses through the recommendations of family and friends. In this context and environment, fraudulent reviews become less of an issue or even a non-issue at all. Some random user may create stories and bad-mouth a local business, but if a friend vouches for it, then I might be willing to try it. Who better to make recommendations to you than the people who know you?

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