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The Business of Online Reviews

business-customerCompanies such as Angie’s List, Yelp, Home Advisor, and many other companies have made bank by keeping and providing service provider information, accumulating customer reviews, and providing what should be useful information to consumers. There sometimes is a charge for this and sometimes there isn’t.  As in the case of Google, Yahoo and other providers, there isn’t a charge to be privy to the information on any business. Anyone is free to leave or peruse a review.  The whole business of local Raleigh SEO can hinge greatly on the reviews.  Ranking organically is one thing but with the prevalence of the local “snack pack”, your company needs to be ranking on those maps whenever it can!

In a perfect world, you ask for or are provided a service/product from a company. You, as the customer, are now free to share an honest opinion and review of said service/product/company  as you see fit. In a perfect world, this would be great. For anyone deluding themselves out there, we don’t live in a perfect world.

Website Motivations

web-reviews-2Right off the bat, the process is a little suspect as most websites HAVE a financial consideration. Some of these internet online review companies ARE charging for inclusion or to be “featured.”    There is a financial motivation for either allowing positive/negative reviews, or removing them, regardless of what policy may be stated.  If I am paying your company $1000/mo to be the “featured company” whenever someone searches your website for a particular service, it is NOT helpful to have a bunch of BAD reviews coming up.  Could it happen that negative reviews just get lost or purposefully removed? Yes. Could it happen that positive reviews get lost? Also yes.  DOES that happen? I don’t really know. Unfortunately, this is NOT a transparent process.

All of these companies have their own vetting process to determine which reviews to show.  None of these companies will tell you what the criteria for keeping or displaying a review actually is. If you’ve been in the web marketing world for any length of time, you will notice that there are some companies that will remove these reviews, good or bad, depending on their own internal criteria.  When there is no transparency or regulation of the practice, opportunities definitely exist for abuse.

Reviewer Motivations

So, what IS a fair review? One that provides a reasonable assessment of a service or product.  Period.  I have to chuckle when I see a local food snob rating local restaurants poorly because they’re a hot dog restaurant or some other simple place. Granted, they’re NOT a Michelin 3-star, but they don’t claim to be. They claim to be a hot dog restaurant and they provide fast service, a great price and about what you’d expect from a hot dog restaurant. So should they get 1 star? Well, if they were serving ground rodent for hot dogs maybe, but the point is, if you’re paying for a service and you get what you pay for, rate accordingly. The company should provide reasonable expectation about their service and you should keep that in mind. If you pay someone to paint the outside of your the house for 1500, don’t expect them to pop in and do the inside for free or rank them 0 because they don’t provide a service that shouldn’t be expected.

We find a number of reviews, unfortunately, that are complete and utter garbage.  They go to both sides of the fence. There are garbage reviews where you find a “They are the greatest thing since sliced bread” review for a local Raleigh company that is posted by a reviewer in Texas. Absolute garbage. A paid review. Paid and bogus review prevention are why certain criteria exist.  It makes no sense for a local carpet company to be getting reviews from a profile that has no picture, no friends, no other reviews, joined whatever site today to allow this one review AND are from TEXAS. Just completely suspect – and in 99% of cases – a plant.

bad-dude-online-reviewersI can’t begin to count the number of times that I have seen local SEO customers damaged by unjust rants against their companies for completely malicious, unrealistic and/or completely nonsensical reasons.   One of the worst is a towing company I work with.  They do a lot of non-consensual towing – the kind where you pull into a spot that says “For coffee shop parking only!” when you’re actually planning on going to the dry cleaners next door. You carry your dry cleaning in, walk out and see your car going down the road behind a wrecker. Nope, this is NOT something that’s going to make you happy.  It potentially can ruin your day – or at least put a real crimp in it. Maybe you should have thought about that before you parked there… They actually are nice people – they just do a job that is not well-liked. Probably right up there with being an IRS agent, Not everyone’s job brings cheer and joy to the world, but they are necessary. Somebody has to do it.

So you decide to stick it to the towing company once you get your car back by golly.  You charge up online with vengeance in your soul and spite in your eyes and leave a scathing review of what a horrible company they are, and you start off with “I parked in the coffee shop parking lot for just a minute while I ran next door to the dry cleaners…”  Nope, you know what, the tow company is NOT the villain here, but the reviewer is going to TRY to make it seem that way. Fair review? Not a chance. MOST of the reviews are done out of sheer anger and frustration and it always needs to be someone else’s fault.

I have another client, a doctor, who refused service to a patient that she felt was doing nothing more than drug shopping. Hint, if you are going to the doctor, generally don’t tell them right off the bat which narcotic you expect to be prescribed for some vague, nonsense reason. BAM. Lowest possible ranking and condemnation – spread down a whole screen. Fair or justified? Nope.

Got a call from another customer – a higher end restaurant – who relented when one of their “customers” basically said unless they got their food for free, they were going to trash them in online reviews.  They gave up the food to preserve their rating. Was $50 worth of food too high to not get their restaurant trashed online? Probably not. Is it fair or right? Not at all.

Another restaurant that was trashed after two “organizers” showed up an hour early right after the restaurant owner walked through the door to start THEIR setup to prepare for the organizers who were scheduled to show up an hour later. Read, “The organizers showed up before the restaurant was actually even OPENED.” The owner didn’t have time to talk to them or hold their hand at that time- or the food wouldn’t be ready when it was expected. That part about having shown up an hour early, after the start time had been confirmed the day prior, was conveniently left off the “scathing review” which followed. The “review” was nothing more than a condemnation of a restaurant which has / had a 5 star rating with about 50 reviews – all because two people decided they wanted to show up early – ridiculous early.

I could literally go on for another hour or two with so many more bs examples of unjust, ridiculous “I’ll stick it to them” actions, or completely self-serving behavior on the part of customers.

There ARE bad companies out there

business-bad-serviceThere are companies that should be receiving these poor reviews.  Contractors that are supposed to be putting on an addition – and then disappear with your deposit. Contractors that have shown up after drinking – eeeesh.  Nail salons that give you infections. Roofing companies that do a sorry job and you end up with leaks – and they won’t come back to fix it. Lawn guys that kill your yard. Products that are defective out of the box – yet won’t be willingly replaced/repaired by the company.  There ARE certainly MANY cases in which poor reviews are deserved.

So, just get it removed. What’s the big deal?

The sad part is that none of the websites willingly remove these bogus reviews even WHEN fraught with obvious logical issues. Don’t even consider the judgment call situations – just the simple logical ones would be a good start for simple no-brainer calls.  When a review for “Dr. Smith” goes on and on about how “Dr. Jones” is horrible and shouldn’t be allowed to practice medicine, gets 0 stars, etc and is presented to one of these companies, it should be a no-brainer that this kind of misplaced review SHOULD be removed. The review should have been left for Dr. Jones NOT Dr. Smith. Yet, it isn’t. I’ve seen this on a few occasions. “Sorry, we can’t remove reviews” is the pat answer, but we know they do – as we in the business see all sorts of reviews disappear on whim.

The Better Business Bureau has a remediation process for handling customer complaints. While a bs complaint can still BE made, there are some mechanisms in place for resolving the issue that ARE transparent and at least provide a modicum of fairness. With other online review sites, it’s a crap shoot at best – with too often, a “the customer is always right” mentality the guiding factor.

Much as everyone would like to think the customer is always right, there are times when they aren’t.

Is there an answer?

There is – but it’s not simple or cheap and I’m not even sure it’s really a GOOD answer.  Consumer Reports style reviews are done in-house. I don’t think that IS really possible, but what IS possible is to have a business model that does NOT rely on the people being reviewed being involved in ANY way with the process. Being not beholden to any particular company removes the, “You know, they paid us 25K last year in advertising, maybe we shouldn’t trash this vehicle no matter HOW bad it really is…” possibilities. Takes a financial incentive away from a review website/company to dress up or down on any particular company or product.  No “featured business” spot.

Second, have a real person look at these reviews before they go live. I don’t mean a computer program or a profanity check or something like that. A real human would look at the review for Dr. Smith about Dr. Jones and just pitch it KNOWING that it was in the wrong place.

Does this bring subjectivity into something that is ideally OBJECTIVE? Yes, it does. Unfortunately, customer service and perceptions are seldom as objective as we might like to think. 1 + 1 = 2. That’s objective data.  “The service was slow” – that’s subjective. Did you walk in during the Friday lunch rush? Did you order something on the menu that stated – “WILL TAKE 45 MINUTES TO PREPARE?” Did the waitress decide to take HER lunch break during YOURS?  There are all sorts of things that could be either good OR bad – but they’re all subjective. If not put in context, almost ALL occurrences can be made to look bad. Whenever you have humans involved, EVERYTHING is subjective. The key would be to throw a layer of “reasonability”  and “context” on top of it.

It will eventually be sorted out

Like all things, as we progress, we’ll get this whole “online reviews” thing down right. There will be protection from unscrupulous reviewers and there will be protection from unscrupulous companies – it’s just not here yet. But it’s coming – mark my words!