Not All Online Reviews Are Created Equal

By Laurie Leiker

Angie’s List, Yelp, Better Business Bureau – there’s an almost endless list of online review websites out there, all telling you they know what a company is like, but do they really tell a company’s whole story?  Can you rely on online reviews as the bottom line of a company’s trustworthiness?

The Internet has fundamentally changed the way in which we live in the 21st Century.  We shop online, read our news online, even find phone numbers and directions online.  Gone are the days of looking something up in the Yellow Pages or looking at a map to find where we need to go.  The same can be said of finding out about a company.  On any given day, you can look up a company and find not only their own website but mentions of them spread across the web.

The Internet is really just a big city.  People are there living, working and enjoying themselves.  Businesses sell everything from cheap prescription drugs to cars and homes.  You’ll also find the seedy underbelly of any city – the “red light” district and the guys on the corner selling you knock-off watches and handbags from the trunks of their cars.  Like everything else in life, not everything is as it seems and nowhere is that more glaring than in the world of online reviews.

On the surface, online reviews are quick snapshots of a company – they did a great job or they did a horrible job at that one moment in time.  But online reviews are no different than in-person reviews; emotions dictate whether a review is posted.  If someone does a great job, they get a hearty congratulations; if they did a particularly poor job, causing the consumer to get overheated, they get raked over the coals.

But can you truly trust those reviews?  A recent study done by a joint venture between Yale University, University of Southern California and Dartmouth University found that sites allowing anonymous reviews had more instances of “fake” reviews, meaning either someone from the company went in and posted fake good reviews or a competitor purposely posted poor reviews.1  The study found too that in a high number of cases, even requiring a name and email address to post a review led to the discovery of those using fake names and addresses to post reviews.

Another thing that brings online reviews into question has to do with their timeframe.  Information posted online talking about a small snapshot of time has a long lifespan.  A harsh review may be posted in a moment of anger before the company has a chance to make amends, to correct the situation.  Even if the company does make things right, the bad review is still out there, living on in infamy, tainting the reputation of an otherwise great company for the foreseeable future.

So how can you find reputable information about a company?  Here are a few tips:

  • Remember any company in business for more than a few months must be doing something right.  Like any person, no company is perfect, but long-term companies are good at least 90 percent of the time.  The real way to tell how good they are is how long they’ve been around and how they handle issues when things go wrong more than how they handle the day-to-day of doing things right.
  • Go beyond the online reviews.  Ask companies for references, both good and bad. Ask specifically for one or two customers who had bad experiences; finding out how a company handles issues is more important than the fact that there was an issue.  If a company will not give you bad references, question whether they’re being up front with you.  Then, actually talk to the references.  The issue might be something specific to that customer or something you could live with the other person couldn’t.  The issue might be part of the ten percent of the time the company wasn’t perfect.
  • Crowd-source your company’s reputation.  Ask on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook for information and references.

Online reviews have their place in your arsenal of weapons to protect yourself against being ripped off but they shouldn’t be the only one; carpenters use more than a hammer to build a cabinet.  Online reviews, used in conjunction with other legwork, can save you time and misery, but need to be taken with a grain of salt.