Online reviews – be cautious with your trust
Online reviews are proliferating, in line with the wider ‘reputation economy’. As well as restaurants and hotels, you can now see millions of feedback scores for teachers, doctors, garage mechanics and an increasing range of other trades, professions and businesses. Employees in some countries can rate their CEO and there’s even a site in North America called Rate my Horse, which aims to produce ‘successful transactions in the horse industry.’ So far, I’ve been unable to find ‘Rate My Public Relations Consultant,’ though perhaps someone’s planning one.
With many of these supposedly consumer-championing sites, there’s a dark side: fake reviews. It was never going to take long for companies to realise that the power of positive consumer endorsement can easily be manipulated in their favour. On the other hand, I’ve seen media reports of consumers using the threat of negative reviews as a bargaining tool with businesses.
Here’s the problem: if we want to get a sense of how good (or bad) something or someone is, it’s becoming harder to spot the genuine reviews from the fabricated. Inevitably, the rise of review sites has led to the creation of digital reputation services, which aim to drive up positive ratings and bury bad ones. I’ve yet to see one that could be described as ethical.
The thing that still puzzles me is that so many people continue to trust the reviews of complete strangers. If I’m thinking of trying out a new restaurant, I’d rather rely on the opinions of people I know, and who know me, than those I don’t. You might think restaurant A or hotel B are sensational, but they could be mediocre to me, or vice-versa. The same applies to so many other decisions.
If I must rely on a stranger’s opinion, then I’ll turn to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and who makes their judgements based on a clear set of criteria. If you want to know if a restaurant is any good, consult a trusted and recognised source such as The Michelin Guide. To illustrate my point, take the city of Barcelona in Southern Spain, which is a magnet for tourists and a great place for food lovers. It has 21 Michelin-starred restaurants but only one of those is in TripAdvisor’s Top Ten for the city.
All of this serves to show that we consumers need to be cautious with our trust of review sites. From personal experience, I’d also advise caution when posting negative reviews. Two years ago I booked a group of business people into a luxury chateau which was to serve as our base for a three-day teambuilding event. The hotel itself was perfect but we had some reservations about the way the place was run. Several promises were broken and some staff had attitudes that didn’t fit well with the chateau’s 5-star positioning. They made our life as event organisers considerably harder than it should have been.
We decided to post a bad review on a well-known review site, to act as a warning to others but also in the hope that the owners would improve – we wanted to run other events there but couldn’t run the risk unless they upped their game.
So we were pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from the owner, asking if we would consider meeting him for a discussion about the review. We agreed but quickly realised it was a huge mistake. He threatened us with his lawyers and tried to bully us into taking down the review. We immediately notified the review site but found they were of little help. It was a nasty experience but our own lawyer told us the owner had no grounds for taking legal action.
This is clearly an extreme example of company management over-reacting, and inappropriately so, to a bad review. As I’ve written previously about companies living in fear of bad reviews, this kind of feedback is priceless. It should be seen as part of the organisation’s learning and improvement process. Dialogue, remember, is a fundamental tenet of good public relations. So you should certainly be encouraging reviews, both good and bad. Just don’t read too much into them, unless you have high trust in the source.