Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I became an aunt for the very first time last year, when I was well into my 40s. I have no friends with small babies, as most of my pals did their birthing 15 to 20 years ago, and I have no child experience of my own. So when the wee guy’s birthday came around, I was stumped. What do you get a small, sturdy boy who’s just starting to walk but isn’t yet ready to read?

When faced with this dilemma, I did what thousands of Americans do each and every day: I went online and looked for reviews of both toys and toy retailers. I carefully inspected each and every review, and I eliminated any item and any retailer that didn’t have great kudos from the random strangers that chose to post reviews. In the end, I got the perfect gift from a hassle-free provider. Reviews made it happen.

That’s why I was stunned to see a Consumer Reports study highlighted in TIME. Here, the researchers suggest that user-review sites can’t really be trusted, and that consumers are catching on. The implication is that the sites will collapse in no time at all, mainly because the business model is flawed.

Call me a skeptic, but to mangle a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, I think that the accounts of the death of online review sites have been greatly exaggerated.

What They Deliver

In a modern, hectic, connected world, online review sites deliver something that consumers both want, and struggle to find. In short, they provide skeptical consumers with a sense of security.

By logging into a review site, consumers can get a good deal without sudden surprises. By parsing the comments, just as I did, they can ensure that the purchases they make are valuable, and that they’re unlikely to get stiffed or jilted by unscrupulous purveyors. By looking at a review site, consumers have the opportunity to take a company and/or a product on a test drive, doing research that could ensure that they don’t regret the decision to hit the “buy” button.

Experts Don’t Agree

While consumers might love review sites, few company officials have the same warm-and-fuzzy feelings. As any small business owner can attest, angry customers tend to talk at length about their concerns and complaints, while the happy ones keep silent. In addition, review sites make it easy for competitors to launch sneak attacks against a company’s brand. Just a few bogus entries are enough to knock crucial stars from a company’s profile.

Most business owners have known about these problems for years, but the article in TIME might deliver the bad news about review sites to a wider audience. And, the authors attack almost every review site out there, including:

  • Angie’s List, which writers suggest is suspect due to the practice of allowing paying businesses to rank high in search results.
  • Google+ Local, which authors suggest rigs the game by allowing businesses to bribe or plead with customers, who can then change their reviews.
  • Yelp, which the article covers at length, focusing on the site’s filtration system and advertising programs.

This is a pretty scathing article, but some experts are willing to take the premise yet further. For example, blogger Peter Shankman suggests that Yelp has less than 2 years of active life left. He even has some skin in the game, as he’s vowed to give $5,000 to a charity if Yelp is still a viable business in the summer of 2015.

This is great news for the business owners that hate being slammed by the online review model. But I’m not so sure that now is the time to break out the champagne. In fact, I think there’s still a lot to be worried about.

Alive and Kicking

The crux of the argument bloggers like Peter Shankman put forward is that review sites are doomed because consumers want to hear opinions of people that they know and trust. This is the sort of thinking that drives Facebook and Google advertising. If a friend recommends something, the site administrators say, it’s a much bigger “hook” than a review by a stranger. As a result, these experts suggest, the reviews of the future will take place on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and the consumers will see only the reviews generated by their friends.

But is that really true? To head back to my original story, I didn’t know anyone who could help me make an informed decision about baby toys. My “friends” would have been worthless in this regard. In the end, I would have been forced to expand my search to random strangers in order to find the information I wanted. I would still need a review site.

I also question the idea that consumers distrust information that’s provided by strangers and/or information that companies might somehow game with money or influence. By now, most consumers are savvy people, and they’re quite able to use a discerning eye when they read. These consumers might easily spot the shill reviews, as well as overlooking those unhinged reviews that aren’t based on reality. To suggest that consumers are so sheep-like that they can’t discern the true from the fake does them a disservice, and I think it’s inaccurate.

Making it Work

If the sites aren’t going away, as much as we SEO and reputation management experts might grouse, we’re all going to have to learn to make peace with them, and make the sites work for us.

That work begins by delivering an excellent product in an excellent customer service-based environment. Focusing on quality and caring is the best way to ensure that clients have an experience that’s positive.

Next, customers should be actively encouraged to share their thoughts on social media. Hand out reminder cards with receipts, and ask them personally to share their stories. Solicit that feedback, and the good results will come flowing in.

Being active and monitoring the company’s brand is also a vital part of the review process. Business owners should be reading each and every review, and they should be responding to both positive and negative comments as quickly and as professionally as possible. This kind of proactive stance demonstrates a real commitment to customer service, and it’s the kind of behavior connected consumers love. The more you’re out there, the better.

And, of course, if you see fraudulent reviews or unethical attacks unfolding, hire an expert to clean up the damage. Reputation management companies can be an invaluable resource when the tail begins to wag the dog.