Sure, everybody’s got something to say. And the internet is the perfect platform to express your opinion. But are social review sites turning every one of us into critics and ruining small business in the process?
If I were to rely on a popular social review site to characterize my favorite hangout in D.C., which I love to frequent both on Saturday nights and for Sunday brunch, I’d deduce, from the reviews on this site, the image of a place that serves soupy burritos, sometimes with rusty screws in them, and plays ZZ Top continuously.
It’s an image of a place that doesn’t seem at all congruent with a place I’ve patronized oft en, but could be presumed by an unsuspecting visitor to this site and social review sites like it—Yelp, Google Places, Citysearch, etc. Though these descriptions don’t in any way fi t my experience or the experience of anyone I know of the place, they’re taken from different reviews on a social review site and could easily be the sole basis for one’s perception of a business before they’ve had the chance to experience it for themselves. On these sites, anyone can contribute anything they like, regardless of accuracy or truth.
One major drawback of these sites is that anyone can submit a review. Obviously, the most discerning reviewers among us − those with the most discriminating palate, intuitive musical taste and eye for service − who could give us an accurate comprehensive review of a business’s strengths or weaknesses, are not always going to use or take the time to write reviews on these sites. In fact, they’re likely to avoid this activity for lack of commensurate compensation for their efforts, whereas reviewers with bias or vendetta can easily contribute despite their motivation or a possible agenda. It’s similar to the way ratemyprofessor.com has a strong possibility of reflecting a student reviewer’s undesirable or inflated grade rather than their actual potential learning experience in the classroom or the ability of a particular professor. How do you know what you can trust in these reviews? I’d like to think that, in general, reviewers will be honest, but how do I know that whoever wrote this review isn’t a disgruntled employee or a one-time patron with an anomalously displeasing experience (and how do I know that it isn’t entirely the fault of the patron)? The short answer is: I can’t know. And what better way to innocuously retaliate against a former employer or to feel vindication for an undesirable experience than to anonymously vilify the “off ending” business?
One problem is that there is no incentive to contribute to these sites. Patrons who give favorable reviews always do so as a courtesy or possibly because they had an exceptionally positive experience that motivated them to set aside time to write a review. Or maybe they like to review things for the sake of reviewing. But how many people do you know who have a passion for repeatedly reviewing with the sole intention of accurately informing others with no reward? In any case, the reasons to give favorable reviews are few, while the opportunity for criticism incidentally abounds. In a world where we’re increasingly relying on internet sources for guidance, credibility is a valuable commodity. And unfortunately, the credibility of these sites is flimsy at best.
It isn’t just that the reviewer may or may not be trustworthy; another deficiency in these sites is that there is no way to tell if the tastes and preferences of any reviewer on these sites is congruous with your own, despite how credible or competent their review may seem.
Another reason these sites can be disobliging is that they can provide inaccurate information. Julie Lizer from Atlanta, Georgia explains, “The number one result of a recent search on a social review site for a hair salon near my house was a tattoo parlor. Not what I was seeking. The only time I’ve found these sites to be beneficial was in locating phone numbers for restaurants that don’t have their own website.”
In the same way that Lizer has found a use for these sites peripheral to the intended service (access to a phone number rather than the actual review), Malkia Hutchinson, a former resident of D.C., found the same, “I found out my boyfriend at the time had gone to a strip joint and rated it…and sounded like a damned fool while doing so.” Though invaluable, the advantage in Hutchinson’s discovery was serendipitous − something too unreliable to depend on, but possibly the only way that these sites can be useful − by chance alone. Maybe the reviewer you read will happen to be reliable, and maybe they’ll be truthful, and maybe (the biggest gamble) they’ll be looking for the same things in a business that you are also seeking. Th en, and only then, if all the coordinates line up, it’ll be useful, but the chances are slim.
Ultimately, reviews that rely on one-time subjective personal experiences are largely unreliable. The best − and probably only − option to determine whether a business will suit your needs and preferences is just to experience it for yourself.