by: Roger Dooley

Fast Company has a good article on the growing use of user-generated content to provide guidance on restaurants, hotels, and just about everything else. The article focuses on the challenges faced by various review sites in balancing freedom of expression against the need to curtail bogus reviews generated by competitors or the firm itself:

Yelp is a perfect example of the stakes in the reputation trade. Founded in 2004 with coverage of San Francisco, the site is now active nationwide, with 4 million reviews of everything from corner cafés to dog groomers. While it’s not yet profitable, Yelp’s pledge — “Real People. Real Reviews” — makes for an attractive business model. The company has raised $31 million and was recently ranked by TechCrunch as one of the VC-fueled startups most likely to weather an economic downturn.

Yet Yelp has also become a target of criticism. This past summer, a clutch of members of a Silicon Valley women’s networking group were banned from the site. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman says the networkers had a “you review me, I review you” arrangement, which violates Yelp’s terms. Adryenn Ashley, one of the deleted, denies it. She promptly registered the site and recruited some 200 business owners for a potential class-action lawsuit, alleging their incomes were hurt and freedom of speech infringed. [From FastCompany - The Perils and Promise of the Reputation Economy by Anya Kamenetz.]

In my community building presentations, I’ve been citing this problem for years. As the stakes go up, the incentive to post biased or completely false reviews increases. The sophistication of the posting techniques is certainly on the rise, too, if the Yelp experience is any indication. We’ve come a long way from the competitor who registers a username and puts up one post to trash a rival.

In the long run, the anonymous review is doomed. The FastCompany article notes,

Ethan Lowry, cofounder of restaurant-ratings startup Urbanspoon, says in his experience “haters” and “shills” write most user reviews. So Urbanspoon bundles consumer votes with content indexed from professional critics and food bloggers. The latter are clearly Lowry’s favorites: “They’ve given up their anonymity and opened themselves up on some level to criticism that keeps them honest.”

Amazon also highlights reviews from those with verified identities. Traditional communities have dealt with this issue by reputation within the community - hang out in a forum for a few months, for example, and you’ll learn whose opinions are the most trustworthy. Certainly, the first post from a new member wouldn’t be weighted at the same level as one from a member with a history of 5,000 posts.

Today, though, reviews are used mostly by those unfamiliar with the community and who have little basis for evaluating credibility. Review content syndication may further separate the reviews from the context of the home site. Trying to effectively separate the good reviews from the biased will indeed be a challenge for the operators of review sites, and I’d expect to see enhanced member verification processes as part of the solution.

One site not included in the FastCompany article is Web 2.0 expert and widget guru Lawrence Coburn’s RateItAll, which offers users the opportunity to create their own categories for ratings and reviews. At a million uniques per month, RateItAll generates as much traffic as and (two sites mentioned in the story) combined.

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