How Reliable Are Online Reviews?

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No online review system is perfect, but many of the major ones have plenty of room for improvement.

Online reviews can help you pick among service providers, and millions of people look to them for opinions about businesses. But who reviews the reviewers?

The people who review everything from frozen pizza to laundry detergent pods, of course — Consumer Reports. The magazine’s website observes that five different review services scored the same plumbing business anywhere from an A+ to an F. It then explains the potential flaws behind each service:

  • Angie’s List. This subscription service (prices vary, but it’s $46 a year in San Francisco) encourages companies to solicit reviews, something that can skew results, and gets nearly 70 percent of its revenue from businesses that advertise. Those that do get 12 times more profile views than companies that don’t buy ads.
  • Porch. “[CEO Matt] Ehrlichman says Porch is like a LinkedIn resume for service providers, which means the service providers control their profiles and are the source of all the key information,” Consumer Reports says. “You must rely on the contractors themselves to tell you how good they are, in an industry that has historically not fostered much trust.” It’s free.
  • Google+ Local. Google encourages businesses to reward reviewers with coupons, and allows reviewers to delete negative reviews if their problems with the company have been resolved. It’s free.
  • Yelp. Like Google, Yelp allows reviewers to revise their opinions later, which can make reviews less honest. Yelp also tends to get mostly positive reviews, with two-thirds of the reviews given in the first quarter of 2013 awarding four or five stars. It’s free.
  • Better Business Bureau. Companies are rated for how well they respond to consumer complaints. CR notes, “Last March the BBB of Los Angeles was itself expelled from the national organization for failing to adhere to standards on handling complaints, accreditation, and reporting on businesses.” Since then, the LA chapter has been replaced. It’s free.
  • Consumers’ Checkbook. “We found little to fault here, except that in some cases a business rating may be based on as few as 10 users,” Consumer Reports says. “But Checkbook provides complete transparency and guidance about how to assess those ratings compared with companies with more users.” It costs $34 for two years.

What’s your experience with online reviews? Do you give them or rely on them? Let us know on Facebook.

Stacy Johnson

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