When I wanted to try out a restaurant or a store or hotel that’s new to me, I’d first go online to check out the reviews by patrons.
I wrote that in past tense for a reason: I don’t do that too much anymore. I grew too suspicious of supposed critiques by supposed customers.
You’ve probably noticed that many online reviews fall into one of two categories. Using restaurant reviews as an example, there are the flowery critics (“This breathtaking restaurant is amazingly superb in every imaginable way!”) and there are the snarky ones (“Expensive mush served by resentful dropouts in a hard-to-find place with sticky floors.”).
Reviews in the first category apparently are ginned up by restaurant owners or their mothers or their bankers. Those in the second apparently are written by competitors or ticked-off ex-employees.
Oh, sure, there’s a third and large category of online critiques that are kind of in the middle. They seem to be written by real customers with sincere opinions. Trouble is I’m suspicious of them, too, but for a different reason: Most have stupid opinions. Some mercilessly ding the restaurant because of some insignificant flaw; maybe the restaurant served the wrong brand of butter. Others glorify the restaurant because the reviewer enjoyed a romantic anniversary celebration or because of some similarly off-point reason. And when it comes to food, many of the citizen critics don’t know shiitake from Shinola.
(A quick aside. This is another reason to lament the slow dismantling of daily newspapers. Many papers have cut or contracted out their reviewers. Variety last week eliminated its film and live theater critics. Whether you agree with their judgment or not, professional newspaper and magazine critics deliver informed, well-written reviews that are not – or should not be – tainted by payoffs or giveaways from the targets of the review.)
As if we need another reason to distrust online reviews, there’s the shakedown aspect to consider. According to the article on the front page of this week’s Los Angeles Business Journal, a veterinarian in Long Beach claims in a lawsuit that a salesman for Yelp.com suggested that bad reviews of his shop could be buried and may even disappear if the veterinarian bought ads on Yelp for up to $1,000 a month.
Now, I have absolutely no idea if there’s any merit to the veterinarian’s claim. But I do know that some businesses have complained about what they view as an extortion racket by a number of online operations. Basically, the more the business pays, the better the business looks in reviews or the higher it ranks in search engine results.
What do you do if your business gets savaged in online reviews by citizen critics? In the past, consultants have said that the best tactic is to go online, pinch your nose and thank the reviewer for pointing out where you could do better.
Beyond that, you can try to round up friends and loyal customers to write favorable critiques – you know, the ones about how your breathtaking place is amazingly superb in every way. They’re transparently sappy, sure, but at least they tend to dilute the nasty reviews.
But I’m starting to wonder if you should do something else:
Just ignore them.
I’m guessing that it won’t be long before a lot of people, like me, assume most of the online reviews are written by the ignorant or by those with some agenda. And now we have to wonder whether payoffs are corrupting some online review systems.
And I’m guessing that a good number of people, unable to trust the integrity of online reviews, will just stop bothering to check them.