Online User Reviews: Use Them to Buy Wisely, Vent, and Get Free Stuff

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User reviews on sites like Yelp, CitySearch, and Amazon have changed the way consumers decide what to buy, what to read, where to eat, where to get their hair done, and so on. Before trying a place or product out, you can read about the experiences of dozens, sometimes hundreds of other consumers. While the information doesn’t always make sense (12 five-star reviews and 12 one-star reviews for the same restaurant?), you’re at least able to make a more informed decision.

And the businesses listed on these sites are now deeply aware of the power of these reviews—the bad ones especially. That’s why many business owners are reaching out to disgruntled customers who have trashed the establishment with a revenue killer of a review, begging (bribing?) the reviewer to reconsider by offering free meals free meals, gift certificates, free consultations, and money back for the original transaction.

The LA Times cites some interesting examples of how the game works. In many ways, it’s just an extension of how business owners have been trying to protect—and build—their reputations for years, just on a much larger scale:

“It’s become a higher-stakes game in the last year as sites have become more popular,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst who looks at the effect of digital media on consumer behavior. “Before, someone might have said, ‘I’m never going to go there again,’ but that was word of mouth. It wouldn’t show up anywhere. But now it’s all public.”

One restaurant owner explains why he’s all over user reviews, and how he sometimes offers freebies to folks who left his place with a bad taste in their mouths:

Floyd Ross, owner of a Thai restaurant in Redondo Beach called Siam I Am, said he became active on Yelp almost immediately after opening his business in 2008.

He’s been particularly sensitive to negative reviews, especially in the months following the restaurant’s launch.

“When you don’t have that many reviews — if you have, say, less than 20, and you get slammed by one, that’s 5% of your average rating,” he said.

Ross often sends private messages to unhappy customers, offering them gift certificates or free meals. He said he never explicitly requests a review change, worrying that the appearance of a quid pro quo exchange might make his outreach seem less than genuine. Still, he says, about half the customers will change or update their posts.

“It’s just an extension of what we would have traditionally done in-house, someone flagging me down from their table and saying, ‘I can’t eat this,’ ” he said.

So consumers: If you’ve been done wrong by a business, let the world know. You’re doing more than just bitching. You’re helping other consumers make wise decisions, and you could also wind up with a discount or freebie for yourself. Then again, if the place really was that awful, you wouldn’t want to go back—not even if the return trip was 20% off, or even free.

Now, if you’re sifting through user reviews that offer dramatically conflicting opinions, unfortunately, that seems to be pretty standard. My take has always been akin to that of Olympics judge scoring: You toss out the high and the low reviews (both extremes could have been planted, for all you know), and concentrate on what the bulk of what people are saying.

PC World put together a bunch of tips for how to use (and not use) user reviews. One piece of advice is especially good. Sometimes, you really should go beyond the standard reviews and post a query at a user forum:

Then there are user forums, which tend to mix experts with newbies, objective real-world tests with subjective preferences, sober judgments with passionate opinions.

Will Chambers, who edits Steve’s Digicams and has done a bajillion reviews is a big fan in the value of user forums:

“You get a lot of feedback from people who may have purchased not only that model but several of its predecessors. You get feedback from professionals in the industry or from enthusiasts who buy every model that comes out.”

The PC World piece also offers some tips for how to spot a shill posting a fake review. Look for things like:

Unduly specific use case, user narrative, or consumer segment: If the review paints too complete a picture of the reviewer’s precise demographic, the odds are good that you’re reading an impostor’s work. Most real people don’t bother (or even want) to explain their careers or provide a typical day-in-the-life scenario when they’re writing about whether a camcorder works. If you can picture the reviewer too specifically, treat the review with caution.

Example: “I travel a lot on business, so I need a laptop that’s small, durable and gets out of the way so I can do my work. The Atlas 4oo has an extra-long battery life that lets me make good use of all the down-time I spend in airports. It also looks sleek, which means a lot to me when I’m trying to impress a new client.”

That seems like a pretty extreme example of obvious ad-speak. While it’s impossible to root out every fake review, you should always ask yourself: Does the reviewer sound like a real person? And, just as important, is this person a crank, an oddball, or someone like me? If it’s the latter, take the review to heart.

And if you’re a crank or an oddball, take the opinions of those like-minded folks to heart too.