The Online Review Myth

We’re the best. Even ask us.

In our first year of business, a client spoke to us about a problem they had with their Google Places reviews. After 18 reviews over three years, they were tracking at 2.2 stars (out of 5) and they were concerned that it was costing them business. They asked us if we could help them sort it out (in other words turn 2.2 into 4+). We said that if they were prepared to train their team up to provide a higher level of service, we would “fix” their star rating. They said they would, and so we did.

Within a month we had the clients’ average up to 4.2 stars. A month after we stopped the program, it was down to 3.4. Within three months it was back down to 2.2. Nothing had changed, but for the month in between, online shoppers would have come across a 4.2 star business and potentially used that to make a buying decision. We haven’t done it since.

More a measure of a social network than performance.

A buddy of mine started a new business a couple of years ago. Within the first month she had 12 new reviews, all 4-star and above. None of them were clients, all friends and family members who were following a script she’d designed.

In fairness her business was solid and delivered a good service so an argument could be made that whilst not authentic, the reviews were a reflection of the business. But it still felt greasy.

It’s not unusual for businesses to run campaigns with the sole purpose for gaining reviews however they can muster – promotions, incentives, discounts. I know of professional networking groups that encourage blind reviews from their members to the point where discomfort ensues for those who are uncomfortable doing so.

Marketing at its crustiest.

Six months ago I had a motor vehicle serviced and was sent a follow-up from the dealership seeking feedback. If I gave a five-star review they’d enter me in a draw to win a $1000 gift card. That particular dealership had more than 70 reviews, all 5-star.

I suspect we have all been to restaurants or retail outlets that have offered a similar incentive – positive reviews for meal discounts, free coffees, store credits, and additional gifts

It’s a little like winning an industry award. It looks cool but at the heart of it you will probably find that there is a back story which negates any goodwill it creates. Like imitation meat: it looks the part but isn’t quite right.

Settle down, internet.

I’m not suggesting all reviews are fakies but the reality is that the difference between a business without any reviews and a business with a mountain of 5-star reviews may simply be their marketing commitment.

We don’t naturally leave positive reviews because a good outcome is expected – that’s why we pay for them. It is only if we are disappointed that we feel compelled to tell the world about it. And so we incentivise in order to get the feedback.

Who cares?

Yes. Fair question. My points are these:

  • The modern online review environment is largely about manipulating our decision making rather than providing authentic guidance. So consider seeking recommendations from human beings and ignoring the stars.
  • If you need social proof from a business you are looking to form a long-term partnership with, ask for 10 references you can contact. You don’t need to contact them all but at least you will know you haven’t been handed the two or three best.

In most cases online reviews are like other measures of online credibility – modified and manipulated to convince the buyer to choose them. That’s not to say they are untrue but they are likely not as relevant as we like to think. So what now? Why not go retro and buy from starless business and see how it goes. If they do a good job, let them kn face-to-face. It’ll be more awkward for sure but I suspect it will mean a who lot more to them than a handful of Google stars.