Coming from the crowd

Navigate the world of user-generated review sites.

crowdJenny Korn is serious about Thai food. A scholar of online identity at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Korn is Thai American and regularly uses crowdsourced sites like Yelp and Trip-
Advisor to find hidden gems. But she doesn’t tend to care about the metrics on which most casual users rely.

“I don’t look at Yelp’s or TripAdvisor’s number of stars or even number of reviews, but I do examine the qualitative data,” she says. “Those comments mean more to me because people took the time to put their experience into words, not just a mere click on a number.” She looks for words and phrases that are personally meaningful in order to find what she craves. Recently, seeking a Thai restaurant in rural Wisconsin, she happened upon a description of a café whose owners were also the cooks. It stood out to her as an authentic spot worth the drive from her Chicago home. The qualitative data led her to a spot that did not disappoint.

Here comes everybody
Korn’s ability to find an authentic Thai restaurant in a remote location wouldn’t have been possible 15 years prior. Two decades ago, crowdsourced—also called user-generated—review sites were still incubating. They were mostly just wishful ideas without fully formed business plans to back them up. Household services subscription site Angie’s List went live in May of 1999 and went fully interactive in 2000. That same year, TripAdvisor launched its free travel review service, funded by 
advertising. Today, 125 new reviews are posted per minute on TripAdvisor, which has more than 200 million in total. Yelp launched its free restaurant and business listing review database in the fall of 2004. Ten years later, Yelp was receiving 135 million monthly visitors, in 20 countries and 15 languages.

By 2006, Time magazine had named you, the user contributing knowledge to the World Wide Web, its Person of the Year. Today, user ratings and reviews are not just good (or in some cases not so good) for business—they are expected and essential. As a result, TripAdvisor is one of the largest travel sites on the Web, with more than 30 subsidiary sites like SeatMe and GateGuru. Now a multinational corporation, Yelp became a publicly traded company in early 2012. Angie’s List has been publicly traded since 2011. Some sites that rely solely on user-contributed content, like Wikitravel, remain free and do not even employ site managers or administrators.

But it can be hard to know how to sift through reviews or whether to trust crowdsourced ratings more than professional reviews. Angie’s List came under fire in 2013 when Consumer Reports noted that businesses that pay to advertise on Angie’s List are pushed to the top of search results, though this is not obvious to users. A documentary film currently in production seeks to answer whether Yelp manipulates reviews and ratings by tacitly agreeing to hide bad reviews when local businesses advertise on the site.

Even as bad publicity and potential problems abound, most travelers—and an increasing number of locals—use these sites regularly to find dependable retailers, reliable hotel options, or small businesses worth supporting. Review sites offer a symbiotic relationship on which many proprietors rely. A 2011 study by Harvard Business School assistant professor Michael Luca found that a positive evaluation on Yelp leads to increased business for restaurants. The study also found that reviewers favor independent restaurants rather than chains, which is good news for local hamburger joints trying to compete with McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

Sifting wheat from chaff

When Scottsdale, Arizona, spa owner Heidi Lamar purchased her business more than a decade ago, she quickly discovered the impact reviews could have on her independently owned and operated resort. Like most business owners, she says that bad reviews are frustrating but notes there are several ways to use bad reviews to inform your decision-making.

“Listen most closely to the reviewers who sound like you and your friends,” she suggests. “They probably see things the way you do. If a review concerns you, check out the reviewer’s other reviews. Some people are only happy when they are not.” She also notes that unfavorable reviews are a way for business owners to interface in a productive, positive way with the public, and that users should pay attention not just to the reviews but also to the business owner’s reply. “Look for responses to reviews from the business to get a glimpse into their culture and guest service philosophy,” she adds.

Lamar’s vested interest in the topic even landed her a spot on Yelp’s Small Business Advisory Council, a group of 25 small-business owners from around the world who give the review site managers feedback on how to improve the tool. Business owners like Lamar stand to benefit from a site that filters the best reviews to the top, but she stands to gain even more from helping the company produce quality, credible results that highlight her strengths as a business owner who operates a reputable company, takes customer complaints seriously, and addresses issues as they arise.

Your lasting impact
Many travel and hospitality industry experts agree: online reviews are critical to a hotel or restaurant’s popularity, and often to its survival. Jane Coloccia Teixeira is a communications management specialist in Dana Point, California. Her firm responds to TripAdvisor reviews on behalf of several hospitality industry clients. She says that bad reviews can be a wake-up call for management to address areas where service is lacking and to find ways to better serve guests. By doing so, a business can improve its overall profile and make the best of a bad situation.

Coloccia Teixeira also notes that not every reviewer is an honest patron. “I’ve worked with many hotels where the guest will contact management, ask for an upgrade to the best room in the hotel, and then threaten if they don’t get it they will leave a bad review on TripAdvisor,” she says with frustration.

Colleen Devanney, a senior associate at one of the 200 largest law firms in the country, adds that while traveler reviews can be a great tool, the ease of access makes them subject to abuse. “Many review sites do not require any confirmation that the traveler even stayed at that location,” she explains. “This means that anyone, including competitors, can post a negative review, and a business can see a great decline in traffic as a result.”

So how should busy professionals and business travelers find the best results? Even if it seems unnecessarily time-consuming, cross-reference reviews across sites. Popular hotels will show up on both Yelp and TripAdvisor, as will many restaurants and transit providers like taxi companies and shuttle services. If you see a particularly negative review, look at the user’s profile to determine whether the user often posts unflattering ratings.

If you do have an unsatisfying experience with a highly rated business, talk to management before writing a negative review. An in-person discussion will likely solve the problem in a more direct, efficient manner and give you the opportunity to have a better overall experience. Even for busy executives, that is time well spent. DW

Brittany Shoot is a regular contributor to Diversity Woman. Find her work at brittanyshoot.com

Far From the Madding Crowd
Many crowdsourcing websites have cropped up to compete with Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List. Here are some that DW recommends.
Avvo.com: Directory listings and reviews of lawyers in every state.
Foursquare: This location-based check-in app spun off the Swarm app, and Foursquare now focuses on reviews in hopes of competing with Yelp.
Glassdoor: Workplace culture reviews and salary reports for specific companies.
Judy’s Book: Local business reviews, similar to Yelp and Angie’s List.
LocalEats: App and website for top lists of restaurants in major cities—like Yelp but filtered to focus on higher-end eateries.
StreetAdvisor: Consumer reviews of streets and local businesses, geared toward home buyers and renters interested in better understanding an area, neighborhood, or specific street.

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