Piasecki navigates by the stars. Where to dine next?
Where to work out when she’s traveling? She scans the
Web, favoring those places with four- and five-star
reviews, disregarding the rest.
reviews led her to Pie-Not, a four-star eatery in Costa
Mesa, Calif., where she enjoyed her first Australian
meat pie. She discovered Bamboo Bistro, a tiny Asian
Fusion restaurant in Corona del Mar, Calif., all but
hidden from traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.
wouldn’t really know it was there," said Piasecki,
45, a social-media expert and Pilates instructor who
resides in Newport Beach, Calif. Her world has
broadened: She has visited — and reviewed — more
than 1,200 dining spots and other businesses. She talks
of hidden gems in Palm Springs, Calif.; a fancy
steakhouse in Boston; a gourmet cheese shop in New York
City. A year ago, in Paris, she located a Halloween
haunted house suitably scary for her husband, Jack.
of Piaseckis are out there — modern-day magi who
arrange their lives by turning to the starred ratings of
products, places and services visible across cyberspace.
A single galaxy, TripAdvisor.com, reported posting its
100-millionth online review in February, and has since
topped 125 million. CEO Stephen Kaufer said a new review
of a hotel, restaurant or tourist attraction goes onto
the website literally every second. Annual revenues top
occupies another horizon. The San Francisco site,
founded in 2004, also posts reviews that pour in,
voluntarily, from consumers eager to express their
views. So far more than 42 million have been submitted,
conferring starred ratings on businesses around the
world. About 108 million people see the website every
month, Yelp said. The firm’s ever-soaring revenues are
expected to reach $228 million this year, up two-thirds
of review sites rate everyone from the butcher, the
baker and the candlestick maker to lawyers, dentists and
high school math teachers. Google competes directly with
Yelp; the search giant feeds starred review content to
its Android mobile devices, while Yelp has a deal with
rival Apple. Amazon showcases ratings of books, music
and videos — and of sellers who deal in those
products. Rotten Tomatoes does movies. Angie’s List
reviews contractors. Edmunds.com rates car brands and
modern consumer can seek guidance from the womb to the
grave: Vitals.com offers the skinny on obstetricians.
Funeralhomeratingz.com has the last word on final
difficult to say how big an industry this is," said
financial analyst Sameet Sinha of the online ratings
universe. Sinha, of B. Riley & Co. in San Francisco,
notes that just a few top players — Yelp, Angie’s
List and TripAdvisor — represent a combined market cap
totaling billions of dollars. The sector has exploded
virtually out of nowhere, he said. "It’s
certainly become a key part of the Internet
power of online reviews has wrought profound, and in
some cases troubling, changes to American commerce. Pick
any given florist, plumber, hotel, music school, taco
stand or muffler-repair shop, and chances are there are
online reviews, probably on more than one website. The
ratings are a sore spot for many entrepreneurs who
complain they are being done in by negative reviews
written by rivals and disgruntled ex-employees, with
virtually no chance to remove them from the public eye.
business owner likened being criticized on a ratings
site to seeing his company attacked on a highway
billboard, powerless to tear it down.
become my silent partner without me signing up for it.
Whether I want (the review sites) or not, they’re
here," said Dr. Naz Haque, whose Market Place
Dentistry in Tustin, Calif., advertises "one-day,
same-day crowns." The 9-year-old dental group has a
4-star rating on YellowPages.com, a 3 1/2-star rating on
Citysearch.com, and, for whatever reasons, a much-lower
1-star ranking on Yelp, where some of the comments are
ever go here!" writes "Brooklyn C." of
Alhambra, Calif., a frequent reviewer whose full name is
not available. The comments accompany two profile
pictures — of a sports car and a koala.
enormous reach amplifies such a voice, putting it before
virtually anyone who might be dentist-shopping while
concealing the reviewer’s identity.
can "post without any repercussions … and it
affects livelihoods," said Haque, who said the
reviews do not reflect what patients say in the practice’s
own surveys. "We started asking our patients if
they’re happy with us," she said.
"Basically, patients would say, ‘You have a lot
of reviews about you that are not true.’ "
governing patient privacy prevent her from responding to
the critiques, Haque said. Therefore, no one reads her
side of the story. "The very act of me saying that
they’re a patient of ours on the Internet … is a
breach of confidentiality," she said.
"Medicine is a different ball game than having
sushi down the street."
sites say they are diligent about screening out fake or
biased reviews because credibility is vital to drawing
website traffic, but the sheer numbers of reviews to be
screened is daunting, and on many sites users can easily
create fictitious accounts.
not an easy problem," said Ryan Radia, associate
director of technology studies at the Competitive
Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
"If the writer’s talented enough, and not doing
100 reviews a day, most of the (fraudulent reviews) are
hard to distinguish."
the end, it’s a vast guessing game as to who is
posting what or why, said Trevor Pinch, a science and
technology professor who studies online-reviewing
behavior at Cornell University.
as many as 30 percent (of reviews seen on most websites)
… are fake reviews," Pinch said. "No one
knows for sure."
has bred a climate of suspicion and acrimony among
affected business owners, even as researchers and
professional organizations are trying to better grasp
the new landscape. A Harvard study, conducted two years
ago, suggests that consumer-written reviews have a
tangible impact on profits: A restaurant with a
four-star average on Yelp is likely to bring in 5 to 9
percent more revenue than one with a three-star rating,
scholar Michael Luca found.
of eating places have become "more and more
concerned" about being blindsided by damaging
reviews, especially since ratings sites operate with
very little oversight in urban zones where competition
is intense, said Liz Garner, director of commerce and
entrepreneurship for the National Restaurant Association
in Washington, D.C.
owners need to know how to respond to bad reviews —
the organization has drafted a new guidebook — while
being mindful that good reviews can be a boon to those
that earn them, Garner said.
is becoming the new word of mouth," she said of
online reviewing. "It’s changing the business
model. It’s something, as an industry, we’re trying
to adapt to."
many proprietors, the need to manage their online
reputations amounts to an extra job — hours spent each
week poring over Yelp, UrbanSpoon and other sites, and
deciding what, if anything, to write in response.
spend the first hour of every day on social media. I
probably check my reviews twice a day, once in a.m. and
once in the p.m. — that’s how obsessed we are,"
said Ilya Goldberg, owner of the Stone Soup Company in
Tampa, Fla. "We started encouraging people to leave
reviews. If someone compliments our soup, we say, ‘Please
leave a review somewhere.’ It’s almost like
said he’s been striving to raise his rating on Yelp to
4 stars after falling back, briefly, to 3. Currently, he’s
stuck at 3 1/2. "If you’re at a 4 1/2-star level,
everybody wants to try you out," Goldberg said. A
3-star place might be good or might not. "Nobody’s
going to run to you. You’re kind of living off your
you’ve got fewer than 3 stars, "you’re in deep
trouble," he said. "Everybody on the lower end
might as well kiss their business goodbye."
ratings reinforce Darwinist forces in the marketplace.
Businesses have to strive to stay sharp. Buyers are
shooed clear of mediocrity.
balance of power has really swung toward the
consumer," said Mary C. Gilly, a marketing
professor at the University of California-Irvine who
studies consumer complaint behavior. "In the past,
unhappy customers … might tell their family and
friends (about a problem). Now they’re telling
hundreds of thousands of people, potentially — or even
business operators have embraced the challenge.
"Everybody Yelps nowadays," said Donna
Rodeheaver, general manager of the 149 Sports Grill in
Orange, Calif., which offers discounts to customers who
post reviews. "They come in and show us on their
phones," she said.
practice is strongly discouraged by ratings websites,
which see bias in reviews obtained through incentives.
Still, according to Rodeheaver, the feedback has done
more than just bolster ratings for the sports bar near
Chapman University. Critics alerted the grill’s
management to slow service one night — "the cook
just got overwhelmed" — and that the Coors tap
had to be recalibrated.
said she and her family also use ratings in their
personal lives. "I have four grown kids and 14
grandkids," she said. "Any product they buy
… they Yelp. I Yelp everywhere we eat. Somebody will
say, ‘Let’s go here.’ We’ll Yelp it, definitely,
before I waste my time, energy and money there. It’s a
modest, 21-room hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif., manages
to pick up guests from all over the world in part
because of a 4 1/2-star rating on TripAdvisor. "We’re
thrilled," said Linda Humes, co-owner of The Tides
Inn, a refurbished, half-century-old property near the
said she regularly reads the online reviews of her own
hotel and about eight other budget inns nearby — her
competitors. She is looking for what guests like and
what they don’t like, trying to fine-tune the visitor
experience. At tourism meetings in town, people comment
about her hotel’s ratings.
is checking out everybody’s reviews," she said.
"But that’s good."
of the most competitive hotel markets in the nation
exists near Disneyland. The 59-room Del Sol Inn was
mired in the pack, ranked No. 81 on TripAdvisor’s
hotel list for Anaheim, Calif., when manager T.J. Jones
began consciously competing in the ratings game two or
three years ago, Jones said.
the Del Sol has a four-star average and hovers around
No. 20 in the rankings list, Jones said. Business is up;
tourists from Japan, Australia and Germany mention that
they discovered the hotel because of online reviews,
has inspired upgraded mattresses, bedspreads and
carpeting. "We stopped charging for Internet
service because guests were complaining" on ratings
sites, Jones said. Management upgraded the Wi-Fi signal,
too. Even the free continental breakfast was overhauled,
with mini-muffins and hard-boiled eggs replacing sugary
asked for more protein choices," Jones said.
"A lot of people were saying our off-brand Cheerios
tasted like cardboard, so we changed to Fruit Loops. We
got great response to that."
reviews became a cultural force in part because the
Internet offers a ready window to see them and in part
because, even if not always reliable, readers often
perceive consumer reviews as far more truthful than what
Madison Avenue puts out. But there is another reason,
too, which cuts deep into the marrow of American life
— the problem of choice.
are a nation of abundance. We are a culture with too
many options. At least that’s the view of Swarthmore
College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of "The
Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less."
a widely viewed TED Talk, Schwartz outlined his thesis
by reporting that he found 175 salad dressings at his
local supermarket. Enough tuners and speakers and CD
players and other components are available in a single
electronics store to rig up stereo systems in 6 million
combinations, Schwartz said. "With so many options
to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose
ever-enlarging array of products and services is far
beyond what anyone can sort through by asking friends or
co-workers. Schwartz describes online review sites as an
attempted solution, a chance to pick out 5 stars and
achieve a decision.
kind of nutty," he said. "You don’t know
anything about the people doing the ratings. Some of the
time ratings are just bogus. People may well know that,
but nonetheless, even bad information is better than no
pioneering online review site, CNet, examined mainly
software and computers in the late 1990s. Proliferating
gadgetry continues to drive the growth of the site, now
seen by 33 million visitors a month. Five years ago,
CNet began posting reviews of high-tech systems in cars,
and in September it branched out into "smart"
home appliances, including computerized coffeemakers,
fire alarms and Internet-connected washers and dryers.
a Wi-Fi thermostat that can be controlled by an app on
your phone," said Lindsey Turrentine, CNet’s
global editor and chief of reviews. "This is right
in our wheelhouse. Technology is increasingly everywhere
and we need to help people navigate that."
say, the corner bistro, a smart refrigerator requires
technical expertise to properly evaluate. CNet allows
reviews by consumers but also creates its own ratings
based on product tests conducted at labs in New York,
San Francisco and Louisville, Ky. The 12,000-square-foot
Louisville plant, devoted exclusively to appliances,
opened in August.
review on CNet can make or break a product in many
cases," Turrentine said. "It’s a big
responsibility and we like to think we’re very good at
2008 CBS Interactive paid $1.8 billion to acquire CNet
and Metacritic, a review site for movies, games and
television shows founded in 2001 by University of
Southern California law school classmates Marc Doyle,
Julie Doyle Roberts and Jason Dietz.
we’re seeing is growth across the board," said
Christy Tanner, senior vice-president and general
manager of CBS Interactive Media Group. "There’s
a hunger for the opinions of peers and the opinions of
from the noise of opinions are review sites for
aggregating review sites. ConsumerSearch.com said it
"reviews hundreds of product reviews, analyzes
them, distills the information shoppers need and
recommends which products (to buy)." Categories
address special interests — "best cell phones for
seniors," for example. One device scores well for
having a built-in flashlight but loses points because
its keys "can be hard to press."
diving deep in the salt mines of tech ratings data can
discover that the Plantronics BackBeat Go stereo
Bluetooth headset merits 3 1/2 stars, based on reviews
on CNet, PCMag.com, TrustedReviews.com, TechRadar.com
blenders come in nearly as many varieties as salad
dressings. The Breville Hemisphere Control BBL605XL
scores 4 stars and has been reviewed 327 reviews on
Amazon alone. The machine "crushes ice to snow and
aces frozen drinks," said one judge.
ability to access such information — not that everyone
would want to — is a recent phenomenon, said Eric
Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at
Santa Clara University.
years ago, online reviews didn’t exist. That entire
category didn’t exist," Goldman said. There were
professional critics — such as those at Consumer
Reports and theater critics employed by newspapers —
but no means existed to comb the broad swath of consumer
opinion on nearly every topic on the marketplace.
sites have created a channel to tap "the wisdom of
the crowds" — or to spread bogus messages for
selfish motives. "You have the potential to get a
truer story," Goldman said. "Consumers like
the veneer of authenticity. … But we’re still
learning the rules about it. We’re trying to strike
that balance between letting everyone have their say and
keeping the resource from being polluted by junk."