First of all apologies for the lack of blogs this year (as if anyone cared, I hear you saying!), but having recently published a small book with my good friend Henk Vaars, a 21st century primer on employment, I am still recovering from writer’s fatigue, so I have found it difficult to focus on updating this site. I know this is a lame excuse and that I have fallen foul of all I have been preaching (for goodness sake if you have a blog keep it fresh!), but somehow life takes precedence even over digital presence.
Preambles aside, I thought I’d focus on something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: review sites. I confess that when such sites came out I became an instant fan of them, not just as a contributor, but also as a user finding them a great tool for cutting through the inevitable sales flannel produced by the suppliers in question. With a quick glance you’d get a fair idea of whether a restaurant was good, or dreadful, if a place was worth stopping by and so on. Alas, times have moved on and I am of the opinion that most review sites have now become a mere tool in the extensive marketing armoury available to most businesses in the era of digital transformation.
Take for example the famous TripAdvisor. I was one of their very first contributors, so have now got a fair number of reviews under my belt and heaven knows how many of their useless (except to some very sensitive egos) badges I have accumulated. By the way, it’s futile to look me up as I am contributing under a nom de plume, something which will become clearer later on too. I still keep adding reviews out of a sense of affection and duty towards the site (entirely one sided I hasten to say), but I am realising how useless this exercise has become.
Allow me to explain with an example. About a month ago I was in the north of England and wanted to look up some places to eat. Everything on TripAdvisor was either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’,even down to a local chippie or sandwich bar. There was no way, not even by poring over the review details, that one could get a sense of reality. Most of those entries appeared to have been written either by professional sycophants, people with a pecuniary interest in the places in question, or those under the influence of something! It was almost too tempting to look hard for those very few poor or average places and paying them a visit for the sake of getting some sense of reality, rather than being in some rosey parallel universe. This situation isn’t unique. I was somewhere else in England and it was virtually a carbon copy of the experience mentioned, hardly any review was ‘average’ everything was either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Where do you start looking then? And if you can’t easily get to the truth what is the point of a review site then?
Cautionary tales, cautious style
After some soul searching I looked back at the way I used to write reviews and realised that over time I also adjusted my style to be much more conciliatory, vague and in effect more forgiving. This is partly due to the fact that on a couple of occasions I have had some truly nasty individuals responding to my otherwise objective reviews in a threatening way, so much that I had to refer them to that website admin. In a specific instance the hotel owner even managed to track back my reservation and ended up contacting my parents. Scary. Clearly at that point you ask yourself whether putting up with all this aggro is actually worth the hassle… which is why, probably with countless other people, I then decided to err on the side of caution and have since hardly ever left a ‘poor’ review, except for some vague warnings in the body of the review itself or areas where I knew I would never visit again.
I don’t know how we got to this situation. Partly this is a reflection of our litigious society, partly I guess it’s also down to the sites in question which effectively failed to protect their most precious asset, the reviewer.
Is it just marketing?
If you included the people who were incentivised to write on review sites (many, and few of the review websites are able or willing to do anything about), those blatantly compiling phoney reviews (like the ones written directly by business owners and their associates, marketing and PR agencies etc), the neophytes, the uneducated, the inexperienced and added them all up, linking to it the more belligerent attitude of the featured businesses, like in the examples I have just given, you’d clearly begin to question the nature of much of that content and therefore of those sites.
There was a time when review sites sprouted up left right and centre. I don’t recall seeing a new one in a long while, so we are pretty much stuck with the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Trustpilot, Google+ and so on. In addition, there are those sites which are blatantly sponsored by business owners, which begs the question of why of course anyone would want to help them. So it looks as if the review sites landscape has in fact bottomed out with more of them under siege by by professional reviewers like those highlighted in this interesting article from The Guardian that explores even the ‘review turf wars’ between competing companies.
Demise or resurrection?
There are now four possible scenarios. The first is the technology option. By this I mean that review sites would need to get a lot smarter and should start applying the kind of technology available within search engines to stamp out phoney, poorly written and useless reviews. They also need to reevaluate the star rating. Everyone wants to be a 5 star performer these days, even school kids, so a new ranking is sorely needed.
The second is that of manual intervention. This is however very expensive and would require editing and validating every review, therefore it’s an unlikely scenario in tight commercial circumstances. The third, and in my opinion more likely, is that major review sites will continue to devalue themselves to a point where the general public will consider them as yet another small element in a customer’s product or service selection journey, of some interest, but not necessarily high value.
The last point is more revolutionary. Small review sites could spring up and close down after a short timespan, almost like forums used to be. The evanescent nature of such sites would counteract some of the pitfalls just highlighted and be more in keeping with the more dynamic social media angle of contemporary digital communications.
But I am no optimist and therefore believe we are simply experiencing the beginning of the end of many review websites, unless they are willing to reinvent themselves – time will tell.