Consumer Reports recently reported upon the online local rating services such as Angie’s List, Yelp, Google+ and BBB. These services are the front-line defense for consumers who are looking for local service providers. I’ve used each of them frequently and my findings are similar to those of Consumer Reports. The accuracy of some of these online local rating services was also thrown into question by a recent sting operation by New York State’s Attorney General who ferreted out fake review companies who attempted to skew rating services — a practice called “astroturfing”. First, let’s start with my two favorite online rating services: Yelp and Google+:
Consumer Reports was concerned about Yelp‘s ability to make amends with a negative reviewer, as it undercuts the integrity and accuracy of the ratings, because placated gripers can change their review at any time. Some data reveal that user reviews tend to be positive; researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and California State University, Long Beach, found that people who rented movies online were five times more likely to post a positive review than a negative one. Services like Yelp could adjust their ratings to eliminate such measurable bias, but Yelp says it simply averages the raw unfiltered ratings to calculate a company’s overall score. Also, rated service providers can buy sponsored search results and put them at the top of the list for someone searching for, say, a restaurant in San Diego. That’s not unusual among search engines, and Yelp identifies the listing as sponsored, but that still gives one paid advertiser per search an advantage over the natural results that Yelp otherwise promises. Still, the sheer volume of Yelp reviews does help overcome some of these issues. In order to address some of the Consumer Reports’ concerns, I generally don’t place much weight upon a local service that hasn’t been reviewed by at least 100 reviewers because of the potential to skew results.
Like Yelp, Google+ is free. Anyone can search Google+ Local by city, state, and business type to find reviews, which are simple one- to five-star ratings and commentary. Google doesn’t reveal how its overall rating is calculated beyond saying that it’s based on user ratings—no details on how users are verified. Reviewers must create your own personal Google+ profile, typically using your real name. This provides somewhat of a reality check, because you can click on the reviewer and see how many reviews she has written, and click further to her Google+ profile and scan or read all her reviews to assess whether she tends to be effusive or disgruntled. Businesses create their own pages to connect with their customers and listen in. One problem with Google+ noted by Consumer Reports is that it encourages businesses to reward their fans with coupons and to try to resolve customer-service problems. thus possibly skewing the ratings positively because assuaged customers can always delete their previously negative reviews. The greatest drawback for Google+ is that it doesn’t have Yelp’s volume of reviewers. But generally, if I conduct a Yelp search, I will follow-up with a Google+ search in order to verify the Yelp results.
The Better Business Bureau has been providing local “rating” services for over fifty years with some modicum of success. Some offices are better than others. In the 1990s, San Diego’s local BBB engaged in some questionable activities that prompted me to file a lawsuit against it so as to clean up its act. More recently, the BBB of Los Angeles was itself expelled from the national organization for failing to adhere to standards on handling complaints, accreditation, and reporting on businesses after a two-year investigation following a report by ABC’s “20/20” program. Consumer Reports states that a new local BBB chapter has taken its place. Over the years, I’ve reduced my reliance upon BBB. It is still a worthwhile organization but it doesn’t have the credibility or sheer scale of complaint volume to compete with Yelp and Google+.
I’ve not been a fan of Angie’s List. I’ve tried out the membership-based service twice over the past five years and both times I’ve been concerned by the ability of A- and B-rated companies to buy their way to the top of the default search results skews the results. Consumer Reports shares that concern; it notes that Angie’s List marketing materials intended for businesses say that companies that advertise get “an advantage of increased exposure” that “can propel you ahead of your competition.” They get 12 times more profile views than companies that don’t buy ads. Angie’s List encourages businesses to solicit reviews by giving customers free, postage-paid forms, stickers on thank you notes, and Web links embedded in e-mail invoices. But experts who study survey techniques say that can create a bias for positive reviews. Also, Angie’s List misleads consumers by prominently promising that “businesses don’t pay” and that it’s a consumer-driven service supported by membership fees. But almost 70 percent of the company’s revenues come from advertising purchased by the service providers being rated, according to Consumer Reports. One other thing: it has a very unfortunate policy of expunging complaints that are made by consumers if the provider indicates that it has “fixed” the problem. If you do use Angie’s List, view it as a research tool. It does not substitute for independent judgment, like any of these opinion things. For a large expenditure, attempt to read every review (about 150) first before interviewing providers and selecting a final one. As a tool, it can be useful although I’m still not sure that it is worth the annual fee.
This is a nonprofit organization — partially founded by Consumers Union — that provides transparency and guidance about how to assess its ratings compared with companies with more users. I have been unable to test Checkbook because it doesn’t serve Southern California. Word of mouth about this service is fairly positive in the communities that it serves.