Internet Review Sites Are Broken

Today, in Techcrunch, the over hyped widget maker Slide has been caught doing the ultimate no-no, their employees were making overly positive remarks in the application reviews section of Facebook applications. There was no disclosure, they made fake accounts to hide their identity, and they have compromised the integrity of one of the major tenants of Web 2.0. But do you blame them? The old cliche, don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper should be upgraded to don’t believe anything you read on the Web, even from so-called experts. I don’t, because we have a broken system, that is way too idealistic, with too much at stake. If I had to name the number of review sites on the web, ranging from Viewpoints, Yelp, Menuism (my personal favorite), the now defunct Judys Book, Insider Pages, product blogs, and the list goes on and on, you’ll see that product recommendations can be huge business for the site that gets it right by providing unbiased reviews so that when we do our Google searches, we can make more informed decisions.

The problem lies in the inherent transparency of review sites. Anyone can post a review, at any time, and in all honesty, it’s too hard to figure out how credible the reviewer is. With Viewpoints and Menuism, their differentiating factor is that they want their reviewers to post information about who they are as people, so that I can see that a soccer mom from the suburbs of Chicago and I have far different tastes and I shouldn’t expect for her review to be as valuable to me. Other sites such as Disqus and SezWho aim to filter the noise on blogs, by enabling the commenting history within the comments thread of blogs to be transparent and visible, so that you hope to tell the difference between a commentator who signed up anonymously to promote their product that has just been reviewed on Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, Techcrunch, or Venturebeat from having their ten marketing and PR teams state how much they love their web application in the comments thread.

The problem with review sites are that they:

Epitomizes the chicken and the egg problem

Unless you have at least 10 reviews, are you going to trust a product review site with two reviews? To me, review sites only become important once you have significant content. But, on the other hand, too many reviews, and I get lost.

Minimal incentive for people to contribute

I have viewed comments on review sites thousands of times, but I have yet to contribute. Why? Because I’m a free-rider who doesn’t get anything out of signing up, distributing my e-mail address, and having another password to remember.

You rarely get a balanced view, either the commentators love or hate the product. I’d prefer the middle-ground

To me, human nature implies that we will articulate our opinions when we feel strongly one way or another. I don’t tell my mom about how cool my phone is unless I really like it, or if it drives me insane. With minimal incentive to just offer this information up, I feel even less inclined to offer this information on the Web without wanting to slam or feverishly promote the company or product.

I wish I could only read comments from my friends

In all honesty, the only people that I’d actually trust in reading or hearing about new products or services are from my friends and family. At least I know of their conflicts of interest and they’ll be honest with me. With the social graph, shouldn’t Facebook, distributed social networks and widgets already accomplish this? It would except that promoting products and services really isn’t that cool, and for the above reasons, most folks aren’t going to offer it up unless they feel strongly about it or have some incentive. An interesting but pointless study was released stating that people trust their friends more than bloggers for product reviews, so why don’t we have a distributed review system that leverages my social graph? Data portability would be one major step, but as much as it is discussed in the echo chamber, I don’t see it coming to fruition anytime soon.

Disclosure: The guys at Menuism are super cool and are good friends of mine, but if I hadn’t mentioned that, would anyone be able to tell? Highly doubtful, and that’s exactly my point on why the review system is broken.

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3 responses to “Internet Review Sites Are Broken

  1. Hey Emile,

    Thanks for the mention – I didn’t know you were blogging! We definitely think about those very problems on a daily basis. It’s a lot easier for the larger funded businesses to pay their way past the chicken and egg problem and some have tried to use money as incentives (judy’s book, insider pages…). Since we aren’t flush with cash, we can’t give out money and throw parties so we’re always looking for more primary motivators that get people to contribute. Only time and measurement will tell if we’re on the right track.

  2. Hey Justin, thanks for checking me out. I think you guys have done a great job tinkering with the site and improving the overall experience for the user. What surprises me is that not too many of these review sites have gone to the extent that your company has which is why your company is sustainable long-term. The problem with Yelp to me is that for many listings, there are just too many comments for me to find it helpful, nor any way for me to feel comfortable with the users who have contributed. Keep doing what you’re doing, I’m a big fan.

  3. Broken, indeed. One of the biggest new problems has arisen on google business reviews.

    It seems that every moving company in Austin has taken it upon themselves to write stellar reviews of their own businesses, without bothering to try and disguise their common origin and synatx/vocabulary. It’s pretty sad. Just check out “M&M Movers” to see what I mean.

    How can we make this process better? I just want to know which moving company won’t destroy my belongings.

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