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Online Customer Reviews – Are They Worth The Trouble?

 5-star rating

A New York City restaurant is learning a valuable lesson in social media marketing and community management this week.  Feast, a relatively new, yet popular, East village restaurant, finds itself at the center of brewing debate across social channels because of its reaction to a patron wearing Google Glass.  In reality, the kerfuffle can be attributed more to the reaction of the patron than that of the restaurant.

Katy Kasmai entered Feast for a meal wearing the infamous Google Glass, which (rightly so) made the management and other customers uncomfortable. As a result, the management asked Ms. Kasmail to remove the device before ordering. She refused, opting to leave the restaurant instead. Clearly, she left the restaurant in a snit as evidenced by her subsequent one-star rating and rant on the restaurant’s Google profile.

Not satisfied to simply leave a poor rating, Ms. Kasmai took to Google+ and left the following message for her approximately 3000 followers:

 Katy_Glassholes_1

The idea behind Google Glass is to allow users the opportunity to record and/or broadcast their point of view to the world. Of course, doing so in a restaurant means that one would record and broadcast other patrons in the restaurant who may cross your line of sight, including what they’re eating, what they’re discussing or who they’re eating with. I sympathize with the management and support their request for the removal of the Google Glass. Surely the privacy and comfort of all patrons must be a responsibility of the restaurant’s management?

Beware the Wisdom of Crowds

Any restaurant can have a negative review whether it’s justified or not; that’s the nature of the Internet and social media. What makes this story a little different is the fact that Ms. Kasmai is the founder of Glass NYC (a local community of Explorers™) and the CEO of Xocracy, a startup designed to facilitate direct democracy by voting on social and political issues in real time.  Taking her lead, Kasmai’s followers jumped on the bandwagon, posting negative reviews on Google without even visiting the restaurant.

 Katy_Glassholes_2

Various publications such as EV Grieve, a local food blog, shared the story, which in turn was shared across social media by friends of the brand and others who were just astonished at the stupidity of Kasmai’s (and her minions’) reaction.  Indignant over the rationale (or lack thereof) behind the negativity, many, many more people waded into the conversation with five-star ratings in order to drown out the poor reviews.

 Katy_Glassholes_3

Although I travel to NYC often, this is the first time I’ve heard of this restaurant. In fact, I’ve been hearing about it multiple times a day for the past few days. Frankly, with all this publicity, all I really know about it is its brilliant policy preventing “Glassholes” from dining in its establishment, and very little about its food.

Online Customer Reviews – Are They Worth The Trouble?

This is a great example with which to open a discussion about the value of online ratings. Have they outlived their usefulness? We know that many businesses pay cyber-shills to artificially bump up positive reviews and ratings and, as in the case with Feast, many post reviews as a result of a smear campaign instead of honest reactions to the service or product provided by the business.

The promise of the democratization of information and “influence” in the online space is at best a myth, and at worst a fraud. To be considered valuable for brands or consumers, online reviews and ratings must be based on trust…trust in the integrity of those posting reviews and the honesty of their comments. When such integrity and honesty cannot be guaranteed, is there any true value?

Sensei Debates

Have online reviews outlived their usefulness?
Share your thoughts on this case study or the debate question in the comments below.

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

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Join the Conversation

31 comments
Nofia Shem Tov
Nofia Shem Tov 5pts

We are currently working on version 2.0 of Piknik and I welcome anyone who would like to participate in building a better online review company from the ground up to contact me personally through  our website https://pikniko.co.


Nofyah Shem Tov

Founder BlogMyLunch

jarred1204
jarred1204 5pts

Like many other forms of social media, online review sites give you the chance to develop a closer relationship with your customers. You're likely to get to read reviews from a range of customers, many of whom might not otherwise tell you their opinions of your business. You can also reply to both positive and negative reviews, demonstrating that you're interested in what customers have to say.

Jarred,

Best Seattle Landscape Architec recommendations viewt site info

gradeus
gradeus 5pts

Great conversation, and I am late to it. I just blogged about a similar "smear campaign" against a restaurant via its reviews because the chef/owner posted something stupid on Facebook: http://blog.grade.us/social-media-mobs-are-scary-as-hell-you-wont-believe-what-one-did-to-this-business-owner/

Anyway, it's hard to blame Google or marketers for corrupting "pure" customer reviews when you read the story of Feast:  Here, third-party non-customer consumers exploit the power of *their* online voice in various attempts to destroy or save a restaurant's reputation (while entertaining themselves) based on how they feel about Google Glass. That is random.

But review mobs, cyber-shills, and competitor attacks hardly represent a fall from some unspoiled past when customer reviews were honest and accurate. There's always been a selection bias in who participated (the so-called "adverse reviewer problem"), and reviewers routinely failed to provide representative viewpoints on the reviewed--professional reviewers included.

The future is only messier as review channels multiply, they get co-opted for unintended uses, and our trust in them fractures and erodes. I've seen some companies like Reevoo in the UK do a good job of verifying customer purchases at scale, but this doesn't prevent customers from skewering a product because the postal service crushed the box it came in. I wrote a book that digs into the psychology of reviews, the people who write and read them, etc., and yes, it goes way deeper than star ratings. I'd love if you cared to give it a look: https://about.grade.us/guide

--Jon H. from Grade.us

Mark Cirillo
Mark Cirillo 5pts

Regarding the question of whether reviews are “worth it,” I think it varies from industry to industry, and place to place, depending on the industry in question. 


Local restaurants, which often lack resources and/or expertise to manage their online presence, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of manipulation because there are so many sites where people are rating their business. 


For example: these days Toronto restaurants are reviewed on Urban Spoon, Yelp, Dine.to, Zagat, Open Table, Trip Advisor, Google+ and Facebook. That’s a lot of opportunity for exploitation if you’ve got the time, inclination and resources to game the system. 


Does this make user reviews less useful? For consumers, yes; for an unscrupulous businesses buying social proof, the opposite seems to be true (in the short term at least), which is why the practice continues. 


PeterJ42
PeterJ42 5pts

It isn't letting me hit reply, Sam.


I think the problem here is with the sort of people who become early adopters. I remember the early iPhone people and the silly games they played. And anyone remember Farmville, the killer app for Facebook.


I believe that the software for all the useful things is still in development. Hopefully when the real thing launches there will be more to do with Glass.


I'm reminded of when I got a programmable calculator as a kid. The only thing I knew how to do on it was a moon landing game, which palled after a while.


At least with the self-driving car all we need it to do is drive.

Wayne Spivak
Wayne Spivak 5pts

While Alan (@berkson0) is correct about customer reviews being subjective, one can say the same about "professional" reviewers.  How many times have we read glowing (or dull) reviews of restaurants, movies, electronics, you name it only to try them out for ourselves.  


Sometimes we agreed (and said we should have listened) other times we disagreed (and lambasted the reviewer(s)).


@samfiorella said it quite succinctly "...ruined by self-important people who would rather obsess on themselves..."; although I am taking that statement slightly out of the context it was written.  


On another note, press, even negative press is a good thing for a business.  Just look at Paula Deene, Martha Stuart and a host of others who not only weathered the storm but came out stronger...

berkson0
berkson0 5pts

It's a given that customer reviews are subjective, and it's also a given that they are gamed. I know I often look for reviews posted by people in my social graph (Foursquare is a good example). Seems to me that's the future of reviews. That, and what @Danny Brown said about social sign-on. Like what G2Crowd does for software reviews (authenticate with Linkedin). Tripadvisor, Yelp et al have huge followings. It will be interesting to see how they evolve. 

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@berkson0 Good point, and please don't give @Danny Brown any more props...I can't control his ego as it is.  ;) 


I agree that authentication will be the future of review sites and despite the controls that Yelp and others have invested in, owned review sites like those set up and verified by hospitality chains (eg. ICG Hotel chain) and time share networks like RCI will slowly take over. There's definitely an opportunity for a start up that will aggregate all those verified and owned review sites. 

Hmm....

Vinay Bhagat
Vinay Bhagat 5pts

@berkson0 - Alan, we've found that LinkedIn Authentication is a good first step but not enough. We've seen some vendors hire people overseas to create false profiles and to write fake reviews. We've found that human review is an important addition to LinkedIn authentication. We've also developed an algorithm to test the validity of a LinkedIn profile - how recently it was created, # of connections, etc. to flag potentially risky ones to evaluate.

Vinay Bhagat
Vinay Bhagat 5pts

Consumers and increasingly business buyers expect access to peer reviews. They are increasing in importance and companies/ merchants have to embrace them.


Unfortunately there's too much emphasis placed on star ratings which are easy to game vs the content of what's actually said. Discerning buyers/ consumers will read what's said, and also make their own judgments as to the credibility of the source. Unfortunately, there's a segment of the population that only glance at star ratings. It's therefore incumbent on review sites to enable more quality control - some of which can be supported via algorithm, some by human review, using integration to other social networks (per TripAdvisor and Facebook) and some from the community policing reviews.


At TrustRadius - a site for business software reviews -  we use LinkedIn to authenticate that a reviewer is legitimate, does not work at the company/product being reviewed nor a competitor. We also test the validity of a profile. Because a business software purchase is highly consequential and the # of people who can write a review is far less than for a restaurant or typical consumer product, we also ensure validity by making reviewers answer 7 basic questions about their experience (+ they have the option to answer more then or later). We also have a research team that checks every review to ensure it's not just a rant or puff piece, or if anyone has been able to get around the basic LI authentication controls.


Vinay Bhagat

CEO, TrustRadius

@vinaybhagat 



samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Vinay Bhagat Thanks for sharing the information. Star reviews are simple and effective. We're visual people. And yes, any sort of one-click recommendation can be gamed and thus, faulty and/or suspect. As many have said, authentication is the key; however, I'm not sure that authenticating the user profile is enough. 

Ensuring the person making the review is a real person vs. a bot is a good start, great start even. However, as seen in the case study illustrated, real people often post reviews for a variety reasons including bandwagonism, vendettas, etc. 

Verifying the reviewer is an actual customer is the end-goal is my mind. 

Vinay Bhagat
Vinay Bhagat 5pts

@samfiorella - Sam - thanks for your response. I agree with you that verifying that a customer is an actual customer is the ultimate goal. It's not trivial to do in an open community, especially one where you allow anonymity for a customer's protection (they're sharing negative feedback, they have a corporate non-endorsement policy).


In the B2C world, some retailers have a strategy of emailing customers to ask for reviews, and blocking site visitors from leaving reviews, unless they sign-in as a customer - that strategy is not universal however. Some hotel brands encourage people to write reviews on TripAdvisor after completing a customer stay survey - and those reviews are identified as such to the information consumer on TripAdvisor - however the vast majority of reviews are still left without authentication of an actual stay. None of the reviews on Yelp are verified as actual customers.



We invite B2B software companies to follow their products, and they receive notifications when they have new reviews. If they can demonstrate that a reviewer is illegitimate, we'll take a review down. It's only happened a few times, because we try and be as rigorous as possible in our own screening.  


I agree people are visual and star ratings are a simple metaphor. The truth however is that ratings tend to cluster. There's evidence in studies on Yelp that star ratings make a material difference on restaurant performance. There's however contradicting data in studies on Amazon for book reviews (http://unbounce.com/conversion-rate-optimization/customer-reviews-conversion-rates/). 



Ultimately to answer your key question, are reviews worth it, despite the hassles, the answer I believe is a resounding yes. Clearly they are a massive phenomenon in B2C. They are going to become a big phenomenon in B2B too - here's an article I wrote for CMO.com on that exact topic:

http://www.cmo.com/articles/2014/3/28/b2b_marketers_should.html

PeterJ42
PeterJ42 5pts

"The idea behind Google Glass is to allow users the opportunity to record and/or broadcast their point of view to the world." What rubbish.


The idea is immersible computing where the computer is part of the user experience, augmenting everything they see with additional, useful information.


This writer has been reading too many sixties spy novels.

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@PeterJ42 You're right. My description was limited, but not incorrect. While the concept of such products is, as you say, "immersible computing where the computer is part of the user experience, augmenting everything they see with additional, useful information," what we're seeing most advocates doing with gGlass is broadcasting their lives. Thus the term "glassholes."  As I've said often: Sadly we marketers ruin everything.

(and yes, i did read a lot of spy novels as a kid...still do). 

invinciblesaad
invinciblesaad 5pts

I think customer reviews are still relevant because that's what I was talking about during my meeting today at Cloudways. We were actually discussing the new website design and our designer didn't came up with a design that actually tells a bond between our service and our customers. What I told my design team in the meeting is that customers reviews are a key re-assurance factor. If we have good reviews on the site, it will help us to be TRUST-ABLE. I believe today TRUST is what all matters. 

And I second @philgerb that the reviews that can be verified are extremely useful.

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@invinciblesaad the concept of "social proof" is a valid today as it's ever been; however, the authenticity of that social proof is in question. We've all become a little more cynical thanks to stories emerging about cybershills, buying Likes, trading for book reviews, etc., etc. 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown 5pts

Gotta love the entitled opinions of the Internet crowd. "Glassholes" is the perfect word for a lot of the folks using Google's latest teach (not all, but a lot).

As far as I know, this restaurant had already asked another Glass wearer to remove, and that person did. I'm curious - how would Katy Kasmai feel if someone came up to her table and snapped pictures and took video of her food, her conversations, but blatantly on their smartphones? I'm guessing she'd feel her privacy was invaded?

I wrote about possible solutions to these types of reviews a couple of years back, with social sign-on (much like the Livefyre comment system) enforcing accountability. Sure, the dedicated troll will create one, but it's a start..

Additionally, perhaps there needs to be a global solution - after all, the web is global, so perhaps a body that monitors review sites, and has various "sanctions" for those that don't monitor spikes of weird behaviour? 

And we wonder why the mainstream thinks social media is full of kids...

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Danny Brown Yes, Glassholes is my new favorite word, will try to use it in a sentence at least once per day. :) On a more serious note, too bad a cool tech has been ruined by self-important people who would rather obsess on themselves instead of seeking ways to apply the tech in ways that improve our world. 


 (funny, your comment was marked as spam by Livefyre...they're trying to tell me something). 

IanGordon
IanGordon 5pts

It really comes down to "Marketers ruin everything." Once reviews were left by people who used a product or service for the sole purpose of giving their opinion to help others decide whether or not to make the same purchase. Then Google stepped in and identified online reviews as a ranking factor. So now, on both the positive and negative side, there is incentive to leave reviews (legit and contrived) to influence not only a prospective purchaser, but also to affect the position of the business in search results. As long as reviews are a ranking factor, their usefulness is almost irrelevant. If showing up in search is important, then reviews are important to a business.

IanGordon
IanGordon 5pts

@Danny Brown @IanGordon Google throws the ball. Marketers chase it and don't care what they mess up in the chase. But yeah, since Google is an advertising platform above all else, they're in that bucket for sure.

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@IanGordon Fair enough. I agree that marketers have ruined much of the good in social media by converting an open social platform into a sales pitch vehicle. Platforms like Facebook are no better but in their case you can at least argue that it's a business and they're offering a free platform, so we can't complain that it has evolved into a marketing platform vs. a social network. 

Ratings (stars, etc.) are not bad for the purposes of reviews...it's a simple to digest and use mechanism. There is a future however for a comment/rating engine that offers only "verified" user/customer commentary across an industry. 

philgerb
philgerb 5pts

Reviews from patrons you can verify used your products or services are still useful. Ones that cannot be verified have outlived their usefulness.

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@philgerb the Holiday Inn properties are doing a good job with this. They send an email invite to review your stay, which is connected to a folio number to verify that you actually stayed at the hotel being reviewed. This way, the experience review can be added to customer experience map - and, of course, be a 'verified' review.   

Yorick3
Yorick3 5pts

@philgerb Does verification exclude anonymity? If I leave a poor review at Holiday Inn for their food service but enjoyed the rest of my stay, do I run the risk of poor service on a return visit because I may be recognized or flagged? That being said, and asked, I don't think reviews should be anonymous and, in the above described scenario, if I had spoken to management instead I'd have had the same trepidation over a subsequent visit. 

samfiorella
samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Yorick3 The opposite has been the case for me. I've left a poor review for a hotel and when I made another booking, they went out of their way to accommodate me and delivered a truly outstanding experience. The key for businesses is how they use the system. 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown 5pts

I think businesses would encourage valid critique that shows where they can improve and really be the best they can be, encouraging repeat business and loyalty. And it'd show they listen to their customers, making the fake reviews even more conspicuous by their presence.

Latest blog post: The Dilution of Choice

Trackbacks

  1. […] A New York City restaurant is learning a valuable lesson in social media marketing and community management this week. Feast, a relatively new, yet popular, East village restaurant, finds itself at the center of brewing debate across social…  […]

  2. […] My friend Sam Fiorella recently wrote a post about a New York City restaurant that found themselves embroiled in a controversy. You can read Sam’s post here.  […]


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