To anyone properly cynical about the internet, it’s probably no surprise that marketers and businesses have been actively spamming fake reviews to Yelp – but what is surprising is that the New York Attorney General conducted a major sting operation to identify and fine businesses for the practice. Yelp may be one of the biggest reviews sites online, but it’s not the only one having problems getting people to trust one another’s opinions. Angie’s List’s entire business model is faltering, because (surprise!) they can’t get people to pay to see results that are themselves rigged by pay-for-placement arrangements.
These cases illustrate a simple but profound point – even after nearly twenty years of active, widespread internet use, even after changes to internet culture that are making pure anonymity less and less of the norm, the average user still has good reason to be skeptical of the so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ of customer reviews. It’s becoming increasingly clear that online reviews, even named reviews, aren’t that much different from named testimonials in paid advertising: they may be from real people, they may not. Of course, the problem is much worse for sites like Angie’s List, which expect you to trust people you’ve never met to help you pick someone to run a ten thousand dollar contracting job. When you think about it, it’s no surprise that this model’s days are sharply numbered: it’s simply a matter of time before people start ignoring aggregated online reviews.
Compare this to the enduring power of referrals through personal relationships, from trusted sources, or within communities. If a friend whose taste you really respect tells you a restaurant is great, you’ll probably try to go, even if you’ve read a hundred online reviews from people bashing the place. Our mission here at SavvyCard is to find ways to enhance those personal connections with some of the strengths of the online world – for instance, by making it more convenient to make an information-rich personal recommendation on the spot, or to alert the person being referred of the recommendation. Genuinely personal referrals will never ‘scale’ in the way Yelp and others have long hoped – but of course, at SavvyCard we believe they can still benefit from the innovations of the digital age.