How Reliable are Online Reviews?

Depending on who you talk to the answers are “Very helpful” to “No good at all”.

When reviewing goods and services, one person may be perfectly happy with a product or service and the next person, buying the same thing, may find fault with it.  On the other hand, if you read ten reviews for a painting company that say how polite they are and how well they clean up and then read another review that claims they missed a bunch of spots and left a mess, who do you believe?

Common sense would lead some people to overlook the occasional bad review chalking it up to customer who may have been hard to please.  Some people read on and look for a service provider with a Perfect 10 record.  Sometimes, on later hiring them, they find the company isn’t qualified or is just plain uninterested in providing good service.  What gives?

Angies List Reviews graphic

Dietz vs Perez

Chris Dietz of Dietz Development LLC has sued Jane Perez for libelous reviews she left on the online review sites Yelp and Angie’s List.  Ms Perez (the customer) claimed, in reviews, that Dietz (the contractor) did substandard work, billed for services not performed, and also stole jewelry that is missing from her home.

Chris Dietz claims he provided satisfactory services and says Ms Perez did not complain until after he asked her for payment for completed work. Dietz went on to say Ms Perez has the right to complain if she isn’t satisfied. But that her complaints have to be based in fact. In other words, she has no right to make unfounded and libelous accusations.

There was no proof of theft so a judge has ruled that Ms Perez must remove her allegations of theft.  Lawyers for Dietz argue then that he has suffered damage to his reputation (resulting in financial losses) because of the untrue comments by Perez. The lawyers for Ms Perez claim she is being truthful and her First Amendment right to free speech is unfairly threatened by this lawsuit.

This “he said, she said” Dietz vs Perez lawsuit is national news with potential hardships for all parties concerned.  The case is still being tried, but to read about it, you can here >> Dietz vs Perez.

How *True* are Review Sites?

Angie’s List is a paid site and like any internet site, including hate group sites, religious sites, or even porn sites has protections under the 1st Amendment. Yelp is not a paid site. Both sites publish reviews by 3rd party contributors. And in this sense, internet sites like Angie’s List do not offer opinions, instead they publish the opinions of others.

But how accurate and how reliable are these online reviews? Angie’s List promotes (to paying and potential members) that they are a consumer-friendly site, which does not allow service providers to “buy” good reviews. This is partially true.  Where service providers cannot buy good reviews, they can buy advertising on Angie’s List (and the bigger the ad the better the placement).

This seems like a conflict of interest.  With this setup, Angie’s List charges members for access to reviews and charges service providers to get their advertising in front of Angie’s members.  Crazy but true, you pay for the comfort and protection of the List, and the companies that advertise pay for the privilege of being an Angie’s List service provider.

Testing Some Review Sites

As a test, I picked a  local building contractor to review and checked their ratings on Angie’s List by using a friend’s account. I then checked reviews on Google listings, Merchant Circle, Insider Pages, Yelp and Yahoo, all of which are free to anyone.  Angie’s List had four 5 star reviews for this company.  All the other sites had three to eight 5 star reviews.  Many of the reviews on the different (free) sites were word for word identical.

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What are the chances of those reviews being legitimate? Were people so happy with this contractor, they searched for other review sites to tell us all how happy they are? I noticed that one reviewer who posted on all the sites had the same first name as this contractor’s wife.  A coincidence? I checked a different business and noticed similarities in some of the comments left for that company as well.

To be fair, probably about 50% of the comments seemed like unique, and hence, valid comments.

Playing the Review Game

With Angie’s List and Yelp, service providers can game the system. A business can ask customers, friends and relatives to leave good reviews for their company.  Of course, these businesses only ask their most satisfied customers.  Rewards (discounts or even cash in some cases) are commonly offered.  If a company can get enough of these good reviews posted, they can see their ratings soar.  In other words, services providers can, and they do, pay for good reviews.  Some make up good reviews, too, and simply have friends and family post them to these review sites.

Proceed with Caution:

Some online experts say as much as 50% of these reviews are false.  Because of this, Yelp is now using an algorithm to weed out fake reviews. (Using a software program to weed reviews sounds kind of like using a software program to tell you if a hamburger tastes good.)

Angie’s List will publish anything a member claims, whether it’s true or not.  Kind of a lassez faire approach to telling the truth.  Angie’s List will not remove a review even if its false and libelous … not yet anyway.  What Angie’s List will do is offer to sell a service provider with a bad review advertising. They tell you that by advertising on Angie’s List, you can get your customers to write good reviews until the bad review gets buried under the new and positive ones. Of course you will still need to do good work to get your good reviews.

You can get a bad review even if you have never worked for an Angie’s or Yelp list member.  You can visit the “couple from hell” and decide working for this couple will be a nightmare.  This same couple will grade you an F because you would not or could not reach an agreement with them. The couple from hell just messed you up and you didn’t even have to do anything to deserve it.  (A bar can refuse to serve you a drink if you are drunk, but a painter can’t refuse to paint your home if you are drunk.)

Skin in the Game

Chris Dietz and his small company are fighting for survival after a nasty but unsubstantiated review from a customer. He has skin in the game, his business can suffer, and already has, from his negative Angie’s List and Yelp reviews. But to be fair, Ms Perez does have a right to complain if she did indeed get hosed by Dietz Development.  But did she and did Chris Dietz really mess up her job?

My Opinion

Having been a contractor for 35 years, I tend to think Chris Dietz had to sue Ms Perez. He asks a court to remove the negative reviews until the validity of reviews is determined. Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to libel someone even if they are not the most stellar service provider.

Mr Dietz claims he received no money from Ms Perez and thinks that she fired him simply because she didn’t want to pay for work done.

Ms Perez claims substandard work, missing jewelry and billing for services not received.

There are a couple of things that arouse my suspicions about Ms Perez’s claim. Because the contractor received no payments for work rendered, and the problems started after his asking for payment, it seems Ms Perez’s timing is terrible in this regard.  There are photos of substandard work as proof of Perez’s claim, but two of the photos made me suspicious. One was of badly mangled and painted door hinges.  If Chris Dietz installed new hinges, he would have had to paint them right after, and if he did, why then was there no paint showing inside the missing screw holes area? Also one photo shows a stained carpet.  To me, the stains looked like an older water-type stain that usually comes from a roof leak or someone over-watering a plant in the corner of a room.

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Bad Service:

What may be going on here, I’m afraid, is people are just tired of bad service by banks, phone companies, cable companies and other large businesses. If you’re lucky enough to get hold of someone from these large corporations, getting relief is usually a painful and drawn out process.

With a small business, much depends on making the majority of their customers happy.  Word of mouth is the best shot they have at getting new business. Further, losing money on one job can make paying your overhead and costs a challenge.  Small businesses need to finish, and they need to quickly satisfy complaints.

False reviews, intended or not, punish the small business owner. Careless accusations should carry the same penalties as poor business practices.  Ms Perez has not proven she suffered at the hands of Dietz Development; she just claims she did.  She should stick to the facts whatever they are.

If Ms Perez has the right to make claims against Dietz Development LLC, then Dietz has the right to dispute the claims and have false accusations removed.

Bottom Line:

Careless monitoring by review sites threatens small businesses.  Sites like Angie’s List and Yelp aren’t helping anyone but Angie’s List and Yelp.  It’s important to point out too that these sites garner their own complaints, but if you want to see complaints against Angie’s List you won’t find them on Angie’s List … because they don’t allow negative reviews against Angie.

Taking all of this into consideration, I feel that you cannot depend on Angie’s List or Yelp to confirm you are hiring “the best” service.  You should instead meet with the service provider, and by using your instincts, make a decision and hope for the best.

If you are not happy with the services you receive: Tell the truth when writing a negative review. Stick to the facts and take time to cool off before writing your complaint. If you don’t you may find yourself in court facing a libel lawsuit.


For Further Reading:

Note from the hosts: Been awhile since we had “The Paul”.  Thanks out for sharing your thoughts and thanks all for reading. For more essays and opinions from Paul Lesieur, see his author’s page here. ~jb