Business, Business & Technology

Should you trust what’s written in the stars?

December 2, 2015 0

By News Quandry Staff Writer

News Quandry News Service


Star ratings are a common feature today and are used to evaluate everything from movies, books, restaurants and hotels all the way to Medicare plans and nursing homes. Their goal is to help consumers make informed decisions about the goods and services they purchase or use. But what do they mean exactly? And more importantly, can you trust them? “The simple answer is no,” says Mark Bakken of Big Web Machine. Bakken has spent years as a consultant and consumer advocate for verification of online reviews.   Here’s why Bakken says stars cannot be trusted.



Love it or hate it, the star-rating system has tremendous influence on a business’ success in attracting customers. According to BrightLocal, consumers use the star rating system more often than any other metric to choose a local business and any additional star can make a huge difference. A business with three stars is four times more likely to be considered by consumers (13 versus 57 percent) than one with two. Make that four or five stars—that percentage rises above 90%.


This “star power” means review websites hold tremendous weight on consumer purchasing decisions. According to Yelp, “98 percent of consumers who visit businesses” listed on their site end up making a purchase. “Yelp is consulted almost exclusively in relation to a pending purchase, usually to be made within a week.” It’s not surprising then businesses would do almost anything to obtain as many stars as they can. But what does a “star” mean exactly?



In a society ruled by competition and rankings, no wonder star ratings are so popular. It’s a lot easier to look at the number of stars on a product rather than spend hours comparing brands. But consumers might be surprised to find out what goes on behind the scenes.

A report by ConsumerReport.org shows travel websites like Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity and Priceline award stars using similar parameters. Hotels are evaluated based on criteria such as location, furnishings, amenities and service. Nothing too surprising so far but here’s where inconsistencies start to appear.

Some raters send unannounced or announced inspectors while others rely almost exclusively on what the hotel says it offers. The system also relies on reviews, which are a great way for a business to promote the quality of its products and services but are by definition very personal and, more importantly, their credibility is increasingly called into question.

“The review system is riddled with less-than-honest practices,” says Bakken. A recent study by Mintel shows that the system is raising eyebrows with 57% of consumers unsure if they can trust positive reviews and 49% “certain that companies incentivize online reviewers in various ways.”



Mark Bakken, Big Web Machine


A solution to this problem would be for travel websites to only ask actual customers for reviews (and many follow that model) but they could also offer verified reviews, which none do. In fact, TripAdvisor, which used to be a review site but has now become a hotel booking site, actually refuses to implement any kind of verification system. “TripAdvisor makes its money by selling ad space for hotels and directing bookings to hotel websites. Anyone who thinks that TripAdvisor is a neutral review platform is naïve,” says John Ollila of LoyaltyLobby.

“Anyone who thinks that TripAdvisor is a neutral review platform is naïve.” −John Ollila, LoyaltyLobby



A recent study looked at restaurant reviews in the Boston area on Yelp and found that “nearly one in five reviews is marked as fake by Yelp’s algorithm.” In essence, algorithms look for extreme patterns and repeat IP addresses. They tend to remove very positive and very negative reviews (with 1 and 5-stars).


But algorithms might remove legitimate reviews leaving businesses feeling unfairly penalized, the study found. “This issue is further complicated by businesses that have anecdotally claimed that review filters are stricter on non-advertisers than on advertisers.”

In 2010, 685 complaints were filed with the Federal Trade Commission accusing Yelp of “skewing reviews to favor advertisers.” According to the plaintiffs, their businesses’ positive reviews would suddenly disappear from Yelp’s website following a sales call during which they declined to buy advertisement.

In 2014, the Court of Appeals ruled that Yelp is allowed to do this, despite the company’s continued denials that it does. Kimberlee Morrison argues the court’s decision “could impact the entire foundation of the user-generated review system. Consumers were already skeptical of user reviews; now the court has given Yelp the right to manipulate reviews and use them as leverage to get businesses listed on the site to purchase advertising.”



In light of all the controversy, how can consumers be sure they are getting accurate information and how can businesses ensure online reviews depict them fairly? There is a growing movement pushing for the certification of reviews to prove they are real and haven’t been tempered with.


According to Bakken, “studies show that when someone types a business name in a search engine, they will follow it with the word ‘reviews’ about 85% of the time.” Next time consumers look for a particular business or want to check all companies in a particular industry, all they have to do is type “third party verified reviews” instead of “reviews” after the name of the business or industry. “Even better, they should use search engines dedicated to verified reviews exclusively,” he adds.

One such engine has been developed by TruWeb Verified, a Cooperative Association of consumer groups, businesses and professionals offering business reviews that have been third party verified. This means that the source of the review has been authenticated and the claims checked. Businesses can become members to ensure that actual people with some experience of their products and services have written the reviews. Third party verified reviews then display the TruWeb Verified seal certifying their authenticity.


The third party verified review option is gaining popularity as it tries to bypass all the controversy surrounding the online review system and offer consumers and businesses a fairer way to connect. “It’s the only trustworthy option,” concludes Bakken.