Rate the Ratings!

Finding the “best” anything (hot dog, sports car, babysitter, hotel, roofer or Mexican restaurant) is not anything new.  I remember seeing my grandfather meticulously study his Popular Mechanics magazine (remember magazines!?) before buying any tools. Years later my father consulted Consumer Reports for a few months before buying a new appliance.  They would spend days upon days studying all of the options and reviews before making any decision.  Spending their hard earned money on anything of importance was not a trivial decision.

As I grew up, I would do the same thing and also talk to as many of my friends as possible to get their opinions.  One day when I was in the market for a new television, I consulted a friend of mine who had just bought a new one.  He began to tell me in excruciating detail everything to look for, what to avoid and what the latest trends were.  It was at this point, that I realized that I didn’t need to spend days upon days doing my own research, I could just ask someone I trusted who had already done the hard work for me.  Call me lazy – I call it efficient.

Today the process is radically different than it was even 10 years ago.  Now with Yelp, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Angie’s List, Buzz Feed, Facebook, Twitter and more, finding what is the “best” is right at our fingertips at all times.  Further, these rating services have so much of our information, they can predict what we like before we even ask, and tailor their solutions so that we only get the opinions of people like us.  This was a great solution to a point; and then when reviews, ratings and recommendations became driving forces behind consumer spending, businesses and service providers learned how to game the system.

Let’s take Yelp as an example.  I love Yelp – use it all of the time.  When I first started using it, I would ask it to find the best Italian restaurant within 10 miles of my current location, and I would get a list sorted by ratings.  I would pick the one with the highest ratings, go eat and enjoy a great meal – almost without fail.  Over time, my experiences with this process (and it’s not just Yelp, same thing with Amazon reviews) changed.  I would pick a highly rated hotel (for example), and it would be crap.

Today, such blind faith seems pretty foolish; but when these services were initially hitting their stride, I didn’t worry about the number of reviews, or really bother to read more than a few.  The light bulb clicked when I was at my favorite restaurant and was reading the Yelp reviews only to see someone that had totally trashed the quality of food.  I asked the owner if he remembered this dissatisfied customer, and he told me it was the son of the owner of a competitor down the street who had NEVER even been to this restaurant.

Of course, this pendulum swings both ways and business owners “pad” their ratings with numerous friends and family members posting only positive comments.  The review wars were on and they still rage today.  If I’m going to put any validity into the reviews of a Yelp or Amazon, I need to read a lot of reviews, pick out the ones I think are legit, discard the angry ones and make my own decision – I’m back to doing my own meticulous research like my father did – so much for progress.

So what’s the best solution?  I go back to when I wanted a new TV and leaned on my trusted friend who had done all of the research.  I knew this person was an expert in home electronics, was addicted to all publications on the subject and if he recommended something that HE would buy; it would be more than good enough for me.  We all have some friends who fall into this category; whether they’re computer experts, mortgage lenders, carpenters or foodies, we know in a pinch, we can contact them and trust what they suggest. Can this be a realistic model in this age of instant networking?

Let’s say I need a new roof.  In my area, there are 100 contractors that would love the business.  How do I pick the “best” one?  Before I do anything, I need to understand what “best” means to me.  First of all, I want a roof that won’t leak, will never have to be replaced again in my lifetime, will look good on my house and will be something I can afford.  I also want it done within the next month.  Now if I had all of these 100 roofers in front of me, and a large bottle of truth serum, my initial criteria would knock the number of candidates down to 80.

So I dig a little deeper into what is important to me, all the while feeding the candidates copious amounts of truth serum.

  • Let’s say I need financing – down to 60.
  • I don’t want to pay for anything until the job is done – down to 50.
  • I want to make sure my yard isn’t trashed at the end of the job – down to 40.
  • I don’t want to get sued when someone falls off my roof – down to 30
  • I don’t want high-pressure sales tactics – down to 15.
  • I want someone who will be on time and communicate with me – down to 10
  • I want someone who will be around for the next 10 years – down to 5

Now these very un-scientific numbers are for this example only, but the point is that you need to understand what is important to you – and then you need to have the contractors agree to swallow the truth serum.  If I could do this, any one of the remaining 5 contractors would make an excellent choice – for MY NEEDS.

Back to my friend the TV expert.  I know that through his research and experience with electronics, I could tell him what was important to me, and he would act as my “truth serum” and recommend a very limited selection of acceptable TVs.  I’d buy him dinner and then invite him over to watch the Super Bowl on my new big screen.

Does Yelp, Amazon, Angie’s List, Thumbtack, Google, Yahoo or any other service provide the same level of comfort as my friend the TV expert? Of course not.  I believe the next trend in valid rating systems is going to be based on the model of your good friend the expert whom you trust to look out for your best interests, and not a mass of “independent” reviews.

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