Online reviews: Reviewing the reviewers

7 min read

So you're looking for a contractor and you're halfway through online reviews when you see it.

One star.

After countless reviews extolling the virtues of your potential new contractor you find the one goose egg. The one black mark. The one "Meh" is an otherwise stellar batch of reviews. Here's your question, and one we're going to try to answer: "How much stock do I put in one (or two) negative online reviews?" It's a question we all ask whether scoping out contractors, restaurants, or mechanics--how much should I care about online reviews? Sure, we'd like to hire people who have all five stars on every review, but not knowing the source of those online reviews means that five stars is about as reliable as one: Not very. And that leads us to our first of three tips for online reviews.

1. Throw out the best and the worst.

Review aggregator sites do this already with so-called "approximate average assessments" and it's not a bad idea to focus on middle-of-the-road reviews. Now, we're not saying that this is always the case, but you should consider the possibility that those five-star reviews could come from family and friends. Or even worse, the company could have paid individuals or services to write gushingly positive, fake reviews. In fact, spotting fake reviews was the subject of a PBS Newshour segment.

You should also be wary of extremely negative reviews, which could be coming from folks who have an ax to grind, something that has nothing to do with a company's product or service. I once had a remodeling contractor boss who liked to sail. He didn't live in a big fancy house but he loved his sailboat. And those of you who've had a sailboat know it's just a big hole in the water in which to throw money. Well, our Design Build Remodel social site once got this snotty little online review from the boyfriend of a happy client who whined that all the money his girlfriend spent on her remodel went straight to my bosses boat. Even it if did, what does that have to do with the quality of the project?

2. Learn which sites to trust and which to avoid

I hate Yelp. But then I use Yelp. So I'm a hypocrite. After receiving particularly bad service from a local wrecking yard I felt compelled to write a critical review--which Yelp has never posted. I once had 12 positive online reviews about my company parked by Yelp--because they didn't fit Yelps "standard" for reviews. If anyone ever figures out he Yelp algorithm for posting reviews I would love to hear it. Just don't stand in the center of a pentagram and say it three times real fast--you never know who or what may appear. One site I like when it comes to reviews and referrals is Houzz.com. Granted, most of the folks in Houzz.com are going to be high end Design Build Remodel contractors, but Houzz's system for gathering online reviews is so strict that it is virtually impossible to cheat. Houzz actually vets every review submitted to confirm that the reviewer was an actual client--and Houzz will actually ask to see invoices. Another review site that's gaining traction is Porch.com. It's a Lowes product, and while it's underutilized in many areas it offers a method of Geo-specific reviews that allow you--in theory--to get an idea of what your neighbors thought about a particular product or service.

3. Watch for patterns--not individual reviews--then check the calendar

You know online reviews matter to companies these days. Why else would they request a review before their product has even arrived? Why else would they spend copious amounts of money on modern-day snake oil salesmen to enhance their social media profile? The cool part about online reviews is they start to break down the wall between consumer and manufacturer. Reviews are a key component to eliminating the middle-men, so to speak. So, online reputations are crucial. That being said, don't put too much stock in one or even two bad reviews. If there are 1,000 reviews on a product and five of them are negative--no big deal. If there's eight reviews and five are negative--big deal. And pay attention to when the reviews were written. If the last negative review was three years ago and then the most recent reviews are all positive--take stock in the notion that the company had a rough patch and now is on the straight and narrow.

Love it or hate it, social media is going to remain a fixture in our lives. As it has for the last decade, social media will rapidly evolve--and the hope is it will make it easier for the consumer to make direct connections with home professionals. Want tips on how to find a good handyman? The anonymous nature of many social media platforms may bring out the trolls...but if you're quick to respond to negative reviews and really care about leaving clients happy--you have nothing to fear from social media.