Living a B-rated life

I love ratings and reviews. And I’m not alone.  4.7 people out of 5 people love reviews. We give them two thumbs up. They rate 96.5% on the Tomato-meter.  I find it hard to imagine what my life would be without those ubiquitous 5 stars to guide me.

This past weekend, I was in Banff, Alberta for my sister’s wedding. My family decided to find a place to go for breakfast. The first thing I did was check with Yelp, and soon we were stacking up the eggs benny at a passable breakfast buffet less than 2 miles from our hotel. I never knew said buffet existed before checking the reviews but once I found it, I trusted the wisdom of crowds. It seldom steers me wrong.

Now, you do have to learn how to read between the lines of a typical review site. Just before heading to my sister’s wedding, I spent the day in Seattle at the Bazaar Voice user event and was fascinated to learn that their user research shows that the typical number of reviews scanned is generally about 7. Once people hit 7 reviews, they feel they have a good handle on the overall tone, even if there are 1000 reviews in total. This seems right to me. It’s about the number of reviews I scan if possible.

But we also rely on the average rating summaries that typically show above the individual reviews and comments. When I read a review, I tend to follow these rules of thumb:

  • Look for the entry with the most reviews
  • Find one that has a high average, but be suspicious of ones that have absolutely no negative reviews (unusual if you follow Rule One)
  • Scan the top 6 or 7 reviews to get an overall sense of what people like and dislike
  • Sort by the most negative reviews and read at least one to see what people hate
  • Decide whether the negative reviews are the result of a one-off bad experience, or possibly an impossible-to-please customer (you can usually pick them out by their comments)
  • Do the “sniff test” to see if there are planted reviews (again, they’re not that hard to pick out)

I’ve used the same approach for restaurants, hotels, consumer electronics, cars, movies, books, hot tubs – pretty much anything I’ve had to open my wallet for in the past 5 or 6 years. It’s made buying so much easier. Ratings and reviews are like the Cole’s notes of word of mouth. They condense the opinions of the marketplace down to the bare essentials.

It’s little wonder that Google is starting to invest heavily in this area, with recent acquisitions of Zagat and Frommer’s. These are companies that built entire businesses on eliminating risk through reviews. The aggregation and organization of opinion is a natural extension for search engines. Of course, we should give it a fancy name, like “social graph”, so we can sound really smart at industry conferences, but the foundations are built on plain common sense. Our attraction to reviews is hardwired into our noggins. We are social animals and like to travel in packs.  Language evolved so we could point each other to the best cassava root patch and pass along the finer points of mastodon hunting.

As Google acquires more and more socially informed content, it will be integrated into their algorithms. This is why Google had to launch their own social network. Unfortunately, Google+ hasn’t gained the critical mass needed to provide the signals Google is looking for. I personally haven’t had a Google+ invite in months. Despite Larry Page’s insistence that it’s a roaring success, others have pointed out that Google+ seems to be a network of tire kickers, with little in the way of ongoing engagement. Contrast that with Pinterest, which is all the various women in my life seem to talk about and is outperforming even Twitter when it comes to driving referrals.

I personally love the proliferation of structured word of mouth. Some say it negates serendipity, but I actually believe I will be more apt to explore if there is some reassurance I won’t have a horrible experience. Otherwise, this weekend my family and I would have been having Egg McMuffins at the Banff Mcdonald’s and really, is that the life you want?

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider August 16, 2012