Bad Apples Get Loud in the Crowd

04/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tim Berry Founder and Chairman, Palo Alto Software

What a shame. The wisdom of crowds is a good idea. User reviews is another good idea. You click and then read. There's reassurance of good reviews. How many times have you been influenced by reviewers' stars for one product or another. And lately also for services (as in Google maps, linked to reviews for services like TV installation and plumbing).  It's nice, except for the bad apples in the crowd. Sour grapes. Sweet lemons.

Sour Grapes

If you use reviews at all, you recognize them. Using the review site for revenge. "You'll be sorry you treated me badly." The lurking competitors are bad; the extortionists are bad. Most of them inadvertently make it too obvious, but the worst of them do it too well. They pollute the review sites. 

  • One of my favorites was the local restaurant review that was all thumbs down. The reviewer shares that they refused to serve her because they said she was drunk and unruly. Hmmm ... do we see two sides to that story?
  • The gas dryer review spews venom about the product. Read closer: it was written the day the installer failed to show up. As in, before using the product.
  • The bad auto review hates the dealer; not the car.
  • QuickBooks (bookkeeping software) reviews are a good example. A lot of hatred there, far more than the software deserves. Everybody hates the accounting software they use, regardless of the brand. And no, I don't work for Intuit, and no, they don't pay me to say that. It's just a good example.
  • The worst of it: reviews by competitors. To stick with the QuickBooks example, people reviewing QuickBooks who are really plugging their own competing software. People reviewing one book to plug their own. People reviewing restaurants who own or work for competing restaurants.

Just in case it isn't obvious, think about this one: people who threaten other people with bad reviews. If you don't add that other service for free, I'm going to trash you on the web. It happens, believe me. The extortionists.

Sweet Lemons

You can usually spot them: reviews on review sites by employees, consultants, marketers of the product. For me, when there's only one or two reviews on a site, I'm suspicious.

Can't Touch That

Review sites can't deal with these bad apples. Earlier this week the New York Times published this piece about Yelp. Vendors want due process, error checking, protection against competitors and such. I've seen that before, about Well, to be honest, my company has been victimized by competitors and extortionists on 

Legally, practically, the review sites don't dare touch even the most obviously spurious and malicious reviews. It's one of those legal areas that are either black or white, with no in-between: as soon as you change a single review, then you're editing, and you become responsible for all of them. If you never touch a review, as a hosting site, then you're not responsible for any review's content. I'm not an attorney, so check me on this, but that's the way it was explained to me by somebody who should know. On the other hand, the New York Times story indicates Yelp uses some spam filtering, but it also lets advertisers put better reviews on top of the listings, which sounds a lot like editing to me.

Yelp's lack of transparency does not affect its relationship with businesses alone. It also risks eroding users' trust in the site. Eric Kingery, an engineer and frequent Yelp user in Chicago, discovered that a review he had written of a jeweler disappeared. "It just makes me suspicious of the impartiality," he said. "It is a very useful service, but this kind of harms the integrity of the site."

So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't, and in the meantime, those of us who would like to draw on wisdom of crowds have to go with so much caution that it's rarely worth it. These days I only look at reviews when there are a bunch of them, 25, 50 or more, so that the bad apples don't distort the broad picture.

But Could They, Should They, In the Future?

I was about to write "there ought to  be a law." However, on reflection, never mind. Bad idea. But is it perhaps too much to hope for a court case or ruling that eases up on the legal liability for weeding out some of the most obviously erroneous or self-serving reviews?

Maybe at least an honor code and ethics attempt, asking people to at least identify themselves confidentially to the hosting site, so they take responsibility somewhere. It's not a big identity theft or spammer email problem to do that; most blogs do it routinely. 

Commerce isn't Free Speech

Free speech is about politics, not printer drivers or restaurants. And we're not talking about government entities limiting speech, we're talking about review sites taking out the trash. I wish that the whole free speech thing weren't such a slippery slope.

However, the courts do say that free speech doesn't include shouting fire in a crowded theater (dangerous) or distributing commercial leaflets in a crowded theater (commerce). So maybe there's hope for review sites getting a little tiny bit of slack on this, some time in the future.

And, by the way, if you're reviewing this post, give it five stars. Please.