I recently had a question from a reader about one of the huge, publicly traded companies that publishes user-generated reviews online.
You know, the kind of website that gives a business “stars” based on how well its customers like it.
It seemed like an innocent question: The reader had posted a review and it hadn’t been published. Why?
But the representative who phoned me back interpreted the question as anything but innocent.
Without answering the question, she aggressively defended the integrity of the site’s unverified, anonymous reviews.
By the time she was done delivering her angry tirade, I was convinced that no one should ever use her site for anything more than entertainment value.
It also got me to wondering: Where shouldn’t you turn when you want to know if a business is any good?
I know it’s more than a little ironic that an article on a website is advising readers to be wary of…articles on websites.
But online, user-generated reviews are almost all flawed.
The reason? The sites that publish them (no need to name names, but you know who they are) don’t verify who is writing them or if they are real customers.
As a result, anyone can say anything about any business and get away with it.
Even their vaunted fraud-detection algorithms can’t catch every bogus review, which means you might be reading an ad masquerading as a review. That destroys the credibility of all reviews.
If you think a business will tell the truth about itself unless required to do so by law, then I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Businesses routinely distort the facts about themselves, from the hyperbole-laced description of a bed and breakfast to the “about us” page on a multinational conglomerate.
They call it spin. I’d prefer to think of it as disseminating false information.
Bottom line: don’t rely on a company to describe itself in anything other than glowing terms.
A Trade Group or Industry Organization
Always follow the money before you rely on the advice of a third party.
Many organizations that publish directories or reviews of a business — or purport to tell you which one is a better business — are, in fact, funded by the businesses themselves.
How can they possibly be impartial? (They can’t, of course.)
So what should you do about this? A healthy dose of skepticism will serve you well.
Don’t believe everything you read, ahem, online. If a business says something about itself, don’t automatically accept it. The same thing goes for a trade group.
Next week, I’ll talk about three places you can go that publish reliable information about any business.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.