Ever Wonder How Yelp and Other Review Websites Work? We’ll Clue You In

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We all do a great deal of shopping sight unseen. We love to go to new bars and restaurants. We need home repair work done by a professional and don’t have the slightest idea who to hire.

What do we do?

We go to online review sites.

Whether it is purchasing a new product, hiring a new service, experiencing a new food or visiting a new entertainment venue, most people do not like to put their money down without some idea of what they are getting into. So they turn to online reviews. These typically offer a score on a five-point scale that’s calculated from the average customer rating, along with customer comments.

But how reliable are all those customer reviews and ratings? The answer is different depending on which review website you use.

The fact is that business and product rating sites are not themselves rated by anyone, and there are thousands of stories told about how negative ratings disappear from the view of others.

In this post, we will cover:

What to Consider When You Use Rating Services

If you’re skeptical about review websites, great. That’s the right place to start, because no matter how reputable a ratings service is, there is opportunity for error or abuse. Not to mention the wide range of policies, procedures, and quality controls.

Here are some things to think about when trying to determine how much to trust customer reviews and ratings.

  • Can you see how many total ratings or reviews have been collected? A low number of customer reviews will be a less reliable gauge to go on.
  • How transparent are policies and procedures? Can you easily find information about privacy policies, how ratings are calculated and other quality controls?
  • If the review site or service conducts its own evaluations and doesn’t rely 100% on customer reviews, are their criteria clearly explained?
  • What level of accountability is there, if any, to encourage honest, useful, and accurate customer reviews and ratings? Are there procedures in place to discourage paid reviewers who can tip the scale?
  • What’s done to prevent or minimize fake reviews? Is there any kind of screening process?  Do humans get involved, or is everything based on algorithms? There’s no firm answer about which is better, so you’ll have to judge for yourself. Algorithms can be manipulated, but humans are, well, human.
  • Is there a procedure for disputing a negative review someone thinks is unfair or inaccurate?
  • Can customers comment on posted reviews? Contrary opinions can add context and information – and be somewhat of a check on fake or careless reviews.
  • If the review site accepts advertising from the same businesses it rates, does its FAQ section offer transparency about this? Or are you left to wonder whether advertisers get preferred treatment?

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Assessing the Rating Services: Pros, Cons and What to Know

Here’s a snapshot of eight online review sites and services that stand out because of popularity, traffic, longevity or all three. They’re well-established enough to have a track record and a deep well of information. We’ve checked their policies and practices to help you use them smartly.

  What's rated? Who's rating? Good for Good to know
Better Business Bureau (BBB) Home services, lawyers, auto repair, restaurants The BBB and customers Finding a trusted service provider in your area Also accredits and grades businesses
Yelp Almost any kind of business you can think of Customers Insights into a product or service you're shopping for Offers some consumer services, too
Amazon Anything purchased via Amazon Customers Choosing among Amazon product options Also reviews from trusted panels called Amazon Vine
Google Participating vendors Customers See ratings, reviews of products you're considering Customers invited to write reviews after purchase
Facebook Any business with a Facebook Business Page Facebook members Info about a business you want to try Look for the Reviews tab on a business page
Angi Home maintenance and repair services Customers Finding contractors and services in your area Was Angie's List and is no longer subscription-based
Home Advisor Participating home maintenance and repair services Customers Finding contractors and services in your area Set your price and get a list of leads
Tripadvisor Travel accommodations and services Customers Planning a trip Recommendations are sorted by detailed criteria

Better Business Bureau (BBB)

Long before the invention of the internet, even before the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) provided information about how American companies performed according to the people who bought their products and services. Eventually, the BBB also created an arbitration program to help resolve consumer complaints, to the betterment of both consumers and the companies serving those consumers.

The BBB’s basic purpose is to accredit businesses for an acceptable level of competence and integrity. It has Standards of Trust and BBB Accreditation Standards, making it the most serious of all rating services. Companies can receive a BBB Accredited Business if it meets the standards. The BBB specializes in general contractors, lawyers, auto repair services and restaurants.

What’s rated? Home construction, repair and maintenance services; lawyers; auto repair services; restaurants.

Who’s doing the rating? The BBB and customers who are registered users.

How it works: Look for a specific business or search by the type of service you’re seeking. Listed businesses will have a grade from A+ to F and a BBB accreditation, which requires a background check, compliance with BBB  standards, and an annual fee. Many also have customer ratings and reviews.

How BBB handles negative reviews: The BBB form for filing a complaint asks for details. Does the complainant want to warn others about the bad experience they had? Or are they requesting help resolving a conflict? The BBB then looks into the complaint and determines whether to get involved. The BBB also offers a review process, working on a 5-point scale. The review page offers the number of complaints received in the last three years, which are available to be read. The complaints do need to fit the company standards. The BBB also accepts reviews of accredited companies.

Pros: Goes beyond customer ratings by accrediting and grading businesses. Also a clearinghouse for consumer complaints. Reliable and transparent.

Cons: Some businesses have a low number of customer ratings.

What else to know: As much as any other service, the BBB provides the most clearly stated system for reviewing companies. The BBB offers no guarantee of a company’s service or product, but it serves no other purpose but to protect the consumer from making poor choices.

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Started in 2004, Yelp began as a customer review site but has grown substantially to provide other consumer services. It began publicly trading stock in 2012.

Today, Yelp users rate businesses and can see how those businesses have been rated by past reviewers. Although many different companies can be found on the site, Yelp promotes its reviews for plumbers, restaurants, home services, delivery services and black-owned businesses. Yelp has been involved in dozens of lawsuits alleging the posting of false reviews, both positive by a business reviewed and negative by competitors of businesses, and has fielded complaints that companies paying to advertise on Yelp get favored treatment in the form of deleting negative reviews.

What’s rated? Almost any kind of business you can think of.

Who’s doing the rating? Customers who are registered users.

How it works: Search for a business and find a list of recommendations with star ratings and reviews.

How Yelp handles negative reviews: Yelp allows businesses to contact consumers who post negative reviews, and allows for those reviews to be updated and likely improved as a result of the contact from the business.

Pros: Enough traffic from users to offer a more reliable sampling. Vast selection of businesses.

Cons: Some complaints about fake reviews, despite an algorithm designed to filter them out. Some questions about preferential treatment for advertisers.

What else to know: It is estimated that Yelp gets 142 million visits a month, either from those posting reviews or those reading reviews. There are approximately 487,500 businesses listed on the site.

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Amazon Product Reviews and Ratings

Amazon gives customers the opportunity to rate the items they purchase from its website, and to read reviews of items prior to making a purchase.

Companies sign up to have their products and services listed in a search on amazon.com. Once an item is purchased as a result of an Amazon search, the purchase is asked to rate the product once it is received. However, many people do the initial search on Amazon, then go directly to the company website to make the purchase. The ratings only exist when the consumer goes to Amazon, clicks on the company page from there, and makes a purchase.

What’s rated? Anything purchased via Amazon.

Who’s doing the rating? Registered members who have made a purchase.

How it works: When you shop on Amazon you’ll see a star rating and comments about the products you’re viewing.

How Amazon handles negative reviews: To Amazon’s credit, it provides an extensive list of do’s and don’ts for its customer reviews. Amazon says it will remove any review, either positive or negative, if it is judged to be from an interested party, whether that be someone in the employ of the company whose product is being reviewed, or in the employ of a competitor.

Pros: Massive audience means a more reliable sampling. Has policies to discourage misleading or manipulative reviews. Also offers Amazon Vine reviews from trusted panels.

Cons: Massive audience also means more opportunity for abuse. Despite efforts, fake or paid reviews still slip through.

What else to know: If buyers search on Amazon then purchase from the vendor website, their ratings won’t be counted.

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Google Customer Reviews and Product Ratings

When a business creates a Google Merchant account, it has the option of participating in Google Customer Reviews and Google Product Ratings. The Google customer review appears on the business’s website after a purchase is made.

When you make a purchase through a company that is aligned with the Google review program, you are given the chance to opt-in to the review program. Once you do that, you will receive an email a few days after your order with instructions on how to review the product or service you purchased. The review process is designed to consider the entire purchasing process. If you used your personal Google account information in the process of making your purchase from Google, all your public Google account information will be published. Users can then go into the individual reviews and delete them if you wish.

What’s rated? Products or services from businesses that participate in the program.

Who’s doing the rating? Registered customers who have made a purchase.

How it works: If you shop on the Google Shopping site or on a business site that’s part of the Google Merchant program, you’ll see Google reviews and star ratings there.
How Google handles negative reviews: Google merchants are allowed to interact with reviewers, who can only leave reviews if they provide their email address. Google has a nine-point standard for inappropriate reviews, but depends upon the merchant to find such reviews and report them. Google may choose NOT to remove a review if it does not violate one of its standards, in which case it encourages merchants to respond directly to the consumer to discuss the problem.

Pros: Designed to consider the entire purchasing process. Reviewers are invited to write a review after making a purchase, can’t be anonymous, and are asked to comply with standards.

Cons: Complaints from merchants that they have no recourse when they feel reviews are unfair.
What else to know: Driven by algorithms. Google has a nine-point standard for inappropriate reviews, but depends on merchants to report them.

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Facebook Business Page Recommendations

In 2018, Facebook changed its “business reviews” system to “business recommendations,” hoping to avoid the conflict regarding fake reviews and negative reviews.

Facebook Business Page Recommendations kicks in when someone visits a Facebook business page and clicks on the Reviews sessions, where visitors can click a “do you recommend?” yes/no button. The responses are compiled into a rating score similar to what was offered under the previous system, and ratings are calculated using previous responses.

What’s rated? Any business with a Facebook Business Page.

Who’s doing the rating? Any registered Facebook user who visits a Business Page.

How it works: Find an average star rating along with comments and photos on the “reviews” area of a Business Page.
How Facebook handles negative reviews: It doesn’t. Facebook Reviews cannot be removed. The only way a company can remove a bad review is to turn off the Reviews function on its company page.

Pros: Easy to engage with the business and other reviewers. Not anonymous, which discourages fake reviews.

Cons: Reviews aren’t vetted or managed. No easy way to know if a review is authentic. Not all pages have a high volume of activity.
What else to know: Facebook has 2.89 million monthly users, and Facebook estimates that one of three Facebook users visit company pages to find products and services.  

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Angi, formerly known as Angie’s List, was created in 1995 to provide ratings and recommendations for home and lawn maintenance and repair professionals. Originally designed as a subscription service, it is now free to the public.

Plumbing, handyman, lawn care, roofing, electrical and remodeling are the topics Angi offers on its website front page, but you can search for other home service topics as well. Any work done around the home that you are willing to pay someone to do is covered here. Contractors can get listed on Angi for free, but they pay a fee for every job lead they receive. Consumers can input information about the job they want to hire someone for and get a list of businesses; when they click on a business, those businesses get information to contact them and offer a quote.

What’s rated? Home maintenance and repair services.

Who’s doing the rating? Customers who are registered users.

How it works: Enter info about the job you want done and get a list of businesses, with star ratings and reviews. Businesses get info about how to contact you.

How Angi handles negative reviews: According to the Angi website, no customer reviews are posted until they are reviewed either through an algorithm or by human eyes. Companies listed on Angi cannot remove negative reviews that get posted, although they can contact customers who post negative reviews in order to correct conflicts.

Pros: Detailed ratings based on criteria such as price, responsiveness, and professionalism. Customer reviews are vetted. One of the first nationwide home service recommendation sites.

Cons: Because you must provide contact information, you could get lots of calls, texts and emails from businesses replying to your query.
What else to know: As Angie’s List, Angi was one of the first nationwide home service recommendation websites.

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Formerly known as ServiceMagic, HomeAdvisor was created in 1998, but eventually was purchased by the same company that owns Angi.

HomeAdvisor provides consumers with recommendations for home maintenance and repair services. Contractors pay a fee (approximately $300 per year) to be listed and pay a fee for every job lead that’s generated. For consumers, HomeAdvisor offers a fixed-price tool: You set the price for your job at the outset. That offer is shared with its group of professionals, and anyone willing to do the job for that price will contact you. HomeAdvisor also provides video tutorials on certain jobs as well as a True Cost Guide, which estimates how much a project should cost.

What’s rated? Home maintenance and repair services.

Who’s doing the rating? Customers who are registered users.

How it works: Set a price for the job you want done and get a list of interested companies, each with star ratings and reviews.

How HomeAdvisor handles negative reviews: Here is where Home Advisor stands out. It posts an email address — [email protected] — for customer complaints. Those complaints are read by humans and a resolution is between customer and the company before that negative review is posted. HomeAdvisor says a company receiving frequent complaints can and will be removed from its list of capable professionals.

Pros: Cost estimator and how-to home-repair videos. Good policy for handling customer complaints. Companies with frequent complaints are removed.

Cons: Includes only businesses that pay to be listed, which could limit your selection.

What else to know: The Better Business Bureau gives HomeAdvisor a rating of 2.95 stars out of five, but complaints come mainly from businesses who sign up with HomeAdvisor saying that leads don’t pan out enough to pay for the service. There are few complaints from consumers.

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Tripadvisor, created in 2000, is a travel accommodations ratings and booking service.

Tripadvisor offers reviews of hotels, vacation rentals, and restaurants and ratings for airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and other travel-related businesses. It also suggests activities at your destination.Tripadvisor does not solicit businesses to appear on its site, nor does it charge for appearing on the site. Tripadvisor also offers booking services to all of the travel accommodations it has listed on its site.

What’s rated? Travel accommodations and services: hotels, vacation rentals, restaurants, airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and more.

Who’s doing the rating? Customers who are registered users.

How it works: Enter your destination and search criteria to get recommendations with star ratings and reviews.

How Tripadvisor handles negative review:  Tripadvisor encourages businesses to contact customers who are unhappy with their travel experience.  

Pros: Detailed ratings and recommendations based on criteria such as cleanliness, best value, price and more. Transparency about policies and practices. A system for discouraging fake reviews. At 860 million reviews, an extensive database.

Cons: Not many. Most complaints involve the booking services it offers, not the rating services.

What else to know: Tripadvisor has 860 million reviews of 8.7 million travel accommodations. It claims 463 million visitors per month.

Kent McDill is a veteran journalist who has specialized in personal finance topics since 2013. He is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.