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Angie's List

Reviewing an Imperfect Model

We all know that online ratings and reviews are increasingly popular, with some large and successful companies based entirely around providing them (think Yelp and TripAdvisor). Ratings and reviews are not only popular, they have become a profoundly influential tool in helping consumers decide what to buy and where.

Not surprisingly, as ratings and reviews have become more important to consumers, they have also become more important to businesses, many of whose revenues rise and fall in line with the quality of their online reviews. And the outsized importance of these reviews has attracted scammers and spammers. Some even argue that this ability to post online reviews puts too much power in the hands of consumers, many of whom exercise it thoughtlessly and mercilessly.

The most important rating and review systems are invariably operated by third parties, who provide critical market neutrality. But many of the biggest ratings providers got into this business with no idea how powerful they would become. What they did know was that they needed to amass lots of reviews quickly to build consumer adoption. Making volume their top priority drove down the quality and integrity of these reviews. But the review site operators deeply believed in the concept of the so-called “wisdom of crowds,” and that with enough volume, the honest reviews would overwhelm the false reviews and everything would ultimately work out just fine … at least in the aggregate. But that’s little comfort to an individual business that is suffering from an onslaught on underserved bad reviews. Horror stories abound for all of the major review platforms:

Where’s the law on all this? “Desperately playing catch-up” sums up the situation very well.  Interestingly, the review platforms themselves are well protected by federal law that views them essentially as innocent messengers. Individuals who post reviews can be exposed to lawsuits if their reviews contain defamatory or inaccurate information that causes financial or other harm, but it can be hard and expensive to track them down. A recent federal law makes it illegal for businesses to prohibit customers from posting reviews about them. And an increasing number of government agencies are cracking down on businesses that pay to have positive reviews about themselves posted.

In short, the law is increasingly acknowledging the importance of reviews in commerce, but the whole field still lacks adequate checks and balances. In particular, businesses still have a weak hand. But forcing review platforms to take responsibility for the accuracy of reviews would be such a complex and expensive task it would likely put many of them out of business.

Reviews are powerful. Consumers depend on them to determine where and with whom they spend their money. Businesses are impacted by reviews – for better and for worse. Yet the major review platforms, well insulated by current law and all seeking scale at the expense of vetting and customer service, come down heavily on the side of consumers. Ordinarily that would be fine (success comes from knowing and fiercely supporting your audience), but consumers have shown limited interest in paying to support the big review platforms (think Angie’s List). At the same time, businesses have shown only limited enthusiasm for supporting review sites where they can’t have significant control over what is said about them.

Bottom line: rating and review sites represent an important but imperfect business model. Those who benefit most from they don’t want to pay for them. The platforms themselves don’t want the cost and hassle of vetting reviews. And businesses don’t want to advertise in a place where they can’t control the message. We’ve seen some innovation along the lines of verified reviews, where the reviewer must be a known customer of the business being reviewed, but this is not a full solution to what ails this model.

Opportunity knocks for someone who finds a kinder, gentler but still useful spin on this important category of content.

Old Models Never Die … They Evolve

Most of you (I think) remember the heyday of yellow pages when those thick print directories hit your doorstep, often followed weeks later by thinner but still hefty print directories from competing publishers. Now, if you receive a print yellow pages at all, it’s a shadow of its former self.

That’s why I was so surprised to receive a print, 120 page directory in the mail yesterday. It’s called Best Pick Reports and it is owned by EBSCO, a company known to most publishers but very few consumers.

I think it’s fair to call Best Pick Reports a next generation yellow pages. It’s organized by categories (with a focus on home improvement and repairs) and presents a list of local vendors. It’s also printed on inexpensive paper with modest production values, much in the spirit of the old yellow pages directories and suggesting saturation distribution, also a key aspect of the yellow pages model.

But Best Pick Reports also draws on the model of Angie’s List, presenting only local vendors that have been given high ratings by the local community. Angie’s List, however, struggled to sell this information as a subscription service to consumers, while Best Pick Reports distributes its information for free.

Drawing on the resources of EBSCO’s research arm, the company surveys consumers in local areas to develop lists of recommended plumbers, builders, etc. Those that receive high ratings are offered the chance to be listed in the publication for a fee, so while vendors can’t buy a rating, they do pay to play. Companies that do pay to list are assigned what appears to be key phone numbers to track response (another yellow pages innovation). Best Pick Reports also checks the license and insurance status of companies that pay to list.

Overall, it’s a fascinating blending of models. There are elements of the old yellow pages: categorized reference information and mass distribution. There are elements of the new vendor sourcing models: ratings and reviews, trust markers and focus on a limited selection of choices, presented as “the best.” And there are generous dollops of the innovative Angie’s List model, but modified to remove the vexing subscription component. At the same time, this model bypasses the anonymity that makes it hard to fully trust most of the big online review sites.

Is this an ideal model? While it has many appealing characteristics, this is an expensive business to operate. It needs a large and robust research capability (and since not every highly rated firm will advertise, you need to cast a wide net). It has expensive print distribution costs. It also needs a professional advertising salesforce. Moreover, EBSCO is hardly an established consumer brand. But none of this means EBSCO can’t succeed; it just means EBSCO will need to work hard to succeed. And business success that doesn’t come fast and easy usually defines the businesses that are the most successful of all.