Latest Version: When Online User Reviews Are No Longer Helpful

Tech Features
Latest Version: When Online User Reviews Are No Longer Helpful

Not long ago, in a fancy hotel lobby in a big American city, a marketing executive was understandably frustrated with her hotel’s online rating. Not because she disagreed with the subjective reviews on TripAdvisor (she didn’t).

She was frustrated that a year after acknowledging and overhauling every room in her hotel to reflect those reviews, TripAdvisor still hadn’t, nor wouldn’t replace the outdated photos with more modern, reality-based ones. In fact, the bellwether wouldn’t even annotate that the hotel had since been renovated or that public images might be outdated.

“It’s very frustrating and one-sided,” she said of the process, wishing to remain anonymous for fear of ending up on someone’s naughty list. “We finally just moved on and are slowly rebuilding our reputation as a five star property, one recent review at a time.”

Obviously, worse things have happened. But the truth is that outdated reviews often keep guests away from otherwise worthwhile restaurants, hotels, and products in general. Indeed, online reviews sway consumers by at least 50% for all purchases (including food), and nearly 90% on high-dollar items like hotels and electronics.

So what’s the policy?

When it comes to outdated info, there really isn’t one. While neither Google nor TripAdvisor responded to requests for comment on this story, the latter’s review guidelines concede that, “The best reviews are written within a year, so we can’t publish reviews for an outdated trip.” But that only discourages outdated reviews from going in, rather than depreciating no longer accurate ones.

Yelp, for its part, does not retire, update, or discount older reviews. But the popular restaurant recommender has automated software in place to highlight the most reliable ratings. “The most recent and relevant reviews are featured first and foremost,” says Kristin Titus, the company’s public relations coordinator. “For example, the software might pick up new information as time goes by that makes a review seem more trustworthy or when information we have has grown stale.”

Amazon and other online shoppers usually don’t experience this problem, however, because each new version of every product gets a clean review slate. So long as there is a statistically healthy sample size of 200-300 reviews, these reviews more accurately reflect the most recent information.

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Apple, on the other hand, may have quietly solved this problem in at least its App Store seven years ago when it first started distinguishing “all version” reviews in from “current version” ratings. This way lets shoppers easily and considerately determine how a maker’s recent efforts compares to its life to date reputation.

So why haven’t more review systems followed suit? Either because review authorities don’t think the system is broken or because it doesn’t affect that many people or providers with so many lodging, food, and product options available. Instead of nitpicking accuracy and recent improvements, buyers will select something that has never experienced publicized concerns.

For now, the best recourse for disgruntled owners and consumers seeking the latest and greatest information seems to be two fold: 1.) allow owners or managers to respond to negative issues in a sub threaded way, as TripAdvisor, Yelp, and most allow; and 2.) encourage prospective buyers to check most recent reviews first, some of which reference notable improvements to counter outdated information.

That’s better than nothing, the above hotelier admits. But it still doesn’t help prospective buyers to quickly discern how a provider may have improved recently (or not), as App Store reviews do. “They’re still not where they need to be,” she says of online reviews, even while recognizing how they’ve so far made her a smarter consumer.

Obviously, user review repositories such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Google are a net gain for people in need of lodging, a delicious meal, or a new tool, gadget, or surprise to solve their current problem. But as we increasingly turn to big, crowd-funded data to help us stay informed and avoid buyer’s remorse, we need to be thinking of better ways to get the most up-to-date and accurate information available while also rewarding the efforts of those who aim to please us.

Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. He is Paste’s Off The Grid columnist and can be followed @blakesnow.

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