Service of Unicorns: It’s Nice to Believe

August 31st, 2015

Categories: Building and Remodeling, Business Decisions, Cheating, Con jobs, Marketing, Small Business

Uncorn

One of my first eye-openers happened years ago with the now defunct Cue Magazine that covered going’s on in NYC and was a reliable guide for eons. After arriving late at the movies a few times because of inaccurate listings and event and restaurant recommendations turned from being editor picks to sponsored ones that weren’t  always so hot, the resource lost its usefulness.

Angie’s List may be following a similar model, according to Abby Haglage in thedailybeast.com, which is too bad: It sounded like such a good idea. The answer to the title of her piece, “Is Angie’s List Making Business List Owners Pay for Top Spots?” appears to be “yes,” and it’s only a part of the problem. Its well known mantra for its 3 million US subscribers, “Reviews you can trust,” should be tweaked to “Sponsored reviews to take at your own risk.”

Figures don’t lie and should be a big hint. Haglage reported that “76 percent of the company’s $315 million total revenue came from service providers” translated to advertisers; Membership accounted for 23 percent. She also wrote about Jeff Blyskal’s 2013 findings in Consumer Reports. He similarly debunked the influence of consumer opinions in determining the order of listings, starting with the best, noting they favor advertisers.  

One customer, Janell Moore, filed a class action suit this spring. The kitchen home remodelerremodeling contractor she found on the list left her project in the lurch and didn’t respond or return the $4,000 she’d paid. Wrote Haglage: “Moore claims it was only after leaving a negative review of the company that she was able to see other negative reviews, which led her to believe that the rating system wasn’t done fairly.”

Moore’s complaint contends that members are duped into thinking the lists are arranged according to quality of review. In reality they are determined according to who paid the most for the listing. And according to Haglage, there also were complaints from hundreds of Consumer Reports readers.

“Angie’s List falsely assures consumers that ‘service providers cannot influence their ratings on Angie’s List,’” reads an opening section of Moore’s 28-page complaint. “These and similar statements dupe potential and existing members into believing that Angie’s List reviews, ratings, and search results are valuable and trustworthy because they reflect unfiltered feedback of consumers, for consumers.”

home builderThe company has filed a motion to dismiss. Haglage explained: “In a section titled ‘How Angie’s List Works,’ the company says that it’s transparent about money being involved in its rating mode. ‘Members are expressly told that service providers may pay to offer such promotions and that as a result they may be placed ‘at the top’ of search results.’”

There’s another side to the story—that of taking advantage of small business people. It’s not unusual for advertising fees to be flexible and an example in the article shows how elastic. One Minneapolis-based landscape and construction business owner, Stanley Ganadek, had this experience Haglage reported: “After a few positive reviews on his page, reps called asking if he’d be willing to pay $33,000 to stay at the top of the page. Genadeck, who talked them down to $3,000, created a YouTube video to help protect other business owners from spending too much.” The landscape owner confirmed that you can’t pay to be on the list but sales reps—almost 2,000 of them–call when you’ve received two reviews and according to Haglag, they call and call and call.

Who hasn’t had a bad experience with a contractor, real estate agent, vendor, hair stylist or dentist that a friend, business colleague or relative recommended? Do you think Moore’s complaint and those of Consumer Reports’ readers have merit or does caveat emptor play here and that consumers should be punished for their naïveté? What about the model of picking on small business owners who might not be informed about how advertising works—all’s fair, right?

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10 Responses to “Service of Unicorns: It’s Nice to Believe”

  1. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: As much as we like to read reviews….we’ve been burned by many online “recommendations.” Best bet is to actually TALK to someone who has used a particular provider, service or product….

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Donna,

    I’ve been burned by calling as well. My advice, especially with contractor/builders: Do NOT ask for three references, ask for the vendor’s three last clients. You’ll have a better chance to learn about the good and the bad.

    When I buy clothes online, I read reviews. Take boots: Some comments might note that a style is very tight at the calf. Or reviewing a skirt, if a few note that the waist is especially large or small, that might be pertinent.

  3. rbd Said:

    When I was a boy when we motored somewhere my parents would stop on the road at Howard Johnson’s to eat because they could be relied upon for being clean and, in the days before the microwave, producing fresh, eatable meals. Everywhere else, was a “pig in a poke.”

    Howard Johnson’s is no longer, and there are dozens of multi-state restaurant chains producing microwaved food, which we avoid if at all possible. Instead, we go out of our way to find locally owned “Ma and Pa” places, where, when they are good, you can eat very well. That’s the rub. How can you find out in advance where they are and whether they are any good?

    You’re right, you can’t rely on anything anymore, whether on the internet or in print, to guide you. (Even in France, where you used to be able to rely on the Michelin, you can’t anymore.) It’s come down to instinct, research, word of mouth and trial and error.

    It’s worth it though. We were visiting the Berkshires last week and ate acceptably to well in three different places — all of them, relatively inexpensive!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    rbd,

    A good starting point for finding restaurants in a town or neighborhood is YELP. If you detect a trend of praise, you hope that the owner doesn’t come from a huge family and that all the reviews aren’t written by siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. I’ve found some great places that way. I have found hotel concierges to be poor guides: They get a piece of the action if they make the reservation and 9 times out of 9 the places have been tourist trap-awful.

    I don’t remember the Ho Jo food–how can you ruin a hot dog or tuna sandwich–just the ice cream. I loved it.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Angie’s List is big enough business to advertise on TV, which automatically makes for questionable reliability. While there’s no guarantee for not being burned, personal/local recommendations work best for me.

    Even then, while most statements are sincere, they are not always correct and can lead to damaging reputations or wrongly promoting tacky businesses. A local MD whose practice has no more room for new patients, was judged as “the worst” by a perfectly credible person with no axes to grind. This rare bird (the MD) even makes house calls!

    It’s an imperfect world and the policy of caveat emptor, (est. thousands of years ago) remains the surest road to follow.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Sad but true re caveat emptor and increasingly so in every aspect of our lives.

    A good friend of mine despises one of my favorite doctors because he didn’t make her friend better….there are times where nobody can. Perhaps that is why you heard a negative about a doctor who clearly goes above and beyond. Home visits! WOW.

    Another friend asked her eye specialist a question. He snapped, “I already told you.” He’s always like that, she said. I mentioned this to my eye doctor who is lovely and a gentleman who said, “It’s the time pressure: it gets to some doctors.” My doctor’s waiting room was hopping this afternoon and yet he always is cordial. [Sadly, he does not specialize in what my friend needs.]

  7. Judy Schuster Said:

    I’ve been a member of Angie’s List for years and have even given it as a gift to my son. I’m not denying that it is possible to find a “bad egg” in the list, but my own experience and that of our son has been very positive. I’ve used the list dozens if times to find reliable people for a variety of home repairs. While there may be some bad eggs on the list, based on my experiences do date, I shall contnue to use the list. It’s certainly better than calling cold.

    I also have written several reviews for Angie’s List, both positive and negative, and they always appear. So, my recommendaton to other users of the list is to check the reviews. If there are numerous, recent positive ones (I try to use vendors with numerous reviews), I’d recommend that people rely on those, not where vendors appear on the list.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Judy,

    Good advice: By checking a bunch of reviews regardless of the placement of the potential vendor on the list a member takes best advantage of what is such a great concept.

  9. Martha Takayama Said:

    This post only confirms my worst fears and greatest cynicism. Oh well! I always wondered as soon as Angie’s list ceased to be small and eccentrically local that it wasn’t as noble and disinterested as it claims to be. I can’t feel terribly surprised when Google as well as other sites offer to make my company number one on the web in searches etc. How can we all be number one?

    For years I have been told that art coverage was directly related to advertising in the magazines that could or would cover an artist or a gallery. Most of us have known that about cosmetics and clothing. Coverage is directly related to prominent ads in the media reporting on them. The Internet with its reviews and ratings has generated endless and artificial evaluations of everything into an epidemic. I do think that the concept of caveat emptor is not particularly outdated. In addition a bit of flexibility and adventure are handy for testing when stakes are modest.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    I’ve represented companies that do a tremendous amount of advertising in consumer media and many who don’t have the budgets. There’s no doubt that in some industries advertisers’ PR reps are more aggressively and proactively contacted by editors in the former case.

    Thank goodness it’s not always true or many PR people would be out of business and magazine, website and newspaper pages would be boring as we’d continually only see products and hear of initiatives by wealthy corporations. If a client has a good story, it’s still possible to get coverage even if there’s not a wink of hope for advertising support.

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