Programmatic Lunch

Viewpoint: This Article is Rated 4.9 Stars

Alex Spencer

What follows is a cautionary tale.

I’m getting married later this month. This has meant months of shopping for flowers and suits and all the other miscellanea that comes along with a wedding. It’s been a bit of an eye opener, as someone who spends a lot of his life writing about retailers, while mostly avoiding physical stores – but the story I want to tell you today involves my other, considerably better half.

After buying her wedding dress, my fiancée took it to a shop in London for alterations. Her experience was mostly fine, with a few quibbles. Which is why, when she received a Google Maps notification a few days later asking her to review some places she’d recently visited, and the alterations shop popped up, she gave it three stars.

‘Not very helpful or friendly, and quite expensive, but does the job’, was her review. The review she gave to me when telling this story, that is. On her phone, she just selected the rating and moved onto the next place it was asking her to review. Thankfully, as it turns out.

Because Google reviews have the user’s profile attached. Which meant the shop – still in possession of her wedding dress – was able to identify which customer had left this rating. Which led to a member of staff ringing the mobile number she’d left with the shop, to demand an explanation for this three-star rating.

With her dress essentially being held hostage, my fiancée decided the best course of action was to deny all knowledge, and claim it must have been an errant thumb on her touchscreen.

“Fine”, said the man on the phone. “Change the rating to five stars then.”

This call was followed up with an unsolicited WhatsApp message, with a screenshot of “the review you left accidentally. We would love a five star review”. Fearing that she might start receiving ransom notes with scraps of white fabric attached, she relented and changed her review.

When I asked my fiancée why she had chosen this particular shop, which is after all on the far side of London from our house, her explanation said it all:

“I picked the place because it had all five-star rave reviews on Google.”

The point is, whether it’s a shop in London, or a product on Amazon, or an app on the Play Store, businesses today live and die by the review. In an increasingly vast world, online and off, discovery becomes more vital, and much more difficult – and reviews and ratings, from the real people who use the product, seem like a perfect solution.

The problem is that reviews are a system that can be gamed. Earlier this year, there were reports that WhatsApp had received thousands of fake five-star reviews on Google Play. The reviews had seemingly been bought in an attempt to counteract a one-point drop in WhatsApp’s rating, to 3.4. This is just one of thousands of examples of this behaviour, but I find it particularly illuminating, because WhatsApp is surely one of the most ubiquitous apps on earth – and yet reviews are still apparently an issue.

In that case, the reviews were easy to identify as fake, because they almost all used the word “game” to describe the messaging app. As a denizen of the internet, this is a skill you start to develop. Flicking through the recent reviews on a restaurant you’re thinking of visiting, and trying to guess which ones have been left by the owner. Reading app reviews, trying to discern which bits of bad grammar are just normal human error, and which are the result of someone doing a copy-and-paste job in a language that isn’t their native tongue.

It works both ways, too. I’ve heard stories of ‘review wars’ on Amazon, where rival sellers rate each other’s products badly, claiming they’re fake or faulty, in an attempt to drop their overall rating. After all, that extra half-star can put you ahead on the search results – and, honestly, how often do you buy the third-ranked item on Amazon?

In turn, as you might expect in this age of people crying ‘fake news’ at any story they don’t like, that negative reviews often get accused of being falsified. Which brings us back to the tale of the alterations shop. When my fiancée studied the reviews more fully, after her own experience cast some doubt over the accuracy of the shop’s rating, she noticed that the shop was dismissing some of its one-star reviews in exactly this way.

“You are a clearly a deluded and disgruntled competitor,” reads one such response. “I suggest if your business is not working well you do not resort to the tactics of writing fake reviews in order to ruin my company's reputation. This is the kind of thing Google need to sort out!”

This might not be the most balanced example of customer service you’ll ever see, but it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. Inaccurate reviews are indeed a problem that need to be solved by the platforms on which they appear, whether it’s Google or TripAdvisor, Amazon or Just Eat. To their credit, they are trying – last November, Google announced it was improving “the ways we identify and remove fake reviews and ratings” on the Play Store.

At the end of the day, though, review aggregators are just a system. And like any system, they can be gamed. It’s human nature to find loopholes, to figure out ways of turning a set of rules to their advantage.

So, it’s hard to say whether this is a problem which can even be solved. I have no answers as to whether all of this will devalue reviews, or just further entrench them as a necessity. My concern is less lofty: what happens to that most sacred of things, the three-star review?

The developments above suggest that reviews will be divided between to two extremes. Perfectly positive or completely negative. Five stars or one star, with no room for anything in between. Which would be shame, because it’s often the reviews in the middle – the ones which acknowledge a few faults, but conclude that this might still be worth your money – which tell you the most about a place or a product.

It’s certainly how I make most of my purchase decisions. Hopefully, the three-star review isn’t hunted to extinction by follow-up calls and ‘fake!’ responses from merchants. Because then I might have to actually go into a shop again to work out if something is worth buying.