The hard truth about consumer reviews

A recent column in the The New York Times took on consumer reviews, recommending the public consider online star ratings with a heavy dose of skepticism.

"Even as researchers are finding that reviews are less reliable, more people are relying on them," writes journalist David Streitfeld.

Consider a few of Mr. Streitfeld's examples that make ratings seem unreliable: a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and a Texas emergency room were caught paying to improve their reviews on Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic's review process was taken on by for its fundamental flaws, and revealed men are purposefully writing bad reviews of TV shows for women. Perhaps most amusing is Mr. Streitfeld's account of his dining experience at San Francisco-based Botto Bistro, an Italian restaurant in a strip mall that asks its customers to write bad reviews — just to troll Yelp.

Mr. Streitfeld writes that a study of Amazon reviews found average ratings did not correlate with resale value, which is often used to determine the quality of a product. and Amazon reviewers and Consumer Reports experts did not agree on product quality about half of the time. An Amazon spokeswoman told Mr. Streitfeld that the site's consumer reviews are powerful because they offer genuine customer insight, rather than professional insight.

For healthcare, the world of online reviews is still burgeoning — hospitals are beginning to publish their own reviews, other consumer advocacy sites like ProPublica have published projects like the Surgeon Scorecard, and Yelp has jumped into the mix to back its reviews with ER wait times and other data points for hospitals.

Many of these reviews are backed by data and outcomes, though even the way those items are measured has received significant pushback and criticism. Nonetheless, it seems the best line of advice for patients is to be discerning — after all, most reviews are motivated by exceedingly positive or negative experiences.


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