User generated reviews are one of the great innovations that came with the growth of the Internet. They are now pervasive, and cover everything from automobiles, to music, books, movies, and restaurants. I suspect the arrival of user reviews on interactive mobile platforms (such as urbanspoon and amazon) will bring upon us a new wave of interest in such content.
Yet, user-generated reviews suffer from informational problems. Firstly, why would you trust the product recommendations from an online stranger any more than you might somebody else? Secondly, user reviews are often tediously long, contain huge volumes of inconsistent information, and sometimes even degenerate into personal mudslinging matches. This imposes search costs upon the person trying to make sense of reviews. For example I was recently searching for a new lens for my SLR camera (a little hobby on the side), and it took a bit more time than I had expected to visit various photography forums to sort out which products were really good, versus other lenses that suffered quality control problems. Thirdly, there is a growing phenomenon of companies manipulating online information for their own benefit. For instance, last week Seagate was found to be deleting user postings from their website about high defect rates, while a Belkin official was caught out offering cash for good reviews.
The way web operators try to address these problems is by allowing individual reviewers to build reputations. So, for example, on Amazon, people can decide how many “stars” to award each review, and each reviewer’s profile is publicly viewable. On discussion forums such as slashdot, each participant is rated, and moreover people who post inaccurate comments are often ridiculed or otherwise reprimanded by other users. Visitors to such websites quickly learn to identify reliable contributors and give more attention to what they say relative to others.
Unfortunately, I believe this does not resolve the entire problem because the websites on which people purchase products are distinct from websites where they truly exhibit their skills and knowledge. For example, many people purchase camera equipment from adorama or amazon. But they post photos, critiques and tips for other users on websites like dpreview and photo.net. So, while someone may have build a tremendous reputation on a website like photo.net, this reputation does not “transfer” to their product recommendations on Amazon or adorama.
I believe this presents an interesting entrepreneurial opportunity for someone to offer user-accreditation across different websites. People would have a reason to sign up for such a service, both because it might offer a single login to multiple sites, but also because they don’t have to build their reputations each time they join a different site. Web operators would have a reason to sign up because they would have access to information about each reviewer/user that they would otherwise not be aware of (and this might increase the overall quality of reviews on their site).
What do you think? Is this a good solution, or are there better ones possible?