I-Team Investigation: Money and Review Sites

How much influence does advertising money have on popular customer review sites?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    How much influence does advertising money have on popular customer review sites? News4's I-Team investigates. (Published Tuesday, Feb 12, 2013)

    Customer review sites offer honest to goodness opinions by real customers, including the good, the bad and the ugly. But can you trust the first thing that pops up on your screen? How big a part does money play in a company’s placement on the site?

    That’s what Rami Hajj in Sterling, Va. wanted to know.

    “I’m a firm believer that you have to earn where you’re ranked,” he said.

    As the manager of Jed Mechanical, he didn’t understand why Angie’s List placed his company 158th on its list. That’s eight pages in and below companies with lower grades.

    Then he got a call from Angie’s List asking him to advertise on the site.

    “It was in excess of $50,000 to be ranked above companies that had lower rankings than we did,” he said.

    The company’s founder, Angie Hicks, told the News4 I-Team that it’s true: Advertisers get better placement on the website.

    But Hicks said they have to make the grade.

    "Only 'A' or 'B' companies are eligible to advertise and they have to offer a discount to our members," Hicks explained.

    That “discount” or “coupon” is the key. It’s the only hint you get on the search results page that the company is a paid advertiser.

    Angie’s List does explain its policy in its “FAQs” section, but the I-Team found it isn’t necessarily easy to locate.

    Hicks said you can always change the way you view results by choosing different ways to sort. Choices include sorting in alphabetical order or by distance.

    But Hajj said he doesn’t think the advertising model is fair. “We already have a positive review,” he said. “We work hard every day to do that, our technicians work hard to maintain that reputation, so why should I have to pay you to rank higher than someone who doesn't do a good job?"

    John Mercurio said he had a similar experience with a different site.

    “I’ve lost thirty to forty percent of my revenue and it’s really damaging my business tremendously,” he told the I-Team.

    Mercurio joined a class action lawsuit against Yelp, claiming the internet company removes four and five-star ratings after companies refuse to advertise on the website.

    "I denied advertising,” Mercurio explained. “I actually had Yelp up on my computer and within ten minutes the five-star disappeared and the one-star went to the top."

    Vince Sollitto is Yelp’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and said that’s not true.

    “Absolutely not, absolutely not,” he said. “The whole point of an online consumer review service is that customers have to trust the content."

    Sollitto insisted money never influences ratings or their placement. "Advertisers don't get to control the reviews, reorder the reviews. They don't get anything but an ad at the top."

    But Yelp does filter what it considers fake or unreliable ratings.

    In court documents, Yelp claimed it removed six five-star ratings from Mercurio’s website because Yelp believes they were written by Mercurio’s wife.

    Less clear is why Yelp filtered out at least 56 high-star reviews, something you can only see if you scroll all the way to the bottom of his review page and click on the greyed-out "filtered" link.

    And that hurt his business, according to Mercurio. "When you look up Wheel Techniques, it immediately showed bad reviews on me. And customers wouldn't come and I lost revenue."

    The class-action lawsuit against Yelp was initially dismissed, but is currently being appealed. Mercurio and his lawyer expect a ruling in May.