Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a piece on the growing problem with customer reviews online, exposing a seedy world in which five-star reviews are just another commodity that can be bought and sold. And despite the Times’ mention of the bright programmers and entrepreneurs who are battling a problem, it seems like the issue the veracity of online reviews is likely to get worse before it gets better.
The concerns raised by the Times piece exposes a chink in what was supposed to be one of the Internet’s great strengths: the ability to shift power away from old-school experts — academics, magazine writers, and the like — to the online multitudes, who could (the argument went) give better, deeper and more accurate snapshots of products and services. Except that the wisdom of the crowds has been less valuable than advertised, in part because of the issues raised by the Times and in part because the opinion of amateurs is simply less valuable.
This isn’t just an issue for rating sites. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer shows old-fashioned subject-matter experts are back in vogue and that the trust in “people like yourself” is slipping, even as the ability to solicit the opinion of friends has grown easier.
In health care — my area of focus — the shift could have a profound impact on how information gets communicated. Review sites for everything from doctors to medications have been slow to take off, and growing concerns about the accuracy of such reviews could suffocate the nascent industry. As communicators, there are three specific ways we can adapt to this shifting reality:
- Providers of health care products and services — from pharmacists to pharma — should prospectively announce that they do not and will not interfere with ratings sites by encouraging or discouraging any specific type of review. The hospitality industry loses credibility every time an accusation of payola is leveled against a restaurant or hotel. Those in health care can’t afford that kind of reputational hit.
- Ratings and rankings will remain popular, even if consumer reviews lose their luster. People want data when they are making choices, and if data from reviews isn’t reliable, they’ll look elsewhere. Right now, leading news outlets are building and refining tools that allow consumers to crunch all sorts of hospital quality and outcome data. And this is only the first step in a world in which everything from FDA adverse event reports to disciplinary records come online. Ignoring these “data journalism” efforts is just as dangerous as ignoring consumer reviews.
- If subject-matter experts are again growing in credibility, models of influence should be altered to reflect that fact. While it’s not clear precisely how that is playing out, it could be that medical information sites that tout outside review by vetted doctors (such as WebMD or A.D.A.M.) will grow in influence, while patient and provider blogs wane. Though this isn’t a zero-sum game with one winner, even a small shift in information consumption could have profound effects.
It’s wrong to suggest that we’re in the twilight of consumer-created information. There remain powerful forces pushing us toward sharing more information about our experiences with each other. But it’s also clear that, despite the technical ease of such sharing, the wisdom of the crowds won’t replace the need for traditional models of expertise. And if the credibility of the crowd is being questioned, vetted, trustworthy experts may become more valuable than ever.