Yelp, Glassdoor, Amazon, and the Kobayashi Maru: The Peril of Online Reviews

At the beginning of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the starship Enterprise and it’s trusty crew receive a distress signal from the Kobayashi Maru, a transport stuck in the Neutral Zone.  Going in and attempting to rescue crew of the damaged ship results in the Enterprise being destroyed. We learn that this was just a training scenario, and when the trainee captain Saavik asks for advice from Admiral Kirk she learns that the scenario is intentionally designed to be a no-win situation.  No matter how the trainee plays it, the Enterprise always gets destroyed.

Sure, it's a no-win scenario, but check out those sweet 1982 computer graphics!

Sure, it’s a no-win scenario, but check out those sweet 1982 computer graphics!

That’s how I felt when I saw a scathing review about my company on Glassdoor, a site that enables people to rate and review employers.  The review wasn’t just harsh, it was (mostly) inaccurate and obviously posted by a terminated employee with an ax to grind. Ouch.

The impact of negative online reviews

But what’s the big deal?  How much damage can online reviews do?  It turns out, a lot.

In this article on, Stacey Rudolph talks about the impact on reviews and buying decisions.  Two important numbers: 90% of consumers read online reviews before visiting a business, and 86% will hesitate to do business with an organization that has negative reviews.

In my case, the review wasn’t about my company’s services, but about the work environment.  My company relies on attracting and hiring extremely competent and talented individuals in both the technical and management realms.  Those two markets have been super-competitive for the last few years, and finding good talent is a challenge even in the best of circumstances.  Having a big black mark in the form of a negative online review can cause serious damage.

It’s not about the facts

As human beings, we tend to trust online reviews:  the aforementioned article states that 88% of people will trust an online review as much as a personal recommendation. Ouch!

We know that we tend to hear from customers (or employees, or candidates) only when they’re very happy or very unhappy.  The people in the middle tend not to pipe up.  Worse yet, the unhappy ones tend to treat a review as a form of vengeance, an opportunity to strike back against the unfair oppression of the corporation.  This skews the review data, and sometimes it skews it hard.

How important is this skew?  Forbes ran an article about research conducted by our friends and neighbors over at Workplace Dynamics that shows how bad it is:

Research carried out by employee survey company Workplace Dynamics set out to determine how accurate Glassdoor reviews were for evaluating workplace satisfaction. They compared results from detailed surveys they had done with 406 companies to the corresponding Glassdoor ratings. The plan was to test the accuracy of the Glassdoor employee satisfaction scores with the much larger sample they had collected. The results? Almost no consistency between the two sources. They write: “We found that there was virtually no correlation—the overall Glassdoor star rating was a very poor indicator of what it is really like to work at a company.”

They pinpointed two main reasons for this: the number of reviews on Glassdoor only accounted for a very small percentage of total employees, and the reviews were disproportionately from “grumpy” employees. In fact, they found that unhappy employees were five to eight times more likely to leave a review on Glassdoor than happy ones.

The University of Colorado at Boulder did a study measuring the correlation between Amazon reviews and the quality of the products reviewed. “The likelihood that an item with a higher user rating performs objectively better than an item with a lower user rating is only 57 percent,” said Bart de Langhe, author of the study.  That means the correlation was only slightly better than random chance.

Worse yet, the business dynamics of an online review site can make things even crazier.  More than one investigation of Yelp has turned up dodgy reviews and dubious business practices. Wired magazine even created a tongue-in-cheek chart about whether you should trust a Yelp review.

So if the data is so bad, why do we trust these sites?

Social proof

Imagine you drive up to two roadside diners in a strange town.  One has an empty parking lot, the other is full.  Which one do you choose? Most of the time, we’ll choose the one with the full parking lot, even given the reasonable inference that we may have a longer wait for dinner.

Our brains are hard-wired to keep us (mostly) safe.  Should I eat those berries?  Should I drink from that stream?  In the absence of other data, our brains look to the behavior of others to understand how we should behave. Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where we find comfort in numbers; if we see others doing what we’re thinking of doing, our brain perceives that as a safe choice.

Online reviews are a form of social proof. We’re built to accept the opinions of others when evaluating a strange new choice. Also, we rarely have detailed, direct information about the decision we’re making – that’s why we’re looking at reviews!

So for those of us who are business owners, we’re in a bind.  Despite the reviews being generally inaccurate, people trust them and make decisions that impact our companies.

The no-win scenario

But what could I do?  Asking Glassdoor to remove the review wasn’t likely to succeed; their whole value proposition is in the unfettered creation of reviews.  Even if I was successful at getting that one removed, there would be nothing preventing the disgruntled former employee from posting others, either on Glassdoor or on other similar sites.  Whack-a-mole is not a good use of my time.

I could try to refute the review item by item, pointing out the inaccuracies and lies while acknowledging the items that have some kernel of truth.  While this feels like a mature and balanced response, we all tend to be deeply distrustful of corporate responses. And, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

I could ignore it, leaving the angry person’s narrative as the only one for the world to see. Aloof and untouchable, I could float serenely above the criticisms of someone who didn’t cut it in my organization in the first place. It sounds like a mature response.  I don’t like it.

I can ask my own employees who are happy to post a review, but then that feels like I’m astroturfing and trying to coerce them into saying positive things about my company.  Even if they’re genuinely happy, nobody likes to feel coerced.

None of these options has a positive outcome.  What can I do?

Advice from the experts

For a long time the general mindset when confronted with a negative review was to ignore it.  However, we’ve learned that letting critics take free shots is a poor choice as well.  Digging in to all kinds of resources on this very topic, here’s what various experts in the field say:

  • Respond promptly to negative reviews. Your response should be polite and not defensive or insulting. Ad hominem attacks won’t help.
  • Genuinely admitting your mistakes and promising to correct them will earn you trust and respect from reads. Don’t throw up a smokescreen of excuses. And when admitting to mistakes, remember that customer experience is your responsibility, not theirs.  Don’t blame the unhappy reviewer even if they made huge mistakes.
  • If there are inaccuracies in the review, point them out and correct them. Be careful to do this thoughtfully and without trying to establish supremacy by being right.
  • Encourage your most loyal and satisfied customers to create reviews. More positive reviews will neutralize unwarranted reviews, which are sometimes inevitable.

To those points, I’ll add run towards smoke.  A legitimate negative reviewer can be your best friend, and may provide you with the information you need to truly improve your business.

Of course, this wouldn’t be one of my articles without a few words about customer experience.  The best way to handle negative reviews is to prevent them. The best way to do that is by creating exceptional customer experiences wherever you can.

The no-win scenario

Back on the starship Enterprise, we learned that only one person had ever successfully beaten the Kobayashi Maru scenario – James T. Kirk himself.  He cheated, reprogramming the simulation so that there was a successful way out. “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” he said.

Don’t be beholden to negative reviews.  Don’t believe in the no-win scenario.

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