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Extortion or honesty? ReviewerCard is a gut check for the online review ecosystem

reviewercard i write reviewsThat awkward palm-full-of-cash-handshake for a better booth at dinner is about to be so 2012. Now, all you have to do to get the treatment you deserve is flash a little black card – with an online review profile to back it up.

ReviewerCard is an idea launched recently by Brad Newman. It alerts business owners that you are a Yelper, a Foursquare addict, a TripAdvisor user, Urbanspooner – whatever. You are someone who plans to write about their service online, and a simple flick of the card (which is free, should your application be accepted) let’s them know you should be treated accordingly.

reviewercard how it worksNewman says he has barely talked to the press since launching ReviewerCard – and you can’t really blame him. After announcing the product, he and his startup recieved a healthy, heaping serving of criticism.

“I can only hope that businesses see [ReviewerCard] for what it is,” wrote the L.A. Times. “A shameless bid to extract personal favors under threat of Internet ruin. I can only hope they politely inform ReviewerCard holders that they’re entitled to the same treatment as all other customers.”

Yelp doesn’t have kind words for the business either. “Asking businesses for special treatment or free services in exchange for a review of your experience violents our Terms of Service and can violate Federal Trade Commission guidelines,” a spokesperson tells me. “We are also heartened to see that members of our community are bashing the idea within Yelp talk threads.

“Anyone who read that first article jumped on the bandwagon,” Newman, who has been banned from a handful of review sites, says of the complaints.

The attacks aren’t entirely without merit. The basis of ReviewerCard is jarring, to say the least, and pieces of the L.A. Times interview with Newman are discouraging (i.e., the time Newman whipped out the card and asked for a discounted hotel room in exchange for a good review). There’s something about the whole idea that just rubs you the wrong way: If you’re someone who reviews local businesses, all you have to do is flash the card to let the respective business know that you will be writing up its service – thus ensuring you get preferential treatment. It’s just… not… fair.

But before we dive into what’s wrong with ReviewerCard, Newman wants to explains what’s right. “I’ve never written a bad review for a business. I can’t bring myself to do it – because I know how detrimental it is for them,” he says. “Someone can get fired or go out of business because of a bad review.”

“Businesses are funny. I’d get solicited by business owners asking me to mention their name or write a review about them, saying they’d give me a discount or something for it. Why are businesses allowed to solicit us? Why don’t we turn the tables?”

Regardless of the gut reactions, Newman has a point: There have been a myriad of issues within the online review market. A lawsuit in which a writer was sued for writing a negative Yelp review about a business comes to mind, and the same site is still working to clear its reputation after being accused of extorting businesses in a cash-for-ratings scandal.

Because of all this, businesses remain at the mercy of consumers – which, in a sense, is how it should be. Local review sites are an increasingly used source when we decide where to eat, shop, get our hair cut. The proliferation and importance of these platforms means that anyone and everyone gets a voice, no expertise required. How many Foursquare users are trained food critics? How many Yelpers have a palette refined enough to judge wine? It doesn’t matter: The idea is that businesses are being watched, and the result is supposed to be that not only do we have a database of information helping us make location-based decisions, we can also report back. And the fact that businesses know we have that power could be guaranteeing better service because they never know who’s going to write that searing (or glowing) review.

For all its criticism of Newman’s rewards card, Yelp offers frequent reviewers its own perks via the Yelp Elite Squad, like invites to parties and other events hosted. But the benefits come from Yelp – not local businesses that fear online derision – and members frown upon flaunting their status for better service. “I wrote reviews before I became ‘Elite,'” a friend who’s an Elite Yelper tells me. “I don’t write reviews to be Elite. My motivation for writing reviews isn’t for free stuff, and I know a lot of other Yelpers feel that way too. It’s like being a food critic – you don’t see them going around saying ‘Hey, I’m a food critic, and I’m coming to your restaurant, so give me the best experience possible.’ There’s a good reason for that.”

reviewercard commentsOf course, when you give power to the Internet, you also realize how terrible the Internet can be. While there are many, many users who write thoughtful, accurate business reviews, there are also many opportunities for error: People with personal vendettas against the local coffee shop; someone who once got a bad haircut and has decided to vilify the entire staff; a customer who gets the name of the rude waiter wrong – and writes about it online.

The examples are unending. Hundreds of businesses took legal action against TripAdvisor in the U.K. over what they saw as unfair reviews. In one instance, a bed and breakfast with formerly positive reviews was accused of having a racist owner – an attack difficult to come back from. Very recently, FTC complaints were filed against Yelp, and it was called the “thug of the Internet” by a beleaguered business owner.

“The most frequent complaint lodged against Yelp was the company’s alleged practice of trading positive reviews for money,” MuckRock, a site that enables you to file Freedom of Information requests, says. “Business owners charged that Yelp called businesses to sell advertising on the site for $300-$350 per month… if a business declined the offer to advertise, complaints say Yelp deleted the positive reviews on that business’ page, claiming that the site had updated its ‘automated algorithm’ to reflect a ‘truer’ sense of the overall reviews.”

Clearly, the problem goes deeper and back further than ReviewerCard. It didn’t start the “threat of Internet ruin” businesses have to worry about. The Internet did. And in playing devil’s advocate, you could see the idea as a more honest approach to a situation we’re already deeply entrenched in.

“I just feel like the most important thing is the card is supposed to protect consumers and businesses. It’s never been about making money,” Newman tells me. “It’s about giving reviewers more joy – the mere presence of the card in the market raises the level of customer service.”

While Newman won’t reveal how many cards have been issued and are being used, he did tell me about the screening process. The ReviewerCard team is comprised of dedicated online reviewers, people who have worked in the service industry, and as he puts it, “people who were originally against the idea to begin with, but now get the merit of it. We want to have both sides of the dialogue.”

Newman isn’t the first to come up with the idea of leveraging status for service. The online service scores you based on your social-media presence, and has come under fire frequently for allegedly turning consumers who know how to use Twitter into bullies who want freebies. Klout also introduced the whole card scheme, enabling Passbook integration so users could make their own digital Klout card to “show off [their] influence to get special service and experiences.” And of course there are the tales of getting into night clubs and VIP airline lounges based on Klout. While plenty have cried foul, plenty have also redeemed these perks – they’re the ones telling us about them.

Still, Newman admits the ReviewerCard launch was not without fault. “I understand the product was not presented perfectly,” he says. “Like any entrepreneur you have to pivot and react to what the marketplace is saying. We get it, and we’re trying to make it right for everyone, review sites, businesses, consumers, everyone.”

According to Newman, despite the negative reactions, there has been an overwhelming amount of interest. “The online press is scary how bad it’s been, but the amount of applications from around the world is amazing,” he says. Not only are consumers interested in getting their own cards, but he says review sites have also contacted him to get involved (he declined to name them).

Next for ReviewerCard is to keep issuing the product to the “people who are deserving,” as Newman says, and growing the market in the U.S. and then internationally. The company will also be developing its offline community by holding events for members.

ReviewerCard is not enabling local shoppers with review site accounts to become bullies – that opportunity came with the advent of Web 2.0. And you have to wonder what the reaction would have been if Yelp or Foursquare introduced this product, some sort of way to notify businesses you were a reviewer or someone who checked-in to locations frequently. There would certainly be the early “this is wrong” outrage, but would it have subsided, with the widespread adoption of the new feature to follow? Leveraging social influence is no one’s fault but our own; it’s an ecosystem built on imagined celebrity and full of narcisstic undertones, tinged with more than a hint of self-entitlement. For better or worse, the mechanics of online reviews meant it was always going to lead to this.

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