Reviewing reviews

By Kate Sheehan |

I am entirely unqualified to comment on San Diego’s restaurant scene. But I spent several days there prior to ALA Midwinter 2011. Fortunately, I had locals to show me around, but it was in San Diego that I really started to doubt Yelp. Like a lot of online-types, I often rely on Yelp to find decent restaurants, though I usually keep a few salt crystals on hand when I skim through the reviews. As someone who spends a lot of time online, sifting through other people’s thoughts and ideas, I felt well equipped to ferret out a reasonably priced and delicious place to eat in a strange city.

Yet my husband and I found ourselves standing in an undeniable tourist trap one evening wondering how all of those people online thought this was a good way to kill a few hours. We checked with our local friends later and were told that yes, this was widely considered a spot to avoid. My usual strategy of checking in with the no-nonsense foodie crowd on Chowhound had failed me as well. The boards were awash in long conversations about the paucity of good places to eat in San Diego and the lamentable lack of authentic Mexican food, but few recommendations for a couple of New Englanders (read: people who are happy with quesadillas) looking for dinner.

In January, I chalked this up to the dark underbelly of the wisdom of crowds. As the crowds get larger, almost any place is capable of earning three stars. But last weekend’s New York Times article about paid reviews has left me wondering if the unlikely enthusiasm for t-shirt shops and taffy was the result of a few five-dollar kickbacks. 

When making bigger decisions, of course, it’s worth the time it takes to sort through the reviews and check on the folks penning them. A quick scan of all of a reviewer’s commentary on a site can be illuminating. Context can matter as well. While researching a vacation hotel, I found a number of unhappy reviews that turned out to be from parents upset that they had brought their preteens to a place that allowed topless sunbathing. Another hotel had an abundance of reviews that praised most things, but all made ominous references to the bathrooms. Several pages in, I found an explanation: the bathrooms in the hotel were equipped with half-doors only. Inexplicably, only one reviewer took the time to actually explain this. 

Librarians are comfortable with the review culture. We all have our favorite book reviewers and know that a good review can be as delightful to read as the book itself (in the case of negative reviews, often more so – who doesn’t love a delicious take-down of something they didn’t enjoy?). The explosion of things to review and places to review them has meant that we’re in the sometimes uncomfortable position of being the object of reviews (and here I’ll direct you to Josh Hadro’s excellent piece on reviews of libraries) and the often overwhelming position of being able to hear everyone’s opinion. 

It is, of course, possible to take reviewing to another level and review reviews. We can publically declare a review helpful or not on Amazon and we can opt to only use profession al reviews to guide our own choices. Niche review sites give us access to cultural specialists at the same time that sites like Amazon and Yelp give us access to everyone. Libraries now commonly offer the option to review, falling somewhere between niche and everyone. 

Parsing reviews written by any- and everyone is a relatively new skill set in our online toolkits. We may not be regularly using general reviews to make book purchasing decisions, but it’s nice to look at Amazon or LibraryThing for comfort when you didn’t like a book everyone seemed to love or when you’re wondering if everyone checking out that critically acclaimed novel is actually reading it (hint: probably not. But I’ll bet people lie in their online reviews, too). We can teach patrons to avoid obvious sock puppets, though dodging those $5 reviews is a little trickier. 

But so what? I’m starting to wonder if online reviews are becoming like comments. My comment strategy is to never read comments on YouTube, and generally only glance over comments on news sites. On more moderated or smaller or more specific sites, the sense of community often gives comments the feel of message boards, where an understanding of the culture and the personalities involved is a must. Now that everyone’s got an outlet for their opinions, does that dilute the power of those outlets? Or those opinions, for that matter? How has your relationship with reviews changed? Tell us in the comments (ha!) below!