Online reviews hold businesses to account. But who can you believe?

The Grand Canyon had better pull up its socks. Reviews are in, and they’re not good.

Mother Jones magazine recently collected a series of one-star reviews for America’s national parks. In addition to the thumbs-down for the Canyon (not enough for day-trippers to do, the reviewer said), there were one-star pans of Yosemite (“Terrible experience... unable to find parking ANYWHERE”) and Yellowstone (“dull”) among others.

Nancy Peterson has words of reassurance for the poor Canyon. Peterson launched her home renovation review site HomeStars.com in 2006 when the consumer feedback industry was still relatively young (Yelp was only two years old at the time). She thinks people—and presumably parks—worry too much about the occasional complaint. “I think everybody’s just got to get a thicker skin, just take negative feedback and not be so worried about perfection if you’re doing great work day in and day out and you’re proud of what you’re doing,” Peterson says.

Still, consumer feedback sites have changed the retail landscape in ways that were hard to predict when HomeStars launched. Companies that once focused on direct consumer interaction, advertising and marketing had to include a new focus dealing with online feedback. And with that came a desire to game the system. “I had a company, a paid advertiser, we had even given them a ‘Best Of’ award,” Peterson recalls. “A whistleblower in their company alerted us that they had been faking their reviews—they had hired students to create email accounts. We took away their awards and put up a ‘suspicious activity’ banner on their listing. I don’t think they were rotten people—I don’t think they would go into your home and do bad work. But there needed to be some ramifications.”

Bullying is another issue. A 2015 BCBusiness article about Yelp detailed the experience of a local woman whose bad review of a legal firm resulted in threats of a lawsuit. While this may merely demonstrate that one should never kick a kickboxer, offering protection for reviewers is a key to the process, Peterson believes. “Somebody writes a negative review of a roofing company, and they figure out who it is, call up the customer and make threats—‘If you don’t take that review down, I’m going to sue or come over there and...whatever’—that homeowner might call us up and say, ‘Take that review down.’ We’ll automatically penalize that company.

“The ISO (International Standards Organization) has set up a working group to come up with guidelines for the aggregation, adjudication and publication of online reviews, and I’m on it,” Peterson says. “The Consumer Council of Canada is part of it as well.”

Peterson points out that Canadian review sites face more potential legal peril than their American cousins. In the U.S., the Telecommunications Online Decency Act allows for websites to not be held liable for reviews aggregated on their site, she says. In Canada, it’s more of a legal grey area.

“Defamation law in Canada is old. If the reviewer is writing facts, it’s fine. An opinion that is not defamatory is fine. As long as they don’t say, ‘The roofer was drunk or cheated me’ or some other allegation that is difficult to prove, it’s fine.”

The dynamics of online feedback can be complex. Airbnb asks for reviews of both hosts and guests, and both sides can suffer from negative feedback. Thus both sides have a
vested interest in keeping things positive regardless of the actual experience. But Peterson points out that the Airbnb system does circumvent one problem plaguing consumer review sites—the bogus review from a malicious agent or competitor. At least with the Airbnb system, you know there’s been a transaction, Peterson says.

“I think the transparency that reviews provide is really vital,” Peterson says. “I’ve had companies say to me, ‘I wish HomeStars would go away, but I know that we are a better company today because of it.’”

As for the question of what the Grand Canyon and Yosemite can do to improve themselves, that will no doubt be revealed by focus groups. But if they want to compete with Disney, they had better start listening.