User reviews and referral networks

As I sat in the dentist’s chair last Friday, I contemplated the events that had led me to this often-feared place. My wisdom teeth were coming in rather painfully, so I had gone to my dentist, who had referred me to an oral surgeon who would remove them. But as I sat in this chair, I questioned the advice of my dentist of the last 10 years. I didn’t know this surgeon. His office was in an unfamiliar part of town. I’d never met these receptionists before, and the other people in the waiting room looked gloomy as they poured over National Geographic magazines from 6 months ago, and tried to ignore the soap opera that was blaring from a tv high in the corner.

There are dozens of oral surgeons available in the area, so why did I choose this one? My insurance would have covered many of the other surgery practices in the area, so cost was not an issue. Neither was location. I was in this particular office purely on the recommendation of my dentist. Which means a great deal, of course. My dentist has networked with this oral surgeon for decades. But in this hyper-connected age, I could have searched Google for oral surgeons and gone by who had the best reviews in the area. However, some things are just too important to trust anonymous user 877 for. 

This doesn’t stop me from using someones smartphone to find a good place to eat when I travel, or reading the eBay user reviews before I purchase something priced just too-good-to-be-true. In general though, I have grown much less trusting of user reviews online, as I hear about fake yelp reviews, and other massive review frauds

As we accelerate our networking, and even have user reviews for ourselves (linkedin), we must keep trust in mind. For me, at least, it can be very difficult to trust individuals who I have only met online. Any student who has taken an online only course can attest to being left holding the bag after several people bail out on a group project. Millions of people have had their identity stolen online. Many others buy products online and receive something else entirely. In some way, whether or not it is our own fault, we are all somehow affected. 

Our virtual networks are awesome. It’s what makes blogs like this possible. However, the security one can get from face-to-face interaction can be lacking. And it’s a good thing I didn’t look up oral surgeon reviews. The one who cut me open on Friday has only negative reviews.


One thought on “User reviews and referral networks”

  1. I can think of two conditions that increase my trust in an anonymous referral source. The first is whether or not reciprocity is available to rate the validity of the referral. If the buyer is allowed to reward or punish the referral then I think that there is a much higher likelihood of receiving an honest review. Thankfully sites do do this, usually with an upvote/downvote option on each referral or a “did you find this review helpful” box. The less upvotes or downvotes per referral make it less trustworthy because the network of people using the review as a link to the seller is insufficient.

    The second condition is slightly more nuanced, but it is still valuable. The strategy is to simply use judgement of whether or not a story sounds believable. We all tell each other stories all the time, so we have some solid instinctual tools that let us test the realistic quality of a story. We look for an earnest tone that has specific and believable details that give insight into whether or not the referrer has actually had experience and is speaking earnestly. Also whether or not the details warrant such negative reviews. I use as a tool for picking classes, but I often see very low marks accompanied by comments that indicate low quality studying and not low quality teaching. If a student didn’t do well in a class because they didn’t study, they might inaccurately blame the teacher and accuse them of assigning too much reading or giving difficult exams. This bad review can be weeded out by effective critical analysis of the validity of the story being told.

    Trust can come from using tools, both the ones available online and our own personal insights.

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