I’ve already had a couple of recommendations to look at Angie’s List and Checkbook Magazine since posting earlier today about my homeowner blues. There have been some interesting discussions about Angie’s List in the past six months, particularly at Greg Knaddison’s blog.
Part of what makes that discussion interesting is that it peels back a hidden layer of the service economy in the online era. It’s clear that both small and large businesses have tried, with varying success, to manipulate online flows of information, while others are uneasy, angry or clueless about the potential impact of the online world on their livelihoods. I think that probably was the case in a pre-Internet era as well: some contractors knew how to manipulate the Yellow Pages and various social networks, others didn’t. However, the flows of information are now more rapid, more powerful in their effect, and more heterogenous in their composition.
It’s also clear to me reading the comments at Knaddison that something like Angie’s List is one of those places where very different kinds of online users intersect, where people who have four blogs and make all their calls using Skype are reading and contributing right alongside users who only know the Internet as a place to read email, see videos of cats playing pianos on YouTube and use Angie’s List.
That’s a good thing as far as creating a strong body of reviews and a strong community of users, though I have share some of Greg Knaddison’s doubts about the basic model of the service. However, there are some problems that are common to all review-collation sites, no matter their revenue model, including the kind of trust-based social networks that Knaddison advocates.
I’ve talked about these issues before here with regard to Rate My Professors, for example.
Even the best review sites are usually very thin in the kinds of information they provide. (Of course, sometimes a huge accumulation of information is not helpful in making consumer definitions, but is instead the sign of a protracted struggle over the object or service being rated. Look at the books with the most reviews on Amazon, for example.) Any review site can run into trouble with the incentive structure it provides for people to rank their service. With eBay, for example, I’ve found that making a negative comment on a seller (in my case, for failing to send an item) leads to enormous pressure from the seller to withdraw the comment, including the thread of reciprocal attack on your reputation as a buyer.
In particular, getting users who have detailed knowledge of the subject of a review to contribute when they do not have an axe to grind is a real challenge. Epinions, I’ve noticed, has a few star “expert reviewers” who pop up in some durable-good categories, but not in sufficient density in many cases to create anything like meaningful information for decision-making.
What you want, it seems to me, is a lot of people who have balanced or mixed experiences with services and goods to contribute to a review site, rather than just people who are highly aggrieved and people who simply say “A +++++ great seller!” or some such. I don’t think anyone has yet figured out how to reliably get that kind of information into an aggregated central location, either online or offline.
Moreover, it seems to me that this kind of information source wouldn’t just be a guide for consumers, but also a way for a national economy that has become centered on service to think about how to improve the quality and productivity of service goods without looking to expensive consultancies and middlemen firms. Right now, there is almost no way for ordinary, non-aggrieved, constructively critical information to pass from customers to smaller service-oriented businesses. The first pest control contractor we saw, for example, is from a fairly local company. The estimate was fairly well-priced, but the exterminator was so brusque and hostile in his manner and so unwilling to answer questions that I couldn’t really form any opinion about the potential reliability of his service. It would be good for him and me if that information could pass between us anonymously, without me demanding anything from him or him feeling that the assessment could damage his commercial reputation.
I think the first group or company to figure out how to combine the best of bottom-up content-creation and some kind of authority-driven or editorial practice to create dense and high quality information about service providers and consumer goods is going to make a lot of money. In fact, that’s the kind of thing that newspapers should be looking at as a replacement for the revenues they used to make from classified ads. The kind of reputation capital they could lend to a really well-designed system might make a big difference. I don’t think what’s out there now has achieved the necessary mix of features, usability and informational critical mass, however: it won’t be enough to just partner up with Craig’s List, Angie’s List, Epinions or any existing service.