Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Let Internet Randos Be Your Guide

Do you leave online reviews of places you’ve visited or patronized? I do, and expect that many readers do as well. It’s comforting to think that these might be useful to others. If I like a place, I want to give others the opportunity for an experience they may not know about. When I leave a bad review my hope is that someone else can avoid an unpleasant experience I had.

Back in the day (that would be the day before the internet), how good or bad an experience you might expect in a shop, restaurant, or hotel was mostly anecdotal. You could invest in a published guide to such places, but I expect few of us did; we relied on the opinions of our friends, on advertising, and on the general reputation that an institution enjoyed in the public mind.

Today, we have the amalgamated and digested opinions of a representative sample of people who have patronized a business, all available to us with a few clicks, before we decide whether we want to become a customer, client, or member. Does this serve the same purpose as public reputation formerly did? I’m not so sure.

My tendency is to leave reviews only following particularly bad or particularly good experiences. If a place yields an experience pretty much along the lines I expect (how does one visit to my usual supermarket, for example, differ from another?), I don’t bother to review it. But if a business (usually, a hotel or a restaurant) surprises me, in a good or bad way, I’m inclined to write something about it.

In preparation for writing this column I looked back at reviews I’ve left on Yelp: 75 of them over a period of about 10 years. Many restaurants and hotels I have reviewed there have closed. Others have changed locations, some have surely changed hands. Not surprisingly, the average of all my reviews is about 3 stars (out of 5), though 3 stars is the least frequent rating I have given.

What troubles me a bit is the persistence of these reviews. When we relied on popular opinions of our friends or others, there was an expectation that their views would be relevant and reasonably current. If, for example, someone inquired about a restaurant I had visited only once 10 years ago, I would probably not venture an opinion. How relevant could it be?

However, my 10-year-old reviews are still on Yelp, doing their job to contribute to the aggregate rating that a place enjoys (or suffers from). And while a reader of such a review can surely note how old it is, their takeaway from it may be just as strong as if I’d written it yesterday. Speech tends to be ephemeral unless it is captured as text. Text that is born online or that eventually finds a home there is enduring and may be influential beyond its merits.

If you have a Google account, and particularly if you have an Android phone, you are probably familiar with Google’s pursuit of data from its users, in the form of ratings and reviews. I allow Google to track my device and I participate in their Local Guide program, out of a desire (naive, perhaps) to add to the base of useful knowledge about places. Google relentlessly solicits inputs to this base of knowledge. Here’s a typical screenshot from my phone, illustrating the shotgun approach that Google takes, asking me to review places that I visit every day, or for only a few minutes (e.g., to use the restroom), or that I may not have (or may not even know that I have) visited. It matters not to Google; if they can persuade you to favor them with a few bits of linguistic data they will thank you for it and lavish praise on you.

Of course Google is not alone in soliciting data. Many other sites, if you let them, will push notifications at you, hoping that you will supply them with some fodder. The more written data that an aggregator has, the more reliably it can perform sentiment analysis on it. Sentiment analysis is a well-developed tool for assessing the positive or negative feeling expressed in captured text. The idea is that if you’ve got enough data you can develop a fairly accurate idea of the public opinion of a place.

Business owners are well aware of the possible effects of negative online reviews. Indeed, there are several guides available to help them navigate the perils thereof. I have been surprised a couple of times by owners of restaurants or hotels contacting me following negative remarks I have left. Restaurants have offered free meals (which I have not availed myself of). The “general manager” of a well-known hotel chain sent me a boilerplate response after I had panned one of their franchises. Their response pretty well cemented my hunch that they were aware, and not really very concerned, that some of their hotels were dumps:

“Thank you for taking the time to tell us about your experience at La Quinta Inn by Wyndham New Orleans Veterans / Metairie. I am sorry that your experience did not meet your expectations; please allow me to express my sincerest apologies. Please rest assured that we are taking the appropriate measures to address the problem and prevent any future occurrences. Here at La Quinta Inns & Suites, we continuously strive to meet your needs and expectations.”

It’s a little troubling that of all the reviews I have left online, the one that has been upvoted most by other users as being helpful is a one-star review that I left for a nursing home where my uncle had a disastrous experience. It was surely not an experience unique to my uncle, and that was obvious to me every time I visited him there. So I disparaged the place and pulled no punches.

Two years after I left that review (my elderly uncle had died in the meantime), a newly hired administrator of the facility contacted me via telephone and asked me for particulars. I sensed that she was trying to put things right at the place. Maybe she would succeed and I certainly wish her well, but I’m in no position to judge. The facility is in another state and I don’t expect I will ever visit it again. But I wonder if I have made her job harder by the persistence of a review I left six years ago following my uncle’s brief stay in the institution she is trying to manage.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.