Building a local business on the strength of reviews

On this blog we have often focused on how people should find and evaluate local businesses. Of course we believe that WhoDoYou is a great way to find trusted recommendations for local service providers.

But what if you are looking to be found? We have lots of small businesses approach us to understand how WhoDoYou can help their business grow, and often we hear a degree of frustration in the dizzying array of choices, services and options. There are reputation management companies, listings specialists, and campaign managers. As if that weren’t enough, it is increasingly becoming clear to small businesses that they MUST have a strong “review footprint” online.

By review footprint, I mean the ease with which users can find out information about you on various media, platforms and locations. It has become common knowledge that positive, high quality reviews can have a big impact on your bottom line, so if you don’t have many reviews, you may want to get started today.

We always suggest that businesses make sure, first and foremost, that their profile information is correct and up to date on the review sites. But that’s really table stakes – what’s most important is to encourage your customers/patients/clients to contribute their honest endorsements.* Never ask someone to lie, and never (we mean ever!) pay for people to write reviews. Aside from the fact that it’s wrong, the consequences of being caught can be devastating.

It can often be hard to motivate customers to write reviews, since people are busy and have lots of priorities. So, we’ve seen a few things help with the response rate for writing reviews:

  1. Get them at the ‘moment of truth‘ – or put another way, try to prompt your customers right after you provide service. Not only will the experience be fresh in their minds, but also the request will be made in context. And generally speaking, people do want to support businesses, particularly local ones, if they’ve done a good job
  2. Ask for specific feedback – if you are an electrician that takes pride in your punctuality, ask customers to let others know how much they appreciated you being on time. Or if you’re a doctor, feel free to suggest that patients speak about your bedside manner. Again, don’t write it for them, but feel free to prompt (recognition is always easier than recall…)
  3. Remind, remind, remind – As we’ve already established, most people are simply not review writers. There are always people, however, that would write a review if prompted at the right time, and in the right way. So without being pushy, remember to remind them to pay it forward – some percentage always will.

Now this blog post would not be complete without mentioning WhoDoYou. Specifically, where do we fit in this environment of reviews that build up local businesses? Well, we are great believers in the power and authenticity of conversations on social media. That’s why we focus much of our time on surfacing the recommendations already made between friends and within existing groups.

We also encourage WhoDoYou users to write structured reviews, because it’s a way of sharing opinions on WhoDoYou without being asked by a friend. Essentially, this is the equivalent of being asked by a business. And one of the most powerful ways to extend the reach of these reviews is to share them on social media – the exposure and long-lasting effect is hard to quantify, but undoubtedly powerful.

So, if you’re a small business and feeling a bit overwhelmed with this whole business of reviews, relax, try following our 3 simple tips, and watch the referrals start appearing at your doorstep.

Good luck, and if you have any comments, please share.

*Please note, some review sites forbid small businesses from asking for reviews. We think this is absurd. It is not the act of asking which promotes bogus reviews, it is the manipulation and paying which creates fake reviews. At WhoDoYou we strongly believe – if you do a good job, prompt your customers and they’ll write honest reviews. After all, you’ve earned it!

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Sick of hearing about big data? Try some small data, you may never go back

So, have you heard the latest crack about big data?

“Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it….” Dan Ariely, Professor at the Center for Advanced Hindsight (and Duke).

Kudos to Prof. Ariely for making light of possibly the most overused cliché of our age – big data (with apologies to “The Cloud”). There are a lot of good reasons that industry folks are pretty excited about big data. Crunching massive amounts of information to generate actionable, predictive conclusions certainly has great promise. Indeed I recently attended a conference where a company that builds in-store technology tools to measure shopper behavior said that they collect 10,000 data points for every unique store visit. And, they have already captured more than 600 million visits. I’m not a mathematician, but if you multiply 600,000,000 x 10,000 you get a really large number. That’s probably useful for big data purposes.

But, for all those non-industry folk, who have no idea what to do with 600 gazillion data points, WhoDoYou has something for you. Specifically, we are using small data to give you as much insight and power as the big boys have with large data. To be really specific, we’re talking about making the everyday decisions around which professionals to use. When searching for an accountant or a mechanic, you know that many of your friends and people you know have already done a similar search. Even better, many of them have quality professionals they’ve been using for years. The problem is, YOU don’t know who they’ve been using, and to capture the information from your friends, or from trusted locals in your area, can be difficult or unpleasant (broadcasting messages via social media, not knowing who to ask, not wanting to bug all your friends every time you need some professional). While this is a pain point that people feel every day, no big data solution that does trend analysis on hundreds of millions of inputs will help you solve what seems like a pretty basic question: who’s the best pediatrician in town?

The good news is, this data exists within your friends and locals’ networks. It’s just called small data, and it turns out to be pretty hard to find and catalogue it. That’s what WhoDoYou is here for – we search for the needles in your many haystacks, and the little nugget of gold in the mass of rocks and dirt. There is so much data and so many conversations happening all around you – none of which help when you want an answer to a very specific question, as in, who is the best piano teacher for your daughter, or what’s the best dentist for cheap, yet high quality care.

You see we specialize in capturing the small data, just the bits you really need. On a typical day across social networks people use common category terms (plumber, lawyer, notary) literally millions of times. But it turns out that only a tiny fraction of those mentions include people asking their friends for help, and fewer still of these public conversations result in a high quality recommendation. But when they do, we’re there for you, capturing, cataloging, and storing the information for when you need it most. That’s why we call it small data, and it’s the reason that our solution – although rooted in big data and deeply technical machine learning algorithms – works so well for people like you, just trying to find basic answers to really important questions.

So the next time you hear people talking about big data and wonder what the heck they’re trying to say, just relax, and think about small data. You know, the stuff that helps you answer the questions you really need, without all the hyper-fad-buzzwordery.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, we love hearing from you. So please be in touch.

Yoav and the WhoDoYou team

How Online Review Sites Can Regain Consumers’ Trust

The below article is written by our very own Yoav Schwartz and appeared in Street Fight, November 4, 2013.

Since the dawn of the web, community boards, forums and review sites have been affected by the problem of bogus reviews. While users increasingly expect to see reviews of businesses before making purchases or hiring decisions, they are becoming ever more wary of the opinions expressed online.

A recent Wall Street Journal headline blared “Fake Reviews Are Everywhere,” citing eye-opening research from professor Michael Luca at Harvard Business School that suggests at least 20% of reviews on Yelp are bogus — and possibly more. Even Amazon, often considered the gold standard of review quality is not immune to the problem. A 2011 study by a team at Cornell found that of Amazon’s top 1000 reviewers — as rated by other users — fully 85% (!) received free products but did not disclose this potential source of bias.

Given the scope of this problem, how do we in the business of local search begin to change the tide of trust? How can we help the end consumer while still improving the local search experience? To answer these questions, I will first unpack the problem, then present a framework for where trusted reviews matter most, and finally provide some suggestions for what can be done by those in the industry to address the issue.

First, let’s examine the often unarticulated concept of what makes reviews so powerful. It is axiomatic to say that reviews are helpful when searching for local businesses, but in fact, their most important function is driving the user to a purchase decision — it’s the choosing that actually matters. In an age where data is everywhere, local listings are table stakes – anyone can find a provider. What matters today is giving the user an effective tool to narrow down large lists of potential businesses, to the one or several candidates that are the best fit.

And when seeking fit, not all searches are equal. In some cases, finding a local business is primarily an exercise in matching location and capabilities — for example locating a nearby gas station or ATM. Reviews start becoming important when users require advice or guidance. When searching for a restaurant or gym, honest opinions can prevent an inconvenient, or unpleasant experience. Even more important, when seeking a mechanic, or pediatrician, the downside of a bad choice can be severe.

As a consequence, reviews for just these kind of businesses have exploded, and the trend has not been lost on SMBs. More than ever they understand the impact of reviews on their business (“A half star increase in Yelp ratings translates into 19% increase in sales”). So the incentives are pushing those with a vested interest to game the system, and this vicious cycle is beginning to erode people’s trust. Indeed a Maritz study from just last month suggests that among users of review sites, between 40%-60% of people do not trust the opinions they read! (“Confidence Crisis: 40 Percent Don’t Trust Online Reviews”).  That’s 40% of the users of review sites – imagine how other people feel!

While this crisis of confidence continues to play out, many have been left to wonder whether there is any solution. Academics have tried developing algorithms to root out fake reviews, and some people claim they can pick out the good from the bad. Neither approach is likely to change the game; they simply don’t work.

There is, however, reason for hope. In fact, there is a solution that has already started to work across a variety of review and comment sites. What is this magic bullet, this panacea? In one word: identity.

Consumers make decisions based on trust, and just as trust is established in the offline world by people that are familiar or known to each other, so too must the principle of trust be extended online. That means reviews, opinions and recommendations must be submitted with identity. It is easy to spot the trend already in progress; a majority of news sites now require Facebook login to comment, and Google’s recent announcement of including identity in ads is one more clear indication that trusted opinions sell.

It’s true that pundits have been touting social as the savior of local search for many years. In fact, it reminds me of the voice recognition world, back when I worked in that industry in 1999. People loved to say at that time that voice recognition had been “a year away” for the past 20 years — now it’s been nearly 15 years since then, and Siri and her siblings are still working to gain credibility. So what’s different now for social media and search? Is there any way we can actually achieve social, local search, and help consumers make informed decisions about local service providers, and on the way, unlock the massive potential in this market?

The answer is a resounding yes. If you haven’t already, provide a way for users to establish identity, and with it, credibility. There are many tools to accomplish this, from Facebook and LinkedIn to Google+ and more. Also, try to authenticate the connection between a reviewer and a transaction whenever possible (the New York Times recently profiled a new initiative between TripAdvisor and American Express to do just that – kudos!). And finally, push as deep as possible to drive to the source of authentic conversations. At WhoDoYou, we try to make it easy for people searching for local businesses to see advice already shared between friends — and link back to the original conversation. There are many examples of companies that are either hosting this dialogue, or building communities where real people can share honest information.

As long as there are economic incentives to create bogus reviews, unscrupulous people and businesses will continue to exploit the platforms that make it easy to deceive. For the local players seeking to help users in selecting a great business, use the offline world as a guide. Require an identity, build communities of real people sharing advice, and give legitimate customers a megaphone to honestly rate the service received. If these steps are taken, we can begin to welcome in a new era of trusted reviews, and perhaps finally reach the holy grail of local and social.

Yoav Schwartz is founder and CEO of WhoDoYou.

WhoDoYou trust?

freud

WhoDoYou’s core value proposition can be defined in one word: trust. We consistently highlight trusted recommendations, trusted advice, trusted friends, etc. But in this post we’d like to explore the basic concept of trust a little more in depth. Who defines trust, and is the definition malleable? Does a trusted relationship necessarily infer trusted advice? And most importantly, what are the practical implications for people seeking help in finding trusted local businesses?

Before we get to the research, let’s point out a few obvious truths in the land of reviews. First off, when someone is paid to review a business and does not disclose it, you cannot implicitly trust their review. Secondly, if you can’t establish a person’s real identity, you may not be able to trust their opinion. This is important because many local business listing sites do not require a login (or “identity,” e.g. Facebook login or moderator approved membership). This can often result in people writing biased reviews – negative or positive – on behalf of, or against a particular business.

Intuitively, we all know these things to be true. But what else do we know about trust that can help us in finding recommended businesses and local service providers?

Contrary to much popular belief, psychological research shows that the Internet and social media are changing the way we encounter friendly relationships in positive aspects. People who use blogs, websites and email to discuss politics and current events become more socially engaged over time. In a 2010 study with 626 children and teens, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that lonely adolescents reported using the Internet to make new friends, and that they communicated online more frequently about personal and intimate topics, ultimately reporting higher levels of self-esteem. Our online friends may be more helpful than expected.

Why is there cynicism towards anonymous strangers anyway?

Studies show that it is mostly based on experience and learning. The vast majority of honest, authentic interactions end in a positive way. But if you’ve ever been betrayed by a stranger (think ‘a bogus restaurant review’) the experience probably taught you to question the type of trust you are going to build in the future. In a 2010 experiment (by Fetchenhauer and Dunning), study participants expected only 52 percent of people – with whom they had interacted directly – to be trustworthy in sharing monetary winnings. But the actual level of trustworthiness was a solid 80 percent. So when there is no ulterior motive, even strangers tend to be more trustworthy than we think.

So we know people are a bit wary of trusting strangers, but do we trust them when seeking advice? And what about friends on social networks, who are often connected to us, but not trusted friends in the traditional sense? In an observational study, Dunbar studied the content of people’s conversations in public places and classified conversations according to such broad categories as politics, sports, technical information and social exchanges. Social topics account for nearly 65% percent of speaking time with little variation due to age or gender, and within that, seeking advice was one of four main social topics. Additionally, according to a large scale study of 58,000 participants done by Forrester Research, 70% of consumers trust brand recommendations from their friends as opposed to 10% who trust advertising.

All of which reinforces the basic intuition we each have, that lies at the heart of our mission at WhoDoYou: authentic advice you can trust. We believe that by building a trustworthy community of advice sharers and seekers, we get the best consensus on local business and service providers.

Getting help from our “online friends” is more important than ever because of information overload. Bottom line, we still purchase based on our friends’ recommendations. That’s why at WhoDoYou, we’ve built a community site of real people sharing the best, most genuine information. Why not come on by and try it today?

Reflections on building a great team

For anyone that’s read this blog even somewhat consistently, you know that our primary focus has been on the product value we are trying to build, and the need for a solution like WhoDoYou. While this stuff gets us pretty jazzed, there may be some for whom the local, social search space isn’t so interesting.

And now that we are actively looking to bring on some great new team members, I thought it would be useful to highlight a recent article: http://linkd.in/122sZon.
The primary focus is on the difficulty of hiring, which seemed compelling enough on its own merit to share. In addition, it’s worth talking about this article as a means of highlighting some of the values we like to promote at WhoDoYou.

So, high level, the article describes Google’s big data approach to finding hiring best practices. Biggest surprise #1? There are no consistently good hiring managers (though there are some consistently bad ones). It turns out that hiring successful performers tends to be very, very difficult, and mostly random. Biggest surprise #2? GPA has almost no correlation with successful performance. Although this one didn’t surprise me so much, it’s an important reminder that people change a lot over time. Looking at one’s degree, or GPA is only one small factor in considering a person’s potential contribution to an organization.

Finally, what does this say about the values of WhoDoYou, and our desire to build a great company? Well, it may sound pretty basic, but we like to think of ourselves as a fairly humble group. We work hard, push the limits of what’s possible to do – technically and otherwise – and are open to great people of all types. We believe there is not a single mold for greatness, and if there is, we certainly haven’t found it.

With that said, we are currently looking for great talent. If you are passionate about helping people find great local businesses, love social media, and want nothing more than to delight customers (or if you’re a super-geek developer who eats code for breakfast), then please drop us a line to feedback@whodoyou.com. We want to speak with you!

As always, thanks for your comments and feedback,
Yoav and the WhoDoYou team

What are the top recommendation requests on Facebook?

Facebook handles one billion search queries every day. That’s a heck of a lot of searching, and you might be wondering what people are searching for, and what are they finding? Well, social search is rapidly moving beyond keywords and tags to people wanting answers to specific questions, such as “Can anyone recommend a good mechanic to fix my car?” WhoDoYou is leading the charge to provide great responses to these kinds of questions by collecting and organizing recommendations from friends, groups and the local Facebook community.

An interesting by-product of our method for gathering questions and answers about great businesses is the ability to see what service provider categories are most requested on Facebook (only in relation to local business recommendations). We are happy to share – mostly to satisfy curiosity – that the number one category people search for on Facebook is, drumroll please… Dentist!

It makes sense if you think about it because most people who are searching for a local provider prefer to get suggestions from their friends. While some categories might not be a fit for asking a Facebook friend – you can use your imagination here – there are others which make a lot of sense. Dentist is one of them. You want to find a dentist that your friends trust, rather than sit quivering in the dentist’s chair afraid to open your mouth because you picked your dentist blindly out of the Yellow Pages.  Obviously there are many more insights we are gathering, and we’ll be happy to share more info with you over time.

Stay tuned for more interesting updates and don’t forget to subscribe to the feed if you’re interested in hearing more.

Yoav and the WhoDoYou team

What Gets Us Excited?

When we founded WhoDoYou, our mission was to create a trusted place to find great local businesses recommended by friends & neighbors. So, it isn’t surprising that one of the things that gets us most excited is seeing people use our service and finding providers they can trust.

Traditionally people search for a service provider based on proximity or availability. Very often we lack information about whether the provider is actually someone who has given good service to a friend, or someone you know. But directory- based search has begun to take a backseat to social search. Most of us want more than just a phone number or a warm body. We want someone we can trust, based on a personalized recommendation. These word-of-mouth recommendations are at the very heart of what WhoDoYou is about.

FB recos from web (Copy)

As we continue to evolve the WhoDoYou service and improve the site, one of the things that we look at most carefully is how successful our users are when they come to find a local service provider. We’re excited to say (and a little proud) that lately we have found that most people who come to the site end up finding someone in their area that can help them with a local service. This makes us super happy. Here’s what a recent user wrote to us, unprompted:

“Thank you to WhoDoYou for your recommendation – Mishaan Plumbing – they were here EXACTLY when they said they would be. Finished the job, cleaned up after and were well priced!!!”

We hope WhoDoYou makes it easier for you to find great local businesses and as always we welcome your feedback! Just email feedback@whodoyou.com.

Yoav and the WhoDoYou team

The Power of Your Vault

real vault 1336 recommendations bigger

When we last spoke, it was to announce our launch of the new WhoDoYou. We were excited about many of the new features and capabilities, but none more than ‘The Vault.’ We’ve gotten some very excited reactions from our loyal users, and a few questions, so it seemed in order to explain in a bit more detail what this vault is really about, and how it can be useful for you.

Let’s start from the beginning. Most Facebook users can relate to the experience of trying to find an old post. It’s awful! Doubly frustrating is when you know someone posted some advice, a link or even a recommendation that you could really use now. Trying to dig back through old posts and find these little bits of gold is somewhere between very difficult, and impossible.

The classic example is when one of your friends posts a comment like: “My car broke down this morning and I’m in dire need of a good mechanic who won’t charge an arm and a leg. Please help Facebook peeps!”  In most cases, friends will reply with a combination of empathy, jokes (you know who you are), and recommendations, e.g. “My guy Joe is amazing, been using him for years. Call him at 555-1212 and tell him I sent you.”

Before WhoDoYou rolled out the vault, there was almost no way for you to go back and find the name and number of that mechanic. But now, when you log in with WhoDoYou, we’ll search through these old comments, and discussions in any of your groups, and automatically categorize the relevant posts for your benefit. In this case, we would identify that a friend recommended a mechanic, in your area, and we would place it in your vault for future reference. Then, if you ever did a search on the site, not only would we show you reviews and recommendations from others in your area, but we’d also show – only to you – the recommendations that come from your personal network.

You can also see how many friendly recommendations you have per category. Just go to the vault, look down the left side of the page, and you’ll see a list of categories with the number of recommendations in parentheses. It’s pretty cool – try it out and see how many you’ve got!

My vault filter new

A few other points to keep in mind. First, the vault continues to get better over time. As you and your friends share recommendations on Facebook, join more groups, add more friends, or write reviews on WhoDoYou, we’ll update your results when you return to the vault. Second, we only process posts that relate to local business categories, so we won’t store any additional information that’s unrelated to the recommendations you care about. And finally, the information gleaned from your friends, and discussed in your groups, is for your eyes only. At some point we may offer you the option to share your recommendations with friends, but that’s not something we would do on your behalf.

We hope you find many good recommendations in your vault, and in the coming weeks we’ll update you on other features and capabilities which may help you in finding the best local service providers, recommended by your friends.

As always, we welcome your feedback, so please feel free to contact us at feedback@whodoyou.com. Thanks!

Yoav and the WhoDoYou team