For a while I have been thinking about one of the more remarkable statistics about online reviews that has been steadily increasing in the past few years. I thought about it again after reading a news story about a roofer in Dunedin who has allegedly done a runner and left a job uncompleted, leaving a couple in a tight financial fix.

For years word of mouth has been one of the strongest motivators to connecting consumers with businesses but it is falling well behind compared to online reviews. The latest research by BrightLocal last year said that a whopping 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as a recommendation from a family member or friend – or what we have come to know as word of mouth.

In essence that means that word of mouth just isn’t cutting it and the safety of recent, relevant, online reviews is actively sought by consumers – even if they have had a verbal referral initially.

“The couple paid half of the contract up front and then things went downhill. The roofer asked for more money, failed to turn up when he said he would and finally the couple approached other roofers to have the work that was done evaluated.”

The story that got me pondering on why the reviews from strangers are more powerful than personal ones, concerned a Dunedin roofer who was recommended to a young Ukrainian couple by their neighbour. The roofing job was substantial and concerned a significant financial outlay. The couple paid half of the contract up front and then things went downhill. The roofer asked for more money, failed to turn up when he said he would and finally the couple approached other roofers to have the work that was done evaluated. It was described as “substandard”. Having the job completed cost almost twice as much as they had been originally quoted.

All in all, an unsavoury experience they would rather have avoided from the get go. The story doesn’t go into much detail about the recommendation or why the couple didn’t ask for quotes from multiple roofers. What it affirmed to me was the danger of the personal referral and why, without backing it up with a search for online reviews, it was worth very little at all.

“A solid online reputation from authentic reviews is impersonal – devoid of any personal context or association.”

But why?  Surely, one great experience for one person will translate into great experiences for others? Nope, and this is what my pondering on the statistic about online reviews versus personal recommendations led me too. A solid online reputation from authentic reviews is impersonal – devoid of any personal context or association.

“Online reviews do not have that connection at all – they are an evaluation of the business, its work, its after job/sales service – its overall quality and dedication.”

Think of it this way, if someone we know refers a business, then we have a history with that person, events, experiences, mainly great, occasionally not. That’s how it is with families and friends. That means their advice is never neutral – impartial – it is clouded by the history we have with them. Online reviews do not have that connection at all – they are an evaluation of the business, its work, its after job/sales service – its overall quality and dedication.

Without getting overly personal, there are people in my life who mean everything to me but that doesn’t mean I’d take a referral from them seriously. Not because I don’t respect them or their opinions but that I’ve seen the results of a number of their previous decisions. I would take a recommendation with a grain of salt and would rather do my own research online, seeking out a solid review profile before picking up the phone.

“Consumers have access to a robust platform that gives them far greater security than picking a name out of a directory, or relying completely on a referral.”

It’s also important to consider that our lives are not as local as they once were – when a word of mouth referral really held up and the person recommended was truly accountable – if their work or business wasn’t up to scratch – then they didn’t stay in business for long. Today, businesses are truly accountable – no matter where they are, what they do, or where they work. There is no hiding and that is the fantastic thing about online reviews and online reputations. Consumers have access to a robust platform that gives them far greater security than picking a name out of a directory, or relying completely on a referral.

Reviews are not 100% infallible but they are by far the most reliable means of ascertaining who to call and who to employ or buy from.

I have no doubt that the percentages establishing the dominance of online reviews will continue to rise each year – solely because they are now such an important and essential part of consumer/business connection. We really can’t do without them.