In an online world where it seems that users are asked to review and rate everything from the latest movies and albums to diet programs and cleaning products, it was inevitable that some marketers might want to “game the rating system” by skewing review counts in their favor. One of the most egregious attempts was conducted by Telltale Games, which had employees post glowing reviews of their new Jurassic Park video game on the Metacritic site. Even though the reviews were identified as being written by Telltale personnel, their contribution of high approval scores served to skew the overall average. The inevitable backlash of “Revenge Zeros” proved how counterproductive the entire strategy was in the first place and the game now sits at a meager 2.8 out of 10, considerably lower than it likely would have been had Telltale employees stayed out of the fray.
Online marketers everywhere can learn from Telltale’s failure to “game their game” and avoid attempts to slant social ratings in their favor, as those schemes are invariably setups for failure. At the slightest hint of subterfuge, online communities often resort to bombing the review site with negative ratings, not only wiping out any temporary advantage the false positives would have given the product, but generally dropping it well down into unfavorable status. It might seem that companies might want to retreat to the more traditional safe-havens of professional reviewers who at least can be counted on to base their reviews on supportable facts, but that strategy may no longer be as effective as it once was.
Cousin Mildred > Roger Ebert
The tide may be turning from the time when marketers chased the approval of so-called professional critics such as John Dvorak (computers), Roger Ebert (movies) or Gael Greene (restaurants). In the upside down world of social media, a recommendation from a peer (family, friend, co-worker) can carry considerably more weight than one from a world-renowned critic. If cousin Mildred in Humptulips, Washington recommends the latest Stephen King or Clive Cussler book, that single endorsement can have a much greater impact on the individual reader than an enthusiastic review by the New York Times’ Dwight Garner.
Vast Gulf between Reviewers & Viewers
Yet another obstacle is that reliance on the pro critics can be just as problematic as the vagaries of the public ratings. The Willem Dafoe movie vehicle The Boondock Saints is a blood spattered vigilante fantasy that was largely panned by the critics, earning a mere 17% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review site. However, out of 291,056 viewers who rated the movie on the site, an overwhelming 93% were in favor, demonstrating that the gulf between “regular” viewers and “professional” reviewers is uncomfortably vast. Even the critic from the famed industry publication Variety crucified the movie, but that did not seem to faze the audience, which largely loved it. While nearly 300,000 reviews are next to impossible to fake, many small and mid-sized entertainment producers such as the lower echelon of video game companies can deem their latest release successful if they receive a mere handful of positive reviews. Therefore the stakes are considerably higher when every review counts.
The Best Strategy: Release Good Products
Google’s stubborn insistence on blocking every imaginable SEO ploy has left the web world with only one successful strategy: “post good content.” Similarly, in the light of the devaluation of professional critics and the prospect of massive public retributions for any attempts at chicanery, the only real way to be assured of largely positive customer reviews online is to “release good products.”