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One star, two stars, three stars, four. The tricky business of online reviews.

It’s six o’clock on a Sunday night and I check my refrigerator for dinner inspiration: Greek yogurt, onions, and bananas. I’m going to have to call this one a draw. What do I eat now? Thai food sounds good, but I haven’t quite locked down a go-to establishment in my town. I ask my foodie friends for ideas, but they don’t have any favorites either. So, I turn to my trusted backup—the Internet. I type in “Thai food Santa Barbara” and get a slew of options, some with many stars, some with none. I start reading reviews of the highly-rated restaurants and am sold by Karen H.’s comment. “One of my favorite restaurants. Everything I've tried so far has been delicious! Excellent service. I recommend the basil chicken.” Basil chicken it is.

Reliability is king

I will be the first to say that I don’t only utilize online reviews, but I rely on them. I won’t go to a restaurant without a personal recommendation from a friend or greater than three-and-a-half stars from an online review site. And I’m not alone.

As a whole, Millennials love feedback and need reassurance when they make decisions. Especially purchase decisions. According to a study published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 70 percent of Millennials are more enthusiastic about a purchase endorsed by their friends, compared to the 48 percent of non-Millennials who share a similar sentiment. When advice from peers isn’t available, we turn to the next best thing—input from knowledgeable strangers on the Internet. In fact, 69 percent of Americans seek reviews online before ever stepping inside a business.

When advice from peers isn’t available, we turn to the next best thing—input from knowledgeable strangers on the Internet.

Are businesses puppets in the hands of Millennials?

Not only are Millennials keen on viewing feedback, we also aren’t scared to give it ourselves. More than other generations, when Millennials have something to say about a company’s service, they share it with the world. While this may seem daunting to businesses, there is an upshot—more Millennials post positive feedback (31 percent) than negative feedback (27 percent). And a little bit of positive feedback can go a long way. A Harvard Business School study indicates that a one-star increase on a Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue—that’s a significant impact.

And we don’t only see this in the numbers. Just last week I was sitting at a coffee shop when the owner of the establishment came over to my table to let me know that he was closing soon. The clock on my computer screen read 3:31pm. He apologized, but informed me that they were hoping to run longer hours once they “improved their online presence.” I asked what he meant by that—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter? “Believe it or not,” he said, “online reviews mean a lot to us. It’s crazy, they can either make us sink or swim.” Selfishly wanting to work longer than 3:30pm, I wrote a positive (and honest) review. It was just the nudge I needed to publicly support one of my favorite spots.

What would you do for a good review?

Other businesses, though, are not as subtle in their attempts to maintain positive reviews. In my college marketing class, one of my classmates worked as a “social media intern” for a local restaurant chain. Her main responsibility? Emailing individuals who gave the restaurant negative Yelp reviews and offering a free meal in exchange for a “reconsideration” of their comments. You decide.

Freebies are another popular method. This summer, a company reached out to me offering a free wine tasting trip in exchange for my review on their website. While I love a good glass of vino, the premise didn’t feel quite right. According to FTC guidelines, an individual needs to explicitly state all items they were given for free in order for the review to be legal. So, these proceedings are legitimate, granted the company reminds reviewers to disclose everything they receive, and that reviewers do it. But do people always do that? I don’t think so.

Companies even go as far as fabricating reviews entirely. Tactics include using IP-spoofing techniques to mask the origin of the content or commissioning writers from all over the world to post online for as little as a dollar. Other companies have been known to offer their patrons gift cards for a rating of three stars or higher online. When people go to websites like Yelp, Google, Yahoo, and Citysearch for information, they think they are getting reliable reviews from their peers, making these fabricated posts much more than just false advertising. Back in 2013, almost twenty businesses were caught fabricating reviews in New York and fined a collective $350,000. In the past year, Amazon claims that they sued over 1,000 sellers for posting fake reviews. Who would have thought that a glowing review could be so dangerous?

How to make the most of online reviews

Thankfully, there is a way to navigate online reviews without landing yourself in court. Feedback is powerful, so it is important to be aware of what people are saying about you on the web. Of course, good service is going to be the best way to drive business, but here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to increasing traffic with online reviews:

  • Encourage reviews. Remember, Millennials and other consumers will look online before walking into your establishment. The more information available to them beforehand, the easier their decision will be to stop by. And once they are in your place, make sure to have reminders tactfully posted to encourage some goodwill sharing.
  • Engage with reviews. When somebody praises your organization, say thanks! If somebody gives you negative feedback, let them know that you’ve heard them and that you are taking steps to ensure that something similar will not happen again. If you ignore feedback, consumers will take note. On the other hand, if potential customers see that you are making an effort to prevent negative experiences, they are more likely to trust your organization.
  • Embrace reviews. Your customers are giving you valuable feedback—use it! Just like Millennials in the office do, you should strive to incorporate constructive criticism. Focusing on your areas for growth will yield positive reviews in the future, which can only improve your business. Remember, Millennials are more likely to write a positive review if they have an enjoyable experience, than a negative one for a poor experience. If you make necessary changes, eventually those negative reviews will be overpowered and buried by the good.

Enjoy your Thai food, but be a conscious consumer too

When it comes down to it, reviews are a great resource. However, it is important to tread with caution as you read comments online. If it seems too good to be true, or too bad to be true, it probably is. If someone is bashing on a mom-and-pop brunch spot for being too “folksy” when everyone else loves the quaint establishment, you might think twice about their comment.

If you want to make an impact yourself, don’t just be a spectator. Help contribute to the wealth of knowledge your fellow consumers are creating by writing your own reviews. Your online friends and favorite businesses will thank you.

Our Millennial view series is not just for Millennials. Everyone can gain insight on these important workplace and life issues. Topics such as finding a friend in feedback, moving up, while dressing down, and sweatworking impact us all, regardless of generation.