The History and Evolution of Online Reviews

by DJ Sprague | December 20, 2019

Before the glorious invention of the internet, if we wanted to know about the quality or reputation of a business or product, we had to ask around in person. Hoping to find someone we knew and trusted that had knowledge or experience with the company or product. This type of research could take days, weeks, or even months, and often turned out to be completely fruitless. In many cases, we simply had to take a leap of faith and hope our purchase turned out to be everything we wanted.

Thankfully, we now have access to millions of online reviews on dozens of platforms, and the capability to receive consumer insight from real people who have gone before us. In mere minutes, we can gather enough information to put together a detailed pros and cons list, be warned of potential problems, and even view pictures or videos shared by previous customers. 

But this transformation didn’t just happen overnight. How did we get to this place where others’ opinions and experiences could help us overcome indecision, avoid wasting our hard-earned money and feel confident that our expectations would be satisfied? If we had known about the information revolution that was heading our way, would we have done anything differently?

The First Online Reviews

The first online reviews began to make an appearance in 1999. At first, they were largely contained to specific seller websites like eBay, but soon there were three main contenders: Epinions, RateItAll, and Deja. They generated a combined 1,146,201 online reviews of various products and entertainment industries. However, they were each eventually taken over or bought out by larger corporations.

In 2001, the Yellow Pages and City Search added an online review feature to their business directories, allowing users to see ratings before becoming patrons of local businesses. At this time, few could have anticipated the massive growth in available consumer insight that was just around the corner or the amount with which we would all become involved in generating, and dependent on consuming this information in our daily lives.

Deja Becomes Google Groups

In 2002, Google bought the Usenet search technology from Deja, which essentially gave them ownership over all of Usenet’s online discussion groups. This forum contained a search engine, which allowed users to find relevant information by searching a specific topic or location of interest and viewing archived discussion groups.

In the past, these groups had been private and were mainly used to discuss businesses, but in 1999 it transformed into a place for shoppers to compare companies and products. Consumers could now gather information about a company before buying from them, as well as leave comments of their own. When Google took possession of this technology, it was renamed to groups.google.com and the original Deja site was shut down.

Epinions Becomes DealTime

Similar to Deja, Epinions was a website established in 1999 and was used as a review site for consumers. In 2003, DealTime, also known as shopping.com, took over Epinions with the goal of helping shoppers choose the best products by providing access to current and past reviews. They were eventually bought out once again by eBay in 2005, and all Epinions features were completely shut down by 2018. However, the information from Epinions can still be found, as old URLs are redirected to shopping.com.

Widgets Used to Highlight Great Reviews

In 2007, RateItAll and MuseStorm collaborated to create working widgets that could be placed on company websites. With this addition, a company could proudly display a list of positive RateItAll reviews on its website where potential buyers would easily see it without the need to conduct a search.

Response Feature Created

In 2009, Yelp added a feature that enabled companies to reply to reviews about their business. This provided them with an opportunity to rectify problems and explain negative reviews, thus attempting to keep their reputations intact despite setbacks. Many reviewers appreciated the response to their original reviews and found ways to resolve issues, while other reviewers felt this was an avoidable intrusion. With consumer-generated reviews and company responses, both parties now had an active voice in the exchange. 

The Big Five

As the online review process continued to evolve, there were five main companies that emerged as apparent leaders in online business. Yelp, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and TripAdvisor gained widespread influence and have had a tremendous impact on the evolution of online reviews.

From 2012 to 2016, Facebook was the leader in online business reviews with Yelp close behind, and both have maintained steady growth. However, in 2017, Google skyrocketed ahead of the competition. TripAdvisor has consistently come in fourth and remained a trusted resource for travelers, while Amazon gathered reviews for specific products.

Yelp

In 2004, two previous employees of PayPal, Russel Simmons, and Jeremy Stoppleman, joined forces to create Yelp. The idea originated when Stoppleman contracted a serious case of the flu and needed to find a doctor nearby. He wanted the reassurance of choosing a doctor who was trustworthy and amiable but was disappointed when he failed to find any online reviews about local physicians or medical practices. 

Yelp was originally meant to provide referrals via email, but investors were not on board with this plan, and users found it to be more complicated than they bargained for. However, they eagerly contributed to the “Real Reviews” section where they could leave anonymous comments and information. The site was redesigned in 2005 with this concept as the prominent feature, and the site’s popularity increased rapidly. By 2009, the site had collected a whopping 4.5 million reviews.

The company’s name was chosen because it was simple and easy to remember. It also combines the words “help” and “yellow pages.”

In 2009, both Google and Yahoo made offers to Yelp in hopes of acquiring the company, but neither were successful. In fact, Yelp accused Google of taking information from its website and presenting it as their own. The Federal Trade Commission stepped in and conducted an investigation, resulting in Google providing sites like Yelp with an option not to have their data included on Google’s websites.

Facebook

In 2007, many businesses began creating profiles on the fast-growing platform, which prompted Facebook to add the feature of Pages for Businesses. By the end of the year, over 100,000 businesses had joined and began making plans to use Facebook for advertising purposes.

In 2010, Facebook was identified as the third-largest internet-based company in the United States, behind only Google and Amazon. And by June of 2011, Facebook was the second most visited website in America.

After a chain of controversies about businesses spreading false news stories and Facebook’s attempts to dissuade them, the platform eventually changed their algorithm. With this change in January 2018, a user’s newsfeed would show more personal posts from friends and family and next to nothing from businesses. While this was viewed as a positive step in many ways, it was detrimental to business outreach and advertising, and required ads to be purchased.

Facebook now uses a feature that allows you to “check-in” when visiting a business and encourages you to leave a review afterward.

Google

As Facebook advertising became more costly and less visible, Google saw a rise in relevance. As a popular search engine, it became a logical place to find online reviews. Now, every time you search business, you are presented with reviews and ratings, as well as the option to leave a new review.

Google is also integrated neatly into Android smartphone use and has the capability to send messages directly to your phone asking for a review after you visit a business. It also facilitates the viewing of Google My Business, making reviews hard to miss.

Now that Google is so prominent as a search engine and review site, business owners have become increasingly more likely to recommend that customers leave their reviews here.

Amazon

Amazon is currently the world’s largest e-commerce marketplace, as well as the internet company with the largest total revenue, and the second-largest revenue in technology.

Amazon’s approach to online reviews was vastly different than many other online review sites at the time. Their process confirms that the reviewer is legitimate based on a credit card transaction that proves they have purchased the product in question. The Amazon platform allows all reviews, good and bad, to be shared directly beneath the product they are in reference to. This way, a consumer won’t need to search for relevant reviews and will save time deciding whether to purchase the product.

Initially, marketing experts questioned Amazon’s decision to share bad reviews, but Amazon stood by their decision, stating that they wanted to take a different approach and share the truth. Additionally, customers can rate the reviews themselves by selecting whether a review was found to be helpful or unhelpful. Reviews with the most votes for being helpful are moved to the top of the list where they will be most easily seen.

Amazon has become such an important player in online shopping that many other large e-commerce companies have been known to sell their products through the Amazon website.

TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor presents reviews of restaurants, hotels, attractions, destinations, and points of interest, which makes it a useful tool for travelers. It is the largest website of its kind in the world and the content is generated by users.

Originally, it was created as an official information site with content from newspapers, guidebooks, or travel magazines. However, there was a button included that allowed users to leave their own reviews, and as the other sites did, this idea took off.

Medical Review Sites

In keeping with the growing need for reviews before visiting a business, you can also find reviews for medical facilities and specific personnel. Not only did the founders of Yelp express a need for this type of information, but many others wished for a site that provided reviews for hospitals, doctors’ offices, clinics, and caretakers. In 2018, Vitals.com and Healthgrades.com were launched as platforms for reviews in this category. And of course, you can always use Google to view local business ratings and reviews, which includes medical facilities and practicing professionals in your area.

Why Online Reviews Are So Important for Business Success

Who knew online reviews would become so mainstream that few of us would even consider making an online purchase without reading about others’ experiences? If more companies had anticipated the importance of their online reputations during the early years of online reviews, would their businesses be more successful today?

The Numbers

Data collection provides a solid reference point for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a business and its common practices. Check out these telling statistics from Hosting Tribunal that demonstrate the vast importance of online reviews and how they can have an impact on the success or failure of a business.

  • 72% of potential customers won’t commit to a purchase without reading reviews.
  • 91% of millennials trust online reviews as much as they trust reviews from friends and family members.
  • 83% of customers are no longer convinced by traditional advertising methods.
  • Online reviews can boost your sales conversion rates. In fact, just one review can increase sales by as much as 10%.
  • 95% of travelers check out customer reviews before booking reservations.
  • Even negative reviews can have a positive effect on conversion rates, increasing sales by 85%. However, more than four negative reviews can decrease conversion rates by up to 70%.
  • Almost all potential buyers who read online reviews do so at the beginning of the purchasing process.
  • Restaurants and other dining establishments are the industry whose reviews have the largest effect on potential patrons.
  • 89% of users read the responses from businesses and 53% expect to see negative issues resolved within a week.
  • Consumers will read between 4 and 10 reviews when forming their first impression, but 49% say that they are influenced more by companies with a higher total number of reviews.

Ratings and reviews do in fact increase sales and marketing performance. Shopper Approved clients, for example, have reported click-through rate increases of 20% when their stars appear in their paid ads and conversion rate increases of 50%, and a doubling of gross revenue.  

How to Get More Online Reviews the Honest Way

Now that we are aware of the tremendous importance of online reviews and consumer insight in sales, as well as travel and many other industries, you may be wondering what you can do to improve your online ratings.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to get more online reviews and build a reputable online presence. And they can all be done without any questionable alliances with other business owners or subterfuge of competitors, so rest assured that your integrity will remain unblemished. You’ll just need to make a few simple changes to the way you interact with customers online.

Claim & Register Your Business

The first thing you need to do, if you haven’t already, is claim your business online and register it with the major players like Google and Yelp. If your business is not officially claimed, you will have no control over what is shared. Once you have registered, however, you will be able to update your profile information and respond to consumer reviews.

Reply to Reviews

Another great way to encourage online reviews is by maintaining an ongoing positive presence online. For example, when someone leaves a positive review, you can leave a short message thanking them for their kind words or expressing gratitude that they enjoyed their experience with you. If someone leaves a negative review, an apology can go a long way, especially if there is also action to back it up. 

Try to resolve as many concerns as possible and do it in a timely manner. In some cases, the reviewer may even update their review. Not only will this improve your overall rating, but future customers will see that although there was a problem, it was promptly taken care of. This shows buyers that you are listening to them, that you care about them, and they can trust you to see that their needs are met.

Ask for Reviews

While it is unwise and strongly discouraged to ask people for specific positive reviews, it is absolutely beneficial to encourage them to provide open and honest feedback. Ask them if they would be willing to let you know how they felt about their interaction with your company or about the products they purchased.

There are several ways you can implement this strategy right away and boost your online reviews quickly. The first is by sending out an email campaign to those who are already on your mailing list. Simply mention that you value your customers and would love to hear from them, then provide them with a link to share a review. 

Another way to encourage online reviews is through present transactions. If your business has a physical location where customers come to buy merchandise, eat, or be entertained, instruct your staff to mention reviews during the interaction. For example, a cashier might thank them for their purchase and also tell them that online reviews are appreciated. Or the wait staff in a restaurant could mention that they appreciate feedback and would love it if you would leave a review on the website. Some businesses have even incorporated a way for patrons to review their experience on the spot by completing a short survey.

And finally, you can send a follow-up email to customers within 24 hours after their purchase, or after a shipment is estimated to be delivered. Thank them for their purchase and ask them if they would be willing to answer a few questions or leave a quick review. Again, provide the link directly in the email to make it easier for them to respond. 

Feature Reviews

When you get a great review, it’s okay to brag a little! In fact, sharing positive reviews in prominent locations is a great marketing tactic. Make sure your ratings are highlighted and the best reviews are quoted and displayed where everyone will see them. This may include a sign in your store window, on your menu, or on your website landing page, product pages, and social media pages.

Get Active Online

Finally, create an online presence that makes you stand out as a likable company. This doesn’t have to be limited to only review sites. Create social media profiles and hire someone to maintain them with daily posts that are entertaining and/or informative. Keep your customers—aka followers—in the loop about sales, changes, new products, and any other relevant business information. Sprinkle in some humorous posts that apply to your company or industry, or that celebrate current holidays. When consumers are familiar with your brand and comfortable with your online presence, they are more likely to interact with you, whether through social media, customer service, or online review sites.

How Shopper Approved Can Help You With Online Reviews

If history and data have taught us anything over the past couple of decades, it’s that online reviews, social proof, and consumer insight are an ever-growing, effective, and crucial marketing component in the modern business world. With the addition of social media, smartphones, and user-friendly search options, it seems unlikely we would ever turn away from the decision enhancing, time-saving benefits that online reviews provide us when making big, or small, consumer decisions. 

In addition to the tips mentioned above, it is a good idea to get professional assistance when it comes to collecting, managing and promoting online reviews for your business. Shopper Approved can help you collect relevant, verified and authentic reviews, plus make sure your potential customers see them on the most popular websites like Google and Facebook thanks to our massive distribution network.

Since different sites and businesses use different formats when displaying information, it is beneficial to have the right tools to interact with websites in a way that works best for them. Shopper Approved provides you with all the tools you need to collect and share merchant reviews, product reviews, local reviews, and video testimonial all across the various platforms. 

These reviews can show up in your Google Adwords, Google Product Listing Ads (PLAs), organic results, Google Shopping Ads, Google Seller Ratings, on your own website, and any number of specialized review sites. 

We help you create surveys that are designed to work with your current website design. We can also customize the surveys to include specific questions that will help you to gain insight into the demographics and needs of your customers. You will even receive an alert when you get a bad review, so you can quickly respond and address the customer’s concern. 

Shopper Approved is one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in America and consistently gets up to 40 times more reviews for our clients than any of our competitors. Plus, we do it without contests, ads, or incentives.

Get Started Today

Shopper Approved is extremely easy to set up and does not require any program integration. We keep our prices competitive and affordable to ensure there is an option that works for you. We are so confident you will love our online review services, that we even offer a 30-day risk-free trial.

Learn more about Shopper Approved and how you can invest your efforts into harnessing the power of online reviews. Get started today!