Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Epinions… dumbing things down even more

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I often write product reviews on Epinions.com.  Over the last year or so, my participation on that site has waned a bit, mostly because things there have gradually become pretty fucked up.  The database for finding products is pretty messed up and has been for years.  We have advisors and category leads who take things way too seriously and alienate people by being too heavy-handed with low ratings while not helping reviewers to improve.  We have lost the ability to suggest products, which especially sucks for certain categories like travel and restaurants and gourmet.  We have a lot of fly by night folks who try to scam the site.  I've personally run into quite a few nuts there, too…

But I keep writing there because in 2003, when I was struggling for relevance, I found a voice at Epinions.  I met a lot of great people, both on the site and in person.  I also made money writing there.  In almost eleven years, I've made well over $11,000 writing product reviews for Epinions.com.  It's not a living wage, but it's a pretty nice chunk of change for writing my opinions of products I would have spent money on anyway.

I have faithfully written on Epinions despite all the dramas, crappy Web site design, lagging page views, and most recently, smaller payouts we've all been getting.  I keep writing because I still find rewards in it, though to be honest, my efforts there have dwindled.  Last night, we got an email from one of the Epinions powers-that-be which said that our ratings system is going to change…

I wasn't around Epinions in its infancy, back when reviews were "recommended" or "highly recommended".  In those days, people who wore "hats" weren't called advisors, leads, or top reviewers.  They had different names for them… I believe advisors were called "editors" and I'm not sure what the top reviewers were called.  At some point, there was a huge overhaul of the site and the hat titles were changed.  So was the rating system, which allowed people to rate Very Helpful, Helpful, Somewhat Helpful, Not Helpful, or Off Topic (which basically amounts to an NH rating).  Leads and advisors were also given a Most Helpful button, which they could give to their favorite review of a certain product.  Since so many products only have one review and for so long Epinions encouraged and rewarded first and only reviews, the MH button didn't get used that much.

As of sometime in the next week or so, the ratings system will change so that we have "Expert" (which I think is supposed to denote what Very Helpful denotes now and will only be available to advisors and leads) "Very Helpful" (which is sort of a combination of Very Helpful and Helpful) and "Helpful" (which denotes what Somewhat Helpful denotes now).  We also get a "Flag" button, which is supposed to only be used when someone breaks the site's rules.

Personally, I doubt these ratings will really change much in the way the site functions.  I think they are intended to prevent new people from getting offended by low ratings and make the site more "fun".  However, given the fact that most of the reviews are currently being written by the few diehard folks who have been around forever, I doubt the ratings will mean much.  Recently, Epinions seems to be rewarding the newest content more now anyway, rather than the content that got the highest ratings.  Old members who have been around awhile will still be offended if someone gives them a "Helpful" rating, only now it means that the rater would have rated "Somewhat Helpful" if they still had the ability to.

At the same time, those who take a lot of pride in their writing and in properly rating reviews will not like having to say a review is "helpful" when they don't think it is.  And since we aren't supposed to flag reviews unless they break the site's rules, I suspect what will happen is that the more mediocre reviews won't get rated or people will simply leave comments that indicate how they really feel.

As I wrote before, I've sort of been slacking off on Epinions.  There was a time when I'd write a couple dozen reviews in a month.  Nowadays, I'm writing less than half that amount.  Lately, I'm writing more on my blogs, which doesn't earn me as much money, but is more personally fulfilling.  And I have been noticing that things are picking up around here anyway.
I do think it's sad, though, that Epinions is doing this with the ratings and apparently ignoring the much larger problems on the site.  It seems to me like they should have just rebuilt the site with updated technology.  That would go further in retaining new members than changing the ratings and dumbing them down so that people don't get offended and leave.  There's an old saying that I heartily believe in. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.  Epinions was set apart from other sites like Amazon because while the reviews tended to be lengthy, they were usually well-written and very comprehensive.  While I understand that people get offended by low ratings, it's not that hard to figure out how to write good reviews in most categories.  If you care about your writing, you'll improve it.  If you don't, you won't.  Dumbing down ratings won't do anything to help a person achieve that end.

I don't like getting or giving low ratings, but sometimes they are appropriate, especially when they are coupled with a comment that explains how the writer can improve or at least explains what's missing.  If we give everyone a "helpful" rating just for posting something, we may have more writers… but the writing will probably not be quite as good as it could be.

However… as I'm not a particularly strict rater, I suspect this new development will annoy me a lot less than it does other people.

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