My theory about the reviewers on sites like Yelp, Urban Spoon, Zagat (disclaimer: I’m a Zagat reviewer), and the like is this: people tend to complain more about an experience they disliked than praise an experience they liked, so I tend to think that those sites are skewed on the negative side. When I see a business like a restaurant or a salon that has many, many positive reviews and few negative ones, I think it must be a superior business and I’m more likely to try it out.

I read something today that blows my theory right out of the water. There are people out there who use the threat of a poor online review to get better service, discounted prices and preferential treatment. If they get what they want, they promise a positive review.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. The Los Angeles Times has a piece on the ReviewerCard, a card that can be purchased for $100 if you’re deemed an influential enough reviewer. The owner of the black plastic card can whip it out at a business before receiving any service to let it be known, as it says on the card, “I write reviews.”

The creator of the ReviewerCard — the guy I can now thank for making any positive review I read suspect — is Brad Newman. He thinks his exclusive card isn’t hurting anyone.

David Lazarus, the Los Angeles Times writer of the story mentioned above, certainly disagrees. He thinks it hurts the businesses, the review sites, the people who read reviews and the customers who don’t get preferential treatment because they don’t use threats.

I agree with Lazarus. The practice of letting a business owner or employees know that they better give you preferential treatment because you’re going to review them online is harmful. It’s particularly harmful to small, local businesses that understand how negative word of mouth on social media can hurt them, so they give in to this new form of extortion.

Newman says he’s actually taken the card out at a hotel and told customer service that if they give him a room for half price, he’ll write a great review on Trip Advisor. It worked. (Note to Trip Advisor: The credibility of your site has been extremely compromised by this guy and those who purchase his card.) He also tells of skipping the wait list at a restaurant after flashing the card, jumping ahead of customers who were there before him.

I don’t know what hotel this was (it was in Europe), and I don’t know how big it was. But I know this: if the same thing was done at one of the local restaurants near me that I love so dearly and help promote because they deserve it, not because they give me free or reduced stuff, it would hurt them. Their profit margins are very slim. If they get a few diners in each night who try to extort them, and they give in for fear of losing business, it will cost them dearly, especially if this catches on.

I’m angered by Newman and his ReviewerCard, and by the 100 people who have already ponied up $100 to buy one. In my opinion, they are forming a new type of mafia, one that uses the power of social media as extortion. It’s wrong.

I’m also worried that this practice will not only damage the reputations of online review sites and hurt businesses, but also damage the reputation of people like me who review restaurants.

I have strict rules that govern how I review. When I’m invited as a guest to a restaurant for a meal “on them,” I always say that clearly in my review. I do not promise a positive review, or any review at all, in exchange for my meal. My intent is to promote restaurants (or products) that impress me, and not to tear down a place that doesn’t impress. You’ll rarely see a negative review from me, not because I don’t have bad experiences, but because I choose to keep quiet about them.

I’m also picky about which invitations I accept. If a restaurant isn’t doing something impressive sustainably, I turn down the invitation. Sure, I could get a free meal for my husband and me (free date night!), and then tell the restaurant that their meal didn’t impress me so I won’t write about it — but that would be wrong to do.

(For more on my review policy, see The best restaurant experiences I had in 2012.)

I want you to know. I will never use anything like the ReviewerCard. I will never sell or barter my opinion. I will never tell a restaurant or business that I will give them a positive review in exchange for preferential treatment. I will never threaten a negative review if I’m treated like every other person who walks through the door.

What are your thoughts on the ReviewerCard? Does it change how you look at online review sites and online reviewers?

Related post on MNN: Can you trust online product reviews and ratings?

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