The Wiki Man

The joys and sorrows of two-way ratings systems

It gives both parties something to lose – but it’s not without problems

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

‘J’ai failli attendre’ — ‘I almost had to wait’ — allegedly said by Louis XIV when his carriage drew up just a few seconds before he reached the bottom of the palace steps.

Pathetic, I know, but I try to re-enact this moment with taxi booking apps: I watch the car approach on the map on my phone, then time my departure to emerge from the building exactly when the car pulls up at the kerb. It is a moment of synchronicity which delights the trivial mind — in the way many men enjoy timing the flushing of a lavatory so that the end of the flush coincides with the last moment of micturition.

But there is now another reason to do this: to avoid keeping the driver waiting. You may not know, but when you use services such as Uber or Hailo, not only do you get to rate the driver but the driver rates you. Once you learn this, it subtly changes your behaviour: I once found myself telling my children, ‘Hurry up and get in the car. I don’t want to drop below a 4.8.’

In what is known as a two-sided market (such as Uber, eBay or Airbnb) this two-way rating makes sense. With Uber ratings, the lowest-rated drivers are taken out of circulation, and the worst passengers presumably find it hard to get a taxi on a Friday night, thus purging the market of unscrupulous actors. (Uber drivers tell me that they do not usually refuse to pick up poorly rated passengers, but they do sometimes phone beforehand with a contrived query to check they aren’t drunk.)


At its best, the two-way rating system is a mechanism for creating trust by giving participants in a transaction ‘something to lose’ if the other party ends up unsatisfied. They are also an incentive to be nice. Reputational systems of this kind kept order in human society for a few million blissful years before lawyers were invented.

But the online systems leave room for improvement. Few qualitative judgements can be reduced to a simple average. With Uber, so one driver told me, ‘you only need one Russian arsehole to give you a one-star rating because you won’t let him smoke in the car and your rating is damaged for months’. And some niggling passengers give drivers three or four stars by default, reserving a five-star rating for acts of life-saving heroism; this confuses things further.

A new business can be wrecked by unlucky initial online reviews, too. (The technical term for this is hysteresis.) A woman recently told me that she first rented her villa to a party who then left a senselessly malicious review on a ratings site, after which it had been impossible to rent the villa to anyone else. My advice was to rename the villa and start again.

Someone from an electronics company told me they have to keep manufacturing an obsolete version of a piece of kitchen equipment, even though it is superseded. After five years, the older product had acquired so many positive reviews on Amazon it was impossible to retire it.

Restaurant and hotel reviews are problematic, too. Quite a few of my favourite places are not universally well liked on TripAdvisor, but are highly polarising. An average score does not capture this. I remember a hotel in Berlin where the television in the room had only one channel, which played The Big Lebowski on continuous loop; I loved it, but some people were scandalised.

Good things are often like that. We don’t really need the Michelin Guide. The Marmite Guide to the world’s most divisive hotels and restaurants would make a much more interesting read.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • Dodgy Geezer

    …And some niggling passengers give drivers three or four stars by default, reserving a five-star rating for acts of life-saving heroism; this confuses things further….

    Seems reasonable to me. What do you do, score 5 for bog-standard service?

    … she first rented her villa to a party who then left a senselessly malicious review on a ratings site, after which it had been impossible to rent the villa to anyone else….

    This is addressed, as in ebay, by allowing both parties to put their comment on.

    • Mc

      Unless the false feedback inadvertently makes it clear that the aggrieved customer is a nutcase, potential customers may decide to play it safe by avoiding a badly rated service provider. Unfortunately most websites don’t allow patently mad, inaccurate or malicious reviews to be deleted.

      • ‘Report abuse’ — where I see that, I do (complaints for instance about delivery or packaging that have absolutely nothing to do with the item itself).

    • score 5 for bog-standard service?

      Obviously not. But people read reviews in order to decide whether the current owners of the object in question are enthusiastic or not. They are not interested in your personal dramas and sagas and impossible ideals. Five means ‘yeah great loved it’. Why this is so hard for some people to understand just boggles the mind.

  • trace9

    There is a Portly Pontiff
    Who don’t like Rain too Much
    So if you wanna Kiss that Ass
    Seek in some Rabbit-Hutch..

    Obvously hadn’t checked TripAdvisor – unsuitable for non-Noah type Argies..

  • Mc

    “A new business can be wrecked by unlucky initial online reviews, too.”

    Internet feedback ratings are a paradise for the permanently aggrieved and mentally unstable.

    • Ken

      As are comments sections ….

    • Guest

      • prospero’s child

        here

        • gerontius redux

      • Guest

  • prospero’s child

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    11

  • gerontius redux

  • Guest

    22

  • Guest

    22

  • prospero’s child

    11

  • prospero’s child

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  • prospero’s child

    11

  • gerontius redux

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  • Guest

  • And some niggling passengers give drivers three or four stars by default, reserving a five-star rating for acts of life-saving heroism; this confuses things further.

    I can’t stand reviewers like that. They’re on Amazon, too: they won’t give five stars to a book unless it ‘changed my life’. This strikes me as a) idiosyncratic, especially since Amazon has made it quite clear what the star-ratings mean objectively; and b) overly self-important/ self-referential. I personally don’t care that a book didn’t change your life (whoever you are out there); I simply want a basis for assessing the book (or movie or whatever).

    I have always used the five-star system in a commonsense way — made explicit, as I say, by Amazon for the benefit of the egotistical dummies. Five stars means it’s something I recommend without complaint or real hesitation (I sometimes give five stars to items I have criticisms of, since the item is outstanding or valuable in the ways that really count). Four stars means that I would still recommend the item, but am not completely satisfied with some aspect of it. Three stars means I’m not so certain it’s worth having the item — and generally I don’t give three because I’m either happy (four or five stars) or I’m not, in which case it’s two stars or one. The main reason for giving three stars if I’m not pleased with something is that I think other customers take positive reviews more seriously. They certainly vote them up more of the time as ‘helpful’.

  • As for TripAdvisor: what are we to make of two-star reviews that say ‘horrible food, great service and beautiful place’ — when other two-star reviews say ‘great food, horrible service’? Personally I care more about the food. What I like to see also is a responsive and responsible management. There’s a restaurant I’m going to try despite the mixed reviews because it looks to me that whoever is running the joint really wants it to succeed.

  • You are in CDG Airport, Paris and you need a taxi service? Call CDG Taxi Service, go on the website & book your taxi online –
    http://www.charles-de-gaulle-airport-taxi-paris.com/

  • It truly does seem like public transportation from the airport is a convenient option when traveling. I’d imagine that renting some sort of shuttle would be a good option when traveling with a larger group. In either case, transportation shouldn’t be a stressor.
    http://www.paristaxi.paris/

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