The following is my opinion based on my own experiences and the experiences of people I know. Your experience may vary depending on how willing you are to ignore BS.
Have you ever said to yourself "how can that jerk still be in business, they're horrible. But they get good reviews on Wedding Wire, I just don't get it." Well guess what? They're probably writing their own reviews.
I've been stewing about this for a while, but after seeing this awesome article I decided to go ahead and write about it. This is the story of how a photographer tested the Wedding Wire system to see who's minding the shop and handing out those "top 5% of wedding professionals" awards. The answer, apparently, is nobody. Click here: Why I Killed Wedding Wire.
Review Sites Exist To Make Money, Duh.
Now after that you might be wondering whether the online wedding review system might possible be broken just a little bit. Of course it is. Review sites don't give a crap about whether the reviews are real or not. They're there to sell you advertising and to bury your bad reviews if you pay them to. This is detrimental to brides and to vendors, but I doubt that review sites care as long as they're making their $$$.
Let me first say that I'm picking on Wedding Wire today because I've had so many people gripe about it, and I've seen how the dispute process works firsthand. I've had really rude messages left on my answering machine from WW reps when I wouldn't return their calls to buy advertising, and they are SUPER persistent and annoying about trying to get you to pay them money. Other sites are the same, but they tend to send you a million emails instead of trying to corner you on the phone.
So why would you "upgrade your listing" with them? Because they will manipulate your reviews Yelp-style when you do.
I've heard several wedding professionals say things about their lowest-rated reviews disappearing completely from WW after they bought advertising from them. What a strange coincidence!
How Can You Dispute A Review If You Don't Get Any Input?
The answer is, you can't. I know people who have had anonymous reviews posted that they couldn't verify based on the fact that they WEREN'T WORKING THE WEEKEND THE REVIEWER SAYS THEY GOT MARRIED. This might be a tiny clue that the review is fake, but you still have to go through their dispute process to have it removed. (And based on the dispute system, it might not end up being removed at all.)
I also know people, myself included, who have had totally distorted versions of the truth posted as a review because the customer was mad and threatened feedback extortion if they didn't get a refund. Remember my client who was mad that I delivered exactly what she ordered, then said "the contract doesn't matter" when I pointed that out? In a strange coincidence, several fake reviews were posted on WW soon after she called to yell at me for providing what she had ordered.
So I've been through the WW dispute system, and I can tell you that it's total crap. Anyone can post an anonymous review, good or bad, and the "verification" process that WW goes through is specious at best. They require one of two things to "verify" a review. One is proof of payment to the vendor, and one is a signed contract.
You Can't Say Something Is Verified If You're Not Letting Both Parties See The "Proof"
Thing is, THEY DON'T FURNISH THE INFORMATION TO THE VENDOR SO THAT WE CAN VERIFY IT. So that vendor who wasn't working the weekend the reviewer says they hired her? All the anonymous reviewer would need to do is find a contract online, fill it out, sign everyone's names, and send it to WW as "proof." WW then writes to the vendor and says yep, we got proof, the review is staying.
They don't let the vendor see the contract or the proof of payment. So let's say I sold someone a bunch of silicone molds through my website store. They could go online and leave a review of the wedding cake they didn't get from me, and if I dispute it they could send the credit card receipt with the payment to my website as proof of payment. Since WW doesn't verify with the vendor that the payment was for what the reviewer says it was for, I don't have the chance to say that it wasn't for wedding services at all. They'll just "verify" the review and you're SOL.
And if the review is from an actual customer who basically misrepresents the situation, they won't remove the review either. WW says that they don't verify the truth of a review based on the contract, they just look to see if the reviewer can produce a contract. Even Paypal does a better job than that, and that's saying a lot.
And I'm not making this up...I have emails from Wedding Wire explaining their system to me when I wrote to question their methods. I invite them to step up and actually be accountable to the vendors, but they'll cry "privacy issues" and won't do that.
WW isn't the only one, either. Yelp is known for being full of BS, and went to court for the right to be able to manipulate their reviews. I've been told that The Knot removes too many reviews from the same IP address...So go use a proxy and you'll be fine there.
The Only "Integrity" Involved Is An Internal Thing. And Some People Have None.
The basic issue is that you don't know who's posting what and wedding websites aren't there for the vendors OR the brides. They're a business, and they're there to sell you advertising. If someone is packing their own reviews with fake ones, nobody's going to take them down. If there's no dispute then they're not going to be looked at twice. The fakery goes both ways, and is only stopped by someone's internal sense of right and wrong, which review websites don't care about. They're not there to be your friend, they're there to make money for their business.
I know a few people in my area who will read this and go give themselves good reviews. Because they suck. The brides are none the wiser, but we vendors know who's honest and who sucks. If you're a bride, read this: Checking Up On Your Wedding Professionals
So the next time you wonder how a caterer who gives people food poisoning on a regular basis, or a photographer who never delivers albums, or a baker who consistently delivers monkey-iced cakes get so many good reviews online, look no further than their friends and family. Or themselves, for that matter. If someone has time to make a bunch of fake email accounts and post some fake reviews, even the worst vendor will look like a gem online.
Kara Buntin owns A Cake To Remember LLC, online cake supplies at www.acaketoremember.com and www.acaketoremember.etsy.com