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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Feedback Addiction
feedback getting reviews

It's more how much feedback you get, not the quality or authenticity, which determines whether others think you're a winner


Over the last few days, I've been communicating with a freelance book cover designer in Sri Lanka.   I sourced him by surfing a popular freelance internet marketplace.  

It's always a crapshoot when you hire anyone sight unseen without a recommendation from a trustworthy source.  Sri Lanka and all of his competitors offered identical claims.  Some prospects were easy to rule out.  Their online portfolios did not look professional enough, their style didn't suit what I wanted, or their English level, based on their profile, wasn't up to standard.  Once I did my initial filtering, I was still left with a bucket load to select among.  

Sri Lanka was not my first choice.  I had my eyes on a book designer from Bulgaria.  Her portfolio looked more impressive.  But after I uploaded a past sample cover in order to show her the placement of logos and ISBN numbers, she assumed I wanted a cartoonish cover like this one and tried to charge me a lot more.  I had explained in detail upon contacting her that the uploaded cover was for technical illustrative purposes only.  

Communication was the problem with her.  She didn't properly comprehend what I'd written.  Even fluent Anglophones can possess this communication problem.  And she didn't respond promptly.  Mr. Sri Lanka did.  Had she taken me on as a client, it would have taken her days to process my critiques.  

One criterion I virtually ignored was the feedback.  

The feedback for Bulgaria and Sri Lanka was about the same, always extremely positive.  We could be talking here about any of the book cover designers in this marketplace.  A template review would be something like:  "[Book_Cover_Designer] did an extremely professional job.  Next time I need a book cover designer, I'll be sure to hire [Book_Cover_Designer]."  A very few went into some kind of detail why this particular designer should be considered a gift to the world of book cover design.  

Sri Lanka was not an amazing designer.  My impression after his first draft was that I could have done a better job, and I wouldn't have the nerve to bill myself as a professional book cover designer.  The reason I hired him was to get a better job than I could do myself.  He did take direction well and, after several revisions, finally delivered to me a passable cover which is professional enough.  It wasn't a negative experience.  The amount I paid him wasn't much.  I expected going in that to get an amazing book cover, I'd probably have to hire four different designers to get one serviceable cover.  Call it part of the investment process.  

When Sri Lankan completed the project, the freelance site asked me for feedback.  Feedback consisted of giving one to five stars in three different areas: communication, promptness, professionalism.  You're also meant to write a personal comment about your experience.  

What could I say?  I couldn't write that I didn't think Sri Lanka was amazing.  He had diligently tried to satisfy me the entire time.  I tried to be honest without hurting him and wrote something to the effect that his first draft hadn't delivered what I was looking for, but over several more revisions, he had taken direction well to give me a professional looking cover.  

On the star feedback section, I gave him two five stars and one four star, rating him more on attitude than sheer brilliance.  I'd consider that pretty damned good feedback, wouldn't you?   Sri Lanka wrote me back almost immediately to ask why I'd "slammed" him by only giving him four stars in one area.  This, he said, would hurt his overall ratings.  Could I be so kind to go back into the feedback section and award him five stars in all three areas?

So, in the end, my review was inflated, probably the same as most of the other reviews for all the other freelancers.  No empathetic customer would dare destroy a freelancer's online reputation who so sincerely aims to please.  Only freelancers with truly terrible attitudes and horrible skills would find themselves run off the site with repugnant feedback.  In real life, freelance professionals with the worst demeanor more than compensate with above average skills or no sane person would put himself through the experience of working with them.

Another criterion I didn't take seriously was the number of reviews.  Bulgaria had over two hundred reviews.  Sri Lanka had about thirty.  There could be many reasons for this discrepancy.  Perhaps Bulgaria has been freelancing on the site longer.  Perhaps Bulgaria is a better marketer.  

Anyone new to a marketplace has to start out at some point with zero reviews.  This in itself is a Catch 22.  No one wants to go near you unless it's already perceived people are flocking to you, but why will people flock to you if you have no social proof up front?  On some sites, you can compensate for your lack of popularity by lowering your prices below market value to lure in customers until you don't stand out.  The freelance web site I used for book covers didn't allow for this.   There is an established market price you couldn't charge less than, although nothing is stopping anyone from offering additional services for free to make the purchase a better value.  

My wife and I were recently booking rooms on AirBNB for an upcoming trip to Italy.   She was hesitant to book a place that didn't have a fair share of reviews already.  I countered that if the place looked decent and was a really good value compared to similar accommodation she was looking at, who cared?  The feedback here isn't as valuable as it looks.  If I tear into an AirBNB host and demote his or reputation in the community, they can turn around and destroy my reputation, too.  Why do you think nearly every seller at eBay has a reputation exceeding 95%?  I just bought a phone battery dock on eBay and the seller was quick to send me a message that ended with "Please do not leave us negative feedback or a low detailed seller rating!"  He needn't have worried.  Ratings all over the internet skew high.  The average of the 50m plus reviews on TripAdvisor comes to 3.7 out of 5.0.  This borders on the exceptional.  No one dares to sully another member's reputation unless the seller is an unscrupulous thief, and such con artists aren't able to last long on a large online community.  

AirBNB and the site from where I hired my book cover designer are not anonymous communities.  It's a proven fact that it's harder to be objective about people you know or have had some kind of intimate contact with, all the more so when the comments you write will be seen by the party you're commenting on.  Of course all the feedback is going to skew positive.  My wife was asked at her workplace to provide fellow employee assessments.  This would have been fine if her comments remained anonymous or were only seen by the most senior staff.  Nope.  All the employees were free to read their assessments and would know exactly who wrote them.  What do you think my wife wrote in hers?  

It's somewhat easier to be honest when the community is anonymous or in situations where you don't personally know the person behind the thing you're reviewing.   If you're writing a review for a book you've read, you probably don't know the author personally, and there's a good chance the author will never read your review.  Even if the author does, you're hiding behind a username.  

Social proof has always been the name of the game.  Men with women surrounding them like satellites always find it easier to attract yet more women.  Other women  conclude he must be someone worth chasing.  Hungry diners are more likely to dine at a restaurant where they already see lots of diners or where there's a long queue outside.  

You could always game the system.  I know of single men who regularly go out with platonic attractive female friends to make themselves appear more attractive.  Restaurants hire people to stand in queues outside.  However, this form of gaming only works for so long.  A below average-looking dweeb bringing along his sister's model best friend to the bar will certainly attract a lot of attention at first, but if his personality doesn't have enough positives to compensate for his unattractiveness, his elevated status will dim fast.  A restaurant can hire people to queue outside in order to bring in the crowds, but if the restaurant can't deliver a fantastic experience to the people they do attract, continuing to pay professional line standers will yield quickly diminishing returns.  

Not so online.  Feedback lives forever there.  

Let's take Amazon, the most popular book selling site in the world.  If you write a book in a very narrow niche, it's possible people in that niche will purchase your book without the need for a single review.  But if there are fifty books they can choose among, most buyers will be swayed by the one which seems to be the most popular.   "It must be the best one," they think, "if so many others bought this one over all the others."  

Must it?  That's like saying that Hershey or Cadbury must offer the best chocolate or that Budweiser and Coors must offer the best American beer because they're the most common.  The most popular may be the best … or it simply may just be the most popular for a host of other reasons.  Like good marketing.  Like a huge budget for advertising.

Entire cottage industries have sprung up to provide, for a fee, the social cred people feel they need.  Want an insane number of Facebook likes superfast?  A hundred thousand Twitter followers?  Fifty five-star reviews on Amazon?   As long as you're willing to open up your wallet, someone will do it for you.  

Bogus testimonials to establish social proof are nothing new.  Advertisers have been paying for these for years.  Watch a laundry detergent commercial, and you'll see a housewife insist that the brand being advertised makes her clothes whiter than any other brand.  Are we supposed to take her "review" seriously when she is a paid actress?  Would we value the detergent ever more highly if the commercial showed us a dozen paid actresses?  

And yet on the internet, we're conditioned to believe that customer feedback is honest.  Ideally, it would be, and it probably started out that way, but sometime very early on, marketers figured out that you could distort the line between fact and fiction by bulking up their feedback with marketing reviews made to look like editorial ones just like newspapers and magazines have been doing with paid inserts for decades.  There's nothing anyone can do about this.  Researchers at Cornell claim to have developed a computer algorithm to detect fake reviews, and their algorithm may be able to discern common patterns in quickly written bogus reviews.  That's today.  Tomorrow's enterprising fake review writers will just demand more money to write more realistic reviews to escape detection.

Tripadvisor, Amazon, and their brethren all claim to care about bogus reviews and feedback bulking.  They wouldn't look credible if they said they didn't care.  But at the heart of it, they love having the bragging rights to say they have X million reviews, even though the majority of the reviews are likely gamed and the popularity contest can be rigged.  One popular blogger e-mailed his entire mailing list before his book came out to ask them all to write him a five-star review upon the book's launch.  Instantly, hundreds of reviews of positive feedback appeared.  Some admitted not having read the book:  "My new copy of [Book_Title] just arrived!  I can't wait to read it."  Amazon has no policy against reviewing a book you're honest about not having read.  What does that tell you?

There could be a hundred people standing outside a steakhouse and a thousand reviews submitted on a sleazy seduction guidebook.  If you're a vegetarian Catholic priest, neither of these gambits at social proof would mean a thing, and that's assuming the line and the reviews are legitimate.  You shouldn't need to be a vegetarian Catholic priest for the point to hit home.    

If you liked reading this, consider:
 Friendship In The Post Internet World
 Do Open Relationships Stand A Chance?
 The Complete Article Index