Brain Buster

Nobody Likes A Critic on The Web

Sometimes my brain feels like my Grandfather’s workshop, overflowing with random stuff, ideas on projects all in varying states of completion. My daily dose of Seth Godin in Google Reader is like hurling a wrench into the workshop – it tends to knock some stuff around, wake me up, and perhaps think about something differently.

This week he did a piece on critics, please check it out before going further. No problem, I’ll wait…

So I start going through Robert Morris’ reviews and spot an interesting trend – the majority of them are positive, 4 or 5 stars. Based on adding his RSS feed to my reader I looked at over a hundred and didn’t see any 1 to 3 star ones.

This made me wonder about the Janet Maslin point he made – is there a place for negative criticism on the web?

I can see the mean spirited ivory tower stuff getting extinguished by two way communication and community voting, but what about legitimate negative criticism? For example, I recently bought a memory card adapter so that I could use a standard MicroSD memory card instead of the proprietary Sony card that’s 4x the price (big shocker, betamax-style baby!) . Of course the Sony device wouldn’t read it (shocker #2).

Posting a negative review would be very helpful as a “buyer beware”, more helpful than another 5-star review for a book on the NY Times bestseller list, but putting up a negative review has consequences – both the seller and the manufacturer have an interest in voting the review down. The buyer may consider the review but odds are, won’t vote because they don’t know for sure, and now they are less likely to try the product and find out.

As I’ve written this, another idea starts to gel – negative criticism has a tipping point and perhaps that’s the key. When you see something on Amazon with 20x the 1 star ratings over 5 star you avoid it. 80% of those are “pile on” 1 stars, and the 20% of 1 stars that came in were people so angry that they didn’t care about what anyone thought, they had to vent.

The end result – those who write negative reviews will always be always be at a disadvantage in scoring, and therefore visibility and level of trust (due to the automated nature of the system), compared to those who avoid writing any negative reviews.

This raises a bunch of interesting questions:

Will the job of the critic transform to that of referrer of quality stuff only?

What’s lost by having only positive reviews on the web?

Is it worth the risk to be a negative critic in a public forum?

Should negative criticism only to be done in private forums? Think about the waiter that will mention avoiding a certain dish, as opposed to reading a negative review on Yelp.

Web reviews could be considered SEO, content generation, social networking, branding, providing a good and valuable customer service, demonstrating thought leadership, perhaps even generate leads, or it could be just a hobby. With so many different motivations, what’s important?

I’d really like to hear your opinions on these items, and I’d really like to hear more from Seth Godin. Here’s my offer – if he’s willing to answer the questions above (in the comments, send them to me, whatever), I’ll give him $100 (or $100 to his favorite charity). Everybody else, you can get the latest Marketing Over Coffee audio program from iTunes for FREE! Ok, not as good as $100, I know, but this is a one man show…

4 replies on “Nobody Likes A Critic on The Web”


Great post. I think it depends. I am skeptical of anyone that is “all one” thing. Let me explain that.

For example, if someone only has given positive reviews, I shy away from that a little bit. I tend to think, “really, there’s NOTHING they don’t like?” So a little negativitiy or criticism adds to the credibility in my opinion.

I also am skeptical of people that only have negative reviews.

Your example of the Amazon reviews is a good one. When I’m looking at something, if it has 90% positive or 4-5 stars, I tend to read the negative reviews to see what I’m missing from the positive reviews.

Ultimately, I think both the postive and negative are useful when used correctly. If someone has a selection of each, they are much more believable to me – both if they are the reviewer and if they are being reviewed.


My answers

Will the job of the critic transform to that of referrer of quality stuff only?

No, but the definition of will bifurcate… trolls on one side, useful, insightful criticism on the other.

What’s lost by having only positive reviews on the web?

If we lose the trolls, that’ll be great. If we lose the insight, not so good.

Is it worth the risk to be a negative critic in a public forum?

I think the right kind of criticism (love you, don’t like your idea) is what makes forums work!

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