How to Find Trustworthy Reviews

Your local message board raves about Al’s Plumbing. But Yelp gives it just two stars. When you need a recommendation, whom should you trust?

  • Sarah Robbins

Say you’re looking for a landscaper. Or a house cleaner. Or a tutoring service for your fifth grader. Most likely, you want to hire someone with glowing bona fides from your friends or family. You’re not alone: In a 2013 survey conducted by Nielsen, a global information company, 84 percent of respondents said that they trusted word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family more than any other source. But what if your neighbor or second cousin doesn’t know any good landscapers/cleaners/tutors? Well, you’ll have to do a little sleuthing. Follow these steps for obtaining a recommendation that you can rely on.

1. Look up local businesses on several online review sites.

Yes, several. On one site, the reviewers might say that “the service gets an A,” says Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports, “but on another it might get a C.” Looking at a few websites will give you a broader perspective, he says. (See How to Spot Fake Online Reviews.)

Not sure which sites to use? Here’s a cheat sheet.

Yelp (yelp.com): This 10-year-old resource is beyond popular. It boasts a stunning 53 million reviews. So anyone with a strong opinion on local house painters, for instance, has probably weighed in here. However, the site permits anonymous reviews, which means that you may come across bogus ones. When sussing out fakes, says Blyskal, watch out for language that sounds like marketing jargon or that features “excessive gushing, with no negatives anywhere.”

Google+ Local (plus.google.com/local): Before posting about a business, a user must create a Google+ profile, ensuring that reviews contain a real face and name. But this site is not as established as Yelp, so expect fewer reviews overall.

Porch (porch.com): On this home-improvement–focused site, users search providers’ profiles based on location and specialty. Customers can vouch for the specific skills of service providers, but there are no customer reviews.

Homeadvisor (homeadvisor.com): This site starts by asking questions about your project. Then it dips into its database of 80,000 service providers, who specialize in everything from grout to gutters, to come up with a few names that are most appropriate for you. The site screens providers and collects customer ratings.

Angie’s List (angieslist.com): Unlike the other recommendation sites, this database of service professionals in 720 categories isn’t free. Users pay about $29 to $49 a year (depending on your location) to access reviews. On the plus side, the site works to weed out fraudulent reviews (anonymity is not permitted). However, Consumer Reports recently reported that highly rated companies that buy ads on the site receive more favorable placement than highly rated ones that don’t buy ads. Angie’s List contends that it allows only providers that continuously receive positive reviews to advertise and that users have the option to view results sorted by grade rather than by promoted content.

2. Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Once you’ve found a company or two that you would like to hire, head to the bureau’s website, bbb.org. This 102-year-old nonprofit tracks the number of complaints filed against a business, the speed with which it responds to the complaints, and how it works with customers to resolve problems, says BBB spokesperson Katherine Hutt. If the company has a clean record, go to step 3. If not, read the customer complaints on the site and assess whether the issues are deal breakers for you. And bear in mind that reputable service providers may not be listed on bbb.org, especially if no consumer has filed a complaint against them.

3. Ask for references.

This step is crucial if the professional will be working in your home, in proximity to your family and valuables. “If a restaurant review isn’t accurate because someone games the recommendations system, you have a bad dinner,” says Porch CEO Matt Ehrlichman. “If you hire the wrong service provider, there is more at stake at both a personal and monetary level.” Ask for 5 to 10 references. That way, the candidate has less control over whom you call and you’re more likely to get an honest opinion.