“You’re popular!” my phone says, as I leave a multi-story car park late at night. It wasn’t commenting on anything I’d done in the car park – not this time – but because I’d triggered Google’s feeding frenzy, and it was trying to flatter its way past my prefrontal cortex so that it could get what it wanted out of me. The only thing Google ever wants. Free content. 

I’d only myself to blame. In a moment of weakness six months ago, as a favour to a mate, I’d posted a review of his car body repair shop (‘this guy sculpted my Fabia’s tailgate like he was Michelangelo buffing David’s arse. Five stars’). In truth I’d never taken my Skoda within a mile of his shanty town of punctured Goodyears. 

But since then, at every geotagged location I’ve left, Google reminds me that my review of Pete’s AutoBody Centre is my Crime and Punishment. That battalions of potential consumers were unable to choose anything from a quick buff at a nail salon to a cheeky hot tub rental for Janice’s 50th, until David, in his infinite (although clearly unqualified and untested) wisdom adds his opinion to the steaming pile of arrant BS we call online ratings. 

But a review of Junction 18 car park off the M74? Even I’d have found that a stretch. And arrant BS is my wheelhouse. 

Not so Kevin from Carlisle. This was his moment to shine. In his one-star review, he laid waste to the lazy scatter of ‘lethal’ shopping trolleys, the inadequate lighting (‘an invitation’, he prophesized darkly, ‘to endanger single ladies’) and the car park’s ‘maddening labyrinth of ramps and one-way systems.’ It read like some mythic Greek odyssey. Our hero is banished into the underworld to return with some hitherto illicit knowledge. Or, at the very least, a Neom candle from John Lewis.

Google reviews are as prized as any glittering quest object or golden fleece. Punch the term into, erm, Google and you’re hit by a speeding freight train of marketing companies promising ‘Five Ways to Skyrocket Your Business: How to ask for, and get, five-star reviews from your clients.’

The answer, it transpires, is to beg for them. Or – in the case of Amazon marketplace sellers – promise to give punters free stuff if they do.

But what of the features about ‘five ways to deserve five-star reviews from your customers? They don’t exist. Because there really is only one way.  Just be good at what you do, and stop being so needy. 

The question for me is not whether Kevin’s experiences in an NCP version of Hades were real, but whether I should care about the opinions of a man who’s got two hours spare to write a review of a car park when he should be playing with his kids or having primal scream therapy. 

Kevin’s outburst makes me think less about the reviewed, and more about the reviewer. A fact only strengthened when I click on his other contributions to the great cloud of content. Of how a cold Yorkshire Pudding ‘absolutely ruined’ his mother’s 80th birthday celebrations at a pub along the shores of Loch Lomond. Of how a surly check-in assistant at Glasgow Airport got his holiday off ‘to the worst possible start’ and of how a set of rattan garden chairs were ‘like torture to sit in’ (although I’m beginning to think that, in Kevin’s world, that’s a plus).

I want to reach out and ask: “Kevin, are you living your best life? Would it help if I arranged an intervention?”

And yet, whether it’s Yelp, Trust Pilot, Feefo or Facebook reviews are the crack cocaine of commerce. And like all quick highs, their users are adept at inhaling the feel-good buzz of validation, while becoming selectively blind to the inconvenient lows when reality bites.

Faced with one-star feedback for their accommodation but high praise for their locations, a hotel chain I know of simply focused on the positive (‘We’re Right Where You Want To Be!’), and stripped out the free-text boxes in their customer surveys, so that there was no easy way for customers to moan about the damp in their rooms, or the rats on their balcony. 

So instead of “tell us what you thought of your accommodation” they simply replaced it with: “Here’s your chance to give our customers tips on what to do in the area.” 

To which many customers simply said: “move to a different hotel.”

Because rats on the balcony have a habit of finding their way into your potential customers’ consciousness, no matter how fleet-footed your marketing team thinks it is. So how about you get your house in order before you massage your content? 

It’s why, when it started, Trip Advisor felt so radical. It promised a democratic rebalancing of all those holiday horror stories – a sea-change in customer service. The result? An industry re-energized and re-focused on getting things right.  Win-win.

Then Karen discovered it. Shortly followed by Kevin. Pretty soon the platform became a zero-sum game of false-positive reviews and one-star score settling. A short-measure pint of lager enough to roast a hapless landlord in the eternal flames of hell.  A cheery but bland three-star hotel in Magaluf with knock-off ghost chairs and acrylic chandeliers in the en-suite ‘the most gawjus hotel in the world ever, and Miguel the DJ is an absolute legend!!!!!’ 

Nuanced conversations about incremental improvements or missed opportunities? Sorry, there’s no algorithm for that. 

More recently still, there’s a grim trend for reviews to become a platform for passive-aggressive marketing managers to politely huff and puff, like court jesters flapping a well-aimed handkerchief in the face of dissent (‘I’m surprised you feel this way, Marjorie. You clearly seemed to be having fun when you jumped on the bar with that bottle of Prosecco between your legs’.) Or for bullying restaurateurs to publicly shame their disgruntled customers who clearly don’t know how a Dover sole should be served anyway. So shut up, thank u bye. 

Why encourage feedback if you can’t stand the heat, chef? 

I bought a kitchen tap online a few months ago. It looked nice, but water didn’t come out of it.  I’m no Prue Leith, but some things are non-negotiable. Since then, I’ve been locked in a protracted waiting game to get a replacement, and my customer service emails are no longer being answered. 

But that hasn’t stopped the tap company from sending me about two million automated emails begging me for a review. ‘Your opinion on the product really matters to us,’ they say, as they virtually tug at our sleeve, with eyes like that cat out of Shrek.

Does it? Prove it. 

My friend’s auto repair shop has folded. If I’d have been a better mate, I’d have written: “He’s ok, but don’t go on a Monday, because he’s got a massive hangover, and he’s lethal with a soldering iron.”

But I didn’t. I let myself believe that dodgy ratings were all he needed to grow his business. Imagine the trouble we’d be in if that was being played out across every company in the Googleverse.

Oh wait. It is.