The Truth About Online Reviews Of Real Estate Agents

People with speech bubbles containing stars for online reviews.

Does this story sound familiar? Joesph and Suzette McKinney are heading out for their weekly dinner date. Before leaving, they decide they’d like to try something different this week. Having been to nearly all of the restaurants in their immediate area, they go online to search for the best Italian restaurants within 10 miles; looking for something that isn’t too pricey.

With just a few clicks, they find a place on a popular website that has a perfect five star rating and is at the top of the list. It looks like an easy decision, so they plug the address into their navigation and head that way. Two hours later, after finishing their less than appetizing meals, the couple heads home.

On the way, they can’t help but talk about their poor experience, and they both wonder how others thought the food and service were so great. They run another search from their smartphone to check out a different review site. The feedback on the second website paints a much different picture. These reviews mirror the McKinney’s experience. They’re immediately skeptical of all the positive reviews on the first site they visited.

An online ad for a five star Italian restaurant.

Then they spot it… the “Ad” that appears in small text next to the restaurant name on the first site. This might explain the premium placement and all the great reviews! Unfortunately, this same scenario plays out with businesses in other industries as well… including real estate.

Before I Begin

Let me first start off by saying, I’m very grateful to my clients who have taken the time to write a review for me. Just reading their words and knowing how appreciative they are is immensely gratifying. Personally, I don’t feel the need to show the world how happy they were to work with me, just knowing is enough for me.

If it didn’t matter either way, I’d much rather keep their testimonials private - just between us. However, it does matter. Online real estate agent reviews are an extremely important part of attracting new clients, even if internet lead generation is not a major component of your business.

Why Reviews Are So Effective

In a world where people are increasingly turning to the internet to research nearly everything, online reviews have become a major factor in who a home buyer/seller decides to hire. I believe people want to base their decision on the experience of others. The more validation they can get, the more comfortable they feel about their decision. It’s no longer just about reaching out to a trusted group of friends to see which agent they hired and how their experience was.

People now need dozens, if not hundreds, of experiences to rely on, even if they know some of them aren’t legit. After all, if 122 other people had a great experience, so will they, right? For example, let's take the two Zillow profiles below. Which one would you be more inclined to work with?

A side-by-side comparison of two agents profiles with reviews on Zillow.

Paying To Play?

Before we get into all the inadequacies of online reviews, let’s briefly talk about the agents you’re likely to see when browsing homes online or searching agent reviews. If nearly all of these sites are free for the consumer to use, how do you think the websites make their money? They charge the agents! So, many times you’re not seeing the best, most highly rated agents, you’re seeing the ones that have paid money to be there.

However, not all of them pay, usually just the ones you see featured front and center. Some of these sites will even hide poor reviews submitted about a sponsored agent that is paying for advertising. Even worse, other sites will feature the poor reviews of those agents that refuse to pay! A business owner and friend of mine referred to one site as, “The Mafia”. Basically, their policy is: pay us, or you’re going to look bad on our site. Can you say, extortion?

Why These Sites Love Reviews

I’m not going to get into the popular debate on the topic of why real estate brokers/agents give sites like Zillow, Trulia, realtor.com our listing data for free, then turn around and buy back advertising space right next to those very same listings! But once again, the short sighted and competitive nature of the real estate industry catches agents in its trap. While agents are blindly scrambling to be the one with the highest review score and the most client ratings, these sites are the ones truly benefiting from all the effort.

Building Their Database

Real estate agents work hard and spend thousands of dollars on advertising to build their book of clientele. Then, we turn around and give this information away to our online competition in exchange for a couple stars next to our name. By encouraging clients to leave us a review, we are basically giving these review sites the name, home address, phone number and email of our clients… for FREE! What better way for these sites to generate leads and build their massive database of future customers than for agents to do it for them. Brilliant, but not on our part.

Increasing Relevancy & Reliance

In addition to handing over the contact information for all our clients on a silver platter, we are also making these sites more relevant and ensuring our future reliance on them. If an agent has painstakingly gotten dozens of clients to register and write a review on a particular site, don't you think they’re going to refer potential clients to that site to show proof of their past experience and client satisfaction? This also makes leaving the site for a new platform much more difficult. Once these sites know they’ve got agents fully bought in, they’ve got tons of leverage and the power to make or break an agent’s success on their site. Kind of scary!

Lots of 5 Star Agents!

Five star review text over a blue ribbon and gold star.Ever searched for agents online and noticed they all seem to have nearly perfect ratings? I ran a search for agents in Atlanta on Zillow.com the other day, it wasn’t until I was 5 pages deep before I found my first agent that didn’t have a perfect 5 star rating!

So, you’re telling me these agents are so great they get hundreds of “reviews” and not one of them rated them less than perfect? What good are ratings and reviews if almost all of them are going to be five stars? However, it’s probably not the website’s fault. After all, who would ask their clients to leave a review if they knew the experience was anything less than great?

Reviews Can’t Be Faked, Can They?

Remember the early days of the internet when everything you read online was fact and nobody’s opinion was ever influenced by financial gain? Yeah, me either! If only we lived in a perfect world. In actuality, there are tons of fake reviews out there, whether they’re self-generated, written by someone else for money, or done in exchange for some other sort of compensation.

Recommendations, reviews, testimonials, whatever you want to call them, they’re not hard to fake or game the system on most websites. Sadly, there are many sites that aren’t really concerned if the reviews are fake anyway. They’re more focused on their user traffic, which often brings in the revenue.

Selling Reviews To Agents

Remember, if there’s a way to game the system to get ahead of the competition, there are certain people who are going to take advantage of it. Some have even built a business around providing fake reviews. For example, the image below shows a direct solicitation received by a fellow agent through their LinkedIn account. In it, the company is offering to provide the agent up to 10 Zillow, and 50 Facebook 5 star reviews, all for just dollars per review.

A LinkedIn message from a person offering to write reviews for money.

Fortunately, this agent immediately posted a screen shot to a popular REALTOR® Facebook group to vent her disgust with such a practice, and to warn others about this problem. The offer was from a woman, but her profile didn’t have a company name that could be found. Obviously, these sorts of shady tactics can’t be associated with a legitimate company, so I’m sure the profile was as fake as the reviews they were selling.

Agent Response Fake Reviews

I was pleased to see the overwhelming response from the group was that this type of practice was appalling. However, how many agents would publicly support this type of behavior, much less admit to using fake reviews? Many of the agents on the thread voiced complaints that they work hard to build trust and provide excellent service to their clients, and get real reviews. Others mentioned how hard it is to get people to take the time to write and post a review.

Many agents said they spent countless hours trying to get reviews from past transactions. All the while, many feared that others have taken the shady route of buying their testimonials, some for as little as $5 a piece. How else could a new agent with less than 10 verified sales have more than 30 five star testimonials on a prominent real estate portal? Many said they have seen it happen!

Where To Find Agent Ratings?

There are countless sites out there with agent directories and reviews. Unfortunately, there is not a way to have testimonials submitted once, verified for authenticity and distributed to each of these sites. With the current system, most sites require the review be submitted to each site independently, one at a time.

So ask yourself, do you really think every client goes on each of these sites and posts a glowing review of their agent? It really makes me wonder how the reviews get there, and who is actually putting them there.

Popular Agent Review Websites

  • Zillow/Trulia - Two of the most visited real estate websites in the U.S. If the purchase of Trulia by Zillow had any positive impact, it would be the merging of reviews on both sites.
  • Realtor.com - Search local REALTORS® to find reviews (verified) and recommendations on one of the world’s most trusted real estate websites.
  • Yelp - More than just real estate, Yelp is a leader in online reviews and recommendations for top restaurants, shopping, nightlife and much more.
  • Facebook - Find reviews and testimonials for agents and brokerages who have set up a business page.
  • BBB - Find agent/brokerage ratings and view customer complaints/reviews.


Online Reviews Are Still Relevant… For Now

Because the majority of the population doesn’t realize how corrupt the current system really is, online reviews haven remained relevant. However, I believe that is quickly changing, and users are becoming increasingly skeptical of what they’re seeing. There are sites popping up every day offering to sell social clout… and they’re cheap. Now you can buy just about anything to make your business look legitimate, including likes, followers, views, shares, and yes, reviews & testimonials.

Heck, for $5 you can hire a real person on fivver.com to give your business a positive video testimonial. Once tactics like this are commonplace, who is going to believe anything they see on the internet? If anything, it’s going to make for a much more skeptical consumer, one that needs to do even more research before making a decision.

What’s The Solution To All This?

The internet has given us an infinite amount of information, right at our fingertips, whenever we want it. Unfortunately, as I’ve demonstrated in this article, not everything you read or see on the internet is the truth, especially when there is money to be made. My suggestion for finding the right agent is to go about it the old fashion way… talk to people!

I’d be willing to bet almost every person you know has at least one real estate agent they know well. Most people know multiple real estate agents, and usually they’ll give you the truth about their experience with them. Besides, nobody wants to refer a friend to an agent that is bad at what they do. On the flip side, most agents don’t want to screw up a referral from a friend, it can harm friendships and kill future referrals. Believe me, agents love referrals

Discussion

#1 By John C at 2/21/2018 7:27 AM

OK. When I checked in Huntsville, AL, ALL the agents listed on Zillow had a rating of 4.5 or better - when they had any ratings at all. Not many agents had reviews on Yelp; although a few had tons. On the third page of ratings at Realtor dot com out of 25, when ranked by highest rating, we run out of realtors with ratings. (People should put more ratings up there, instead of the very fishy Zillow!) Also, Realtor dot com lacks info on recent sales; so a promising agent might have been relatively inactive for a long time. I don't do Facebook, as it seems to be all about gathering intelligence on people, and manipulating opinion. BBB might tell you to avoid some realtors, but not who to choose. Thus, there are not any really good sites for sizing up realtors; although Realtor dot com shows most promise so far.

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