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Online reputation management is an increasingly important subject for businesses. And for good reason: consumers are on the internet, and they're talking about the businesses they interact with. From reviews posted on sites like Amazon to dedicated customer review hubs like Yelp, there is no shortage of online places for consumers to express their opinions about businesses (and their products and services).

But what about individuals? While some have tried to bring the reviews to an individual level, there's really no Yelp for people. A new startup that is receiving some attention and sparking some controversy hopes to change that.

Unvarnished, which launched in beta this week, bills itself as "an online resource for building, managing, and researching professional reputation." While it sounds tame, TechCrunch is calling Unvarnished a "clean, well-lighted place for defamation", while VatorNews says "Unvarnished will be one more billy club for the savvy slanderer."

The controversy around Unvarnished is based on the way it is structured. A profile can be created for any individual, and reviews of that individual don't include the identity of the reviewer. Instead, Unvarnished is using its own algorithm to determine the credibility of reviewers and believes that users will be able to trust its assessment. Participation in Unvarnished requires a Facebook account (logins take place through Facebook Connect).

Once a review is posted, it cannot be removed by the individual on the receiving end of the review, even if he or she claims his or her Unvarnished profile. In other words, despite Unvarnished's claim that it merely "obscures" the identity of reviewers, it is for all intents and purposes an anonymous forum for reviewing other people.

And it's going to fail. Here's why:

  • Anonymous reviews usually don't carry much weight.
    While this is not to say that anonymous reviews are completely worthless, or always negative, they are problematic. That's because the credibility of a review is typically tied to the reviewer.

    After all, an endorsement from a top executive at a well-known company is going to be far more compelling than a negative review by a former entry-level co-worker who never worked with you directly. In the absence of any ability to truly assess a reviewers credibility (either through identity or review history), Unvarnished's anonymous reviews have little to no inherent value.

  • Expectations are low.
    In reading opinions about Unvarnished, one thing is clear: many people have low expectations. The thinking behind this: an anonymized environment will logically encourage negative reviews and abuse. The low expectations mean that negative reviews, even if accurate, won't carry any weight because the structure of Unvarnished encourages them.
  • People won't care.
    It's highly unlikely that enough people in important positions will care enough about Unvarnished to give it influence. If co-workers and former associates post bad things about you on Unvarnished behind a wall of anonymity, why should anyone care? As discussed, the anonymous reviews don't carry much weight and the average person's expectations for an anonymous reviews service are already low.

    Prospective employers and business partners have plenty of ways to evaluate you, from background checks to reference requests, so it's unclear why anyone would rely heavily on Unvarnished when so many credible alternatives exist.

  • You need Facebook.
    Right now, you must have a Facebook account to sign up for Unvarnished. That leaves out an awful lot of people since (surprise) not everyone is on Facebook. But more importantly, the Facebook angle ironically makes Unvarnished an unattractive target for abusers. While Unvarnished may be legally protected from libel and defamation claims, individuals who believe they've been libeled or defamed can sue to reveal the identity of a reviewer.

    Unvarnished has to store Facebook user IDs, and Facebook obviously keeps track of information that can be used to track the user of a Facebook account (such as IP addresses). That means that anybody who really wants to libel or defame would have to be dumb to use Unvarnished to do it.

  • There's little motivation for positive reviews.
    Because identity is 'obscured' on Unvarnished, serious individuals have little reason to leave positive reviews. When recommending a co-worker, client, etc., the average person takes pleasure in associating his or her name with the recommendation. If you believe that the person you're speaking highly of is truly wonderful, it's an honor and an obligation to use your real name.

    And for good reason: how is someone reading your words supposed to determine whether or not they're credible if they don't know who wrote them and what your relationship is to the person you're recommending? The answer: it can't be done, so anonymous recommendation is, at best, as good as no recommendation. Time is better spent providing recommendations when and where they'll count for something.

In short, Unvarnished is an obvious idea that won't work because it fails to effectively address one of the most important aspects to reputation online: trust. Without accountability, there can be no credibility. Without credibility, there can be no trust. And without trust, you have nothing.

Online reputation is a hot area, and many startups are hoping to get in on the action. But separating the wheat from the chaff is increasingly difficult because there's so much chaff. The companies that will succeed will be those that focus on helping individuals avoid the chaff. Unvarnished will simply create more of it.

Photo credit: Vlad Genie via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 1 April, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2401 more posts from this author

Comments (17)

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Peter Kazanjy

Hi there Patricio,

I appreicate your taking the time to weigh in here, and want to take a moment to address your points.  

We see Unvarnished as structured to create a fair balance between the interests of reputation owners, reviewers, and review readers...and sometimes those interests are in tension. But we're trying to balance them. We're trying to create an online service where the many voices that influence a reputation, including the reputation holder's own voice, can come together.

1. Anonymous review carry no weight: Disagree. First, in order to create an environment wherein people can give honest, candid reviews, they have to feel safe from repercussion. But that doesn't just mean feel safe to give F- grades. That also means safe to give, well, B plusses, A minusses, and yes, C minusses.  But the existence of that variation actually makes the As worth something. Rather than a site full of 5 stars reviews.

However, while Unvarnished obscures the name of the reviewer, they *do* have identity on the site. And that identity accrues a reputation over time, and that reputation, if the reviewer is trusted, versus brand new, versus not trusted, is displayed to readers, so they can make decisions about which reviews are more or less valuable.

Do you use Amazon product reviews? Do you use Yelp? Do you use TripAdvisor? You have no idea who these people are, and yet you use their information as inputs into serious decisions. The point is you need to know how good the reviewer's reputation is, which is often tied to a name, in the offline world, but is not by all means necessary. Your point misses that.

2. Expectation are low

You mean like expectation for a service that lets you tweet about your breakfast? The thing is, as soon as people realize that the reviews *are* accurate, about them, their colleagues, etc., which is what we see on the site right now. The site is already full of content that is very, very reflective of the people about which the claims are made. The reviews are balanced and fair, and some are negative, but most are positive. Most importantly, they're balanced. Profile owners respond to reviews, and importantly, request reviews from people they think can give accurate assessments of their professional reputation. And, because the identity is obscured, those reviews are that much more believable, rather than uniformly glowing with no nuance, which is what you currently get online. Offline, you can get a much better sense of the full picture. We seek to bring that online.

3. People won't care.

People are posting good and bad things, but importantly, accurate things. And I think that the controversy right now proves that people care about this, deeply, and will engage with the site to proactively establish a strong reputation.

As for your point about credible alternatives: criminal background checks may be useful for an entry level service sector job, but they're not useful in hiring, say, a software engineer.  Reference requests don't help you get real information. They give you the information that the candidate wants you to get: all 100% glowing from his fanbase.  Unvarnished provides a way for the information that resides in the brains of all a given individual's colleagues to surface and come together to be considered by the person consuming this information.

4. You need Facebook

You prove our design decision.  Using Facebook allows us, from the instant of registration, make judgements as to how legitimate a given 'person' is. Are they a brand new Facebook account with no friends? Wow, that's suspect. Perhaps their content doesn't go live on the site, because they look like a spam account intended to write unwarranted nasty OR nice things. 

Also, there are 400m Facebook users. There are 30m LinkedIn users. If we are limited to 400m users, we'll be off to a good start.

5. There's little motivation for postitive reviews

Disagree. Reviews that are not necessarily visually tied to the review giver in many ways are *more* believable, and thus, if the person is leaving the positive review from a motivation to help the target, then this is even better to achieve that goal. Versus "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" LinkedIn recommendations.

Further, profile owners can reach out to their colleagues and request reviews if they feel they want to be proactive in establishing their professional reputation on Unvarnished.

Your claim "without accountability, there is no credibility" is spot on. Where it breaks down, here, is that on Unvarnished, there *is* accountability.  All of a given reviewer's reviews are linked to his user account. His reviewer account, based on how other vote on his reviews, his reviewing patterns, his review distribution, and other factors, earns a reputation over time. And that reputation can be negatively impacted if he engages in bad behavior.  And that isn't to say negative reviews per se. Negative reviews are not bad per se, just like positive reviews are not good per se. The question is accurate, and legitimate, and good faith.  

That's what Unvarnished is about. A place where reviewers can exercise their right to public participation, that readers can weigh all information available, not just what someone wants them to see, but where profile owners have a voice, and a loud one, i the conversation.

If you'd like to get on the site to actually see how it works, I'm happy to invite you.

Pete Kazanjy

co-founder, Unvarnished

over 6 years ago

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Mike

I think this service could be very worthwhile.  Last quarter, my firm was looking to hire a new analyst, and because we are small and don't have an HR wing of any legitimate size, I was in charge of doing reference checks for new candidates.  When I called up former employers, I would say that about 70% of the time, I got completely stonewalled.  Most said that it was "company policy" not to give out any information regarding former employees.  Clearly, company policy is concerned with preventing HR lawsuits in the case that a former employee thinks they have been sabotaged.  We actually ended up NOT hiring a new analyst, because the risk was too great for our small 5 person firm.  Maybe this service could hedge out some of that risk?

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Peter,

I was going to respond to some of the points you made, but then I saw the comment from "Mike". The way it was written seemed a little strange, especially given that it popped up ~30 minutes after yours.

Mike's email address indicates he has the same last name as you. A search for your name in California through one of the popular background check services brings up two results that appear to be the same person, and assuming this is you, indicates you have a relative named "Mike".

What are the odds? If I didn't know any better, I'd jump to the conclusion that you were astroturfing. That wouldn't be the best thing for a service trying to convince the world that anonymous reviews are credible, no?

over 6 years ago

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Peter Kazanjy

Hey Patricio,

Please do respond to my comments, I'm eager to hear what you have to say (also, sadly, your comment system does not have a "notify of responses" feature), so I will have to remind myself to come back.

And yes, it looks like Mike decided to add to the conversation. Good for him. I don't understand how that undermines what Unvarnished does?  I would say that it critiques your commenting system.

If, instead, you had a comment system like Disqus or IntenseDebate, where commenters earn reputation over time, it wouldn't matter. People could look at what Mike said, weigh it, and also, put it in context of how his other commenting behavior has reflected on a persistent reviewer reputation.  A 'name' is just an identifier that links an actor to a reputation. In this case, he could be surferboy13, or even not have a name, but rather, just his authority scores, and you would still have information to act on.

Also, it seems that Mike's point, which, he raised because I had left it out of my argument, is valid. You should address it. Just because it came from my brother, or friend, or another alpha user of Unvarnished, or some random reader is not a sufficient condition to discard the argument...is it?

You see, the fact that the *real name* is not there does not really matter. It may in this specific use case because you seem to imply that by very virtue of a vested interest, this commenter has not standing at all--i disagree with your claim.

But in our use case, we have to obscure the reviewer's name, otherwise, the fear of reprisal would remove any nuance from reviews for fear of reprisal.  You'd quickly have a site full of A+ reviews, which are in-differentiable. 

So I welcome your responses to my comment (and Mike's), and would be happy to get you on the site too.

Pete Kazanjy

co-founder Unvarnished

over 6 years ago

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Mike

Patricio,

You'll have to pardon my use of anonymous response earlier.  Here, you can go ahead and research who I am, where I work, and how my connection to and interest in Unvarnished lies in the fact that I am an alpha participant, the site was created by my brother, and I am eager to respond to inflammatory and baseless criticisms, like yours.  That is why I have an alert set up to tell me when a new article pops up on google's radar.  

The truth is that every single word of my comment is an undeniable fact.  I do work for a 4 person San Francisco office of a small consulting firm that lacks a legitimate HR department.  Yes, we did look for an analyst last quarter, and yes, we chose not hire one because 1) we didn't come across very good candidates 2) couldn't confirm that the candidates we thought were good, were actually good, and 3) couldn't justify wasting my billable time on finding the exact right match to hire.  So, I would venture to say that the anonymous comment I left was completely credible, and you can go ahead and do some background checking of your own, if you would like to try and prove me otherwise.  

Otherwise, please, do respond to my comment, perhaps to the content of my comment, rather than the anonymous or identified nature thereof.  I would love to bring this to an open discussion of the potential benefits and potential downfalls of Unvarnished.  Honestly, and Pete can attest to this, I am not 100% convinced that Unvarnished will work out as he plans.  

But, I will say that I'm not nearly as fearful or inflammatory about my concerns.  Some of the "reviews" that people have made about this site, have been so far from the truth that its clear they haven't done more than maybe twenty minutes of research, and then posted a weak, non-factual story with a controversy-seeking headline.  

-Michael Kazanjy

over 6 years ago

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Peter Kazanjy

Patricio, I still don't understand why you aren't addressing my points.  My brother, on his own volition, decided to comment on this post. Why is that a problem?  Are the points not valid? Further, his claims of "I think this service could be very worthwhile" and "Maybe this service could hedge out some of this risk" actually have no content in them indicating a lack of farmiliarity with the service. They're making claims about it's potential use in a hypothetical situation, when the service did not yet exist. 

Regardless, you still haven't addressed my counterpoints to your arguments in your piece. Do you intend to do so? Because right now, you seem to be using this semantic discussion as a way of avoiding addressing all those points. It's fine if you choose not to, but please recognize that you're taking shelter in a semantic discussion over the term "astroturfing", rather than the actual topic at hand.

I hope you choose to engage on the actual topic, which is your arguments about the service (which, you have not tried firsthand and I have offered you now three times access to), but if you choose not to, that's your prerogative. But I think you do your readers a disservice by not addressing my counterpoints.

Best wishes,

Pete

over 6 years ago

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James Fulton

There is great social value to anonymous reviews of people. If there's somebody who is incompetent and loafing through work, to say nothing of being a thief or doing bad things, they'll have to stop it or be exposed. It's a brilliant concept.

The idea of rating people is socially great, but their execution is horrible and I'll tell you why.

Unvarnished's connection with facebook is scary to me. The potential for complete anonymity is impossible there. I don't even want to click on that login with facebook button.

I honestly think http://www.dirtyphonebook.com does this concept a lot better. There's no connection with facebook and you can pick up the phone and call anybody anytime you want to find out for yourself if stuff on the site is true or false.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Peter,

Your brother was pretending to be a guy named "Mike" who just happened to think Unvarnished was a good idea. There's no semantic dispute here. This is what is known as astroturfing in the real world. Mike only disclosed his identity and relationship to you after he was called on it. Needless to say, it's pretty obvious he wouldn't have volunteered this information on his own, and he hasn't done this on other sites it appears he's astroturfed. The more you try to gloss this over, the more disingenuous you appear.

The opinions in my post stand. As you are well aware, similar opinions have been voiced by other journalists and bloggers. If you want to further explore them, perhaps you should hire a consultant.

Finally, while I certainly appreciate your willingness to comment here and value your feedback, I must say it's somewhat strange that the co-founder of a young startup is spending so much time here (and elsewhere) posting lengthy comments about the criticisms your service has received, trying to spark debates. Having started several businesses of my own, I would have imagined you have more important things to do on a daily basis. After all, whether your service sinks or swims will not be determined by how well you argue with bloggers, but by whether consumers actually believe your product has value. Frankly, trying to convince others through words that you have gold when they see lead is usually a losing battle.

over 6 years ago

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Peter Kazanjy

Actually Patricio, your blog and others are were the canonical conversation about Unvarnished takes place, now and in the future.  Hence the need to participate in those conversations on behalf of Unvarnished. I have been spending the last 72 hours on the phone with bloggers, journalists, and newscasters making Unvarnished's case, and doing so in the comments of blogs too. It's an important conversation at this stage in our service's life, and my role (we have other people working on other tasks. But thank you for your concern about our time management.)

This discussion about our product is very similar to the conversations that take place about professionals, on Unvarnished.

I'll note you have still not defended my counterpoints. Which is fine by me, as your readership will (rightfully) take that as a sign that you do not have a defense to them, and that they are accurate points. They come here not to be told to go ask a consultant, but to see what they thought might be reasoned analysis.

Again, my offer stands to get you on the site for firsthand experience, rather than reporting on what others have reported on, which offer you have now ignored four times (while trying to obfuscate this discussion as being instead about who has standing to comment on your blog!).

Pete Kazanjy

co-founder, Unvarnished

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Peter,

Your brother astroturfed, got caught, and I have good reason to believe he has also astroturfed on other sites. Perhaps if you and your brother had acted with integrity, honesty and transparency, I would have a greater interest in engaging in a debate, or accepting your offer. As someone who is running a "reputation" startup, it's disappointing that you expect others to take you seriously when you condone astroturfing. Respect is earned, not demanded.

My final comment here is that journalists, bloggers and newscasters aren't going to make or break your startup. If you have to "make your case" and argue with people over the value of your service right from the outset (in the face of a considerable amount of criticism no less), it's a good sign that you misjudged the market. Time, of course, will tell.

over 6 years ago

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Mike

Patricio,

I think its pretty telling for you to be backpedaling and avoiding engaging in an actual debate, out of some sort of lack of respect or trust.

On TC, I identified myself as someone who "knows the founders well" and "participated in the private alpha".  These are both truth statements.  On your blog, I used the same handle, and posted an anecdote from last year.  I have obscured my last name to avoid personal attacks and threats, which have been plentiful for my family the last few days.  With a last name like ours, that's all you need to pinpoint one of my family members' identifications.  

Judging from the majority of your posts, you're an intelligent, albeit generally argumentative, blogger...so I'm really wondering why you're avoiding this debate. You made your point about me.  Why not address all the valid points counterpoints to your original post?

over 6 years ago

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professor500

over 6 years ago

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Execs worthy of their position...

should know you get what you pay for.  If you cannot afford an HR department or to contract with an agency to do a search for hiring then by all means, use Unvarnished.  I'll take the top-notch people who aren't wasting their time worrying about such sites but instead putting their efforts and energies into being the best in their field, people who will be able to provide me with legitimate and verifiable references or who have built a reputation in the industry that won't rely on something that connects with facebook.

over 6 years ago

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Kim

Wow. I thought this was an April Fool at first, actually, but turns out it's not - it's a 'start up' with little by way of a clear business plan, run by two blokes (who allegedly employ 'other people' to do all the important work) who have nothing better to do than be combative on other blogs and websites. I think I've already formed my opinion on the likely value of their site.

over 6 years ago

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Dubious

I am curious about the revenue stream that potentially being looked to for funding such a site.  Is this going to be something like YELP?  As the world has learned, YELP is invloved in several lawsuits now because it seems there may be an extortion component to drive revenue.  Maybe UNVARNISHED is looking to capitalize on that concept and create a rival "mob gang"?  Just my $.02

over 6 years ago

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eatinqueen

First, if you check into enough places of the same kind on Yelp's iPhone app, you can earn virtual badges attesting to your love of sushi or pizza or airports or whatever.

about 6 years ago

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Newyork

I used the same handle, and posted an anecdote from last year.

about 6 years ago

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