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 saysUnvarnished 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.