In an era where fraudulent reviews run rampant across even the top consumer review sites, Stik.com is looking to redefine the landscape by backing each dealer review with a face and a name. The review website requires its users to sign in through an existing Facebook or LinkedIn account. Stik.com’s co-founder, Jay Gierak, believes that gives the company more credibility than competing sites.
Gierak’s site has collected more than 2.5 million reviews for 200,000 businesses, including automotive professionals, since it was founded in 2010. He believes that by linking a review to a Facebook or LinkedIn user, readers can be sure it originated from an actual person vs. a stable of paid writers. And with eMarketer estimating that only 1.5 percent of Facebook reviews are fabricated, Gierak’s team could be onto something.
ADM: You and your friend and co-founder, Nathan Labenz, were in the same class at Harvard with Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook founders when they were rolling out their website. How did this help shape your idea for Stik.com?
Gierak: When Facebook began in its earliest days on campus, the thing that made the biggest impression on us was how it became the new normal for people to use their real name and their real persona on Facebook as they had on campus. At the time, back in 2004, AOL Instant Messenger was still a thing where you had these cheesy screen names from high school like Lucky18 or Moviefan4, and it’s also the era of the early eHarmony accounts where everybody looks like a 6-foot, 6-inch doctor from Princeton.
And I think right from the get-go on Facebook, it seemed dumb to use a fake photo, because you were on there with people who knew exactly who you were. So you had to be accountable to yourself right away with what you were presenting. That was just a tremendous breakthrough for the Internet in general. Facebook and LinkedIn have created this massive storage of real identities and real names, and they present an unbelievable opportunity to bring authenticity and personalization to the Internet; more specifically, the review space. We want to build our focus around that opportunity.
ADM: So what does your site offer to businesses like car dealerships? And what are the first steps a car dealer needs to take to begin soliciting reviews on Stik.com?
Gierak: We are a site that helps local businesses collect and display reviews from past customers. We also provide tools for customers to read reviews about local businesses, so it’s a two-sided product.
We focus today on delivering great value to businesses that go collect great review content that is backed by real people and real identities. So, the first step of that process is reaching out to past clients to write reviews and making sure those are authenticated through Facebook or LinkedIn. The second step would be to display those reviews across the Internet. And not just on Stik.com, but other sites where reviews are valuable.
ADM: Other than on your site, where are businesses displaying their Stik.com reviews?
Gierak: You can display them on your own website, in your e-mail, on Google Places, on Facebook, and then we allow for social sharing across Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and, again, Facebook.
ADM: Let’s say a car dealer joins Stik and wants to connect with past clients. Can they draw from the fans on their Facebook business page and invite them to review the dealership on Stik.com, or do they have to be friends?
Gierak: You can ask anyone to review you on Stik by simply inviting them to your Stik page, including your fans and friends on Facebook, as well as your connections from other channels. We provide tools to collect reviews through Facebook, LinkedIn and e-mail, though users are welcome to collect reviews to their page on their own as well.
ADM: How much of your service is free?
Gierak: It’s always free to use Stik.com and collect reviews on the site. What you can pay for are additional display tools that allow you to get other reviews to show up on Google or Facebook [and elsewhere]. We also provide an added service for those who don’t have time to manage customer service. We help you go out and actually collect the reviews and write their experiences with the business.
ADM: I understand that your process eliminates anonymity — and in Stik.com’s theory, the majority of fake reviews. But what happens when one of the accounts is still not associated with a real person?
Gierak: So the first line of defense is making sure you authenticate through a Facebook or LinkedIn account, and 99 percent of those profiles are real, so that goes a long way in ensuring that those are high quality. We also flag reviews with our own internal monitoring system if we see suspicious behavior — maybe it’s something Facebook has not caught. In our experience, we’ve only had one review to date that we’ve found that was from a fake Facebook account, and we promptly removed it. But we do have a secondary filter algorithm to protect the authenticity of the reviews if it isn’t caught in the first pass.
ADM: What about users who don’t have a Facebook or LinkedIn account?
Gierak: On occasion, we encounter users who do not have either a Facebook or LinkedIn account to authenticate their review. At present, we do not publish “non-authenticated” reviews. We are looking forward to adding additional sources of identity in the future to help solve the problem, a login with Google+ being one example.
ADM: Yelp and Edmunds.com have filed lawsuits against companies posting paid-for, fraudulent reviews, and now the attorney general of New York is issuing fines for businesses that posted fake reviews. Would you say this is good timing for a company like yours to introduce a new platform?
Gierak: Many of the leading review sites today were built in a world without social networks. Some of these businesses were built around a paradigm of a much more anonymous Internet, and the structure of their data and their content reflects that. I think we have a really unique opportunity here to totally change the way people think about identity online, and how identity impacts the quality and the authenticity of the content. It seems so obvious to us now that, in three years, no websites are going to have any anonymous reviews or reviewers.
ADM: You predict that companies like Yelp will require users to register for accounts that display their full names and real identities?
Gierak: I think there’s no doubt. TripAdvisor has already shifted toward logging in with Facebook, really making that a big part of their content strategy. Hats off to them for really adopting this type of platform early. Then you have Yelp and Google as the next two exciting candidates to go this direction.
Yelp does some of the Facebook integration, but it’s not a big part of what they do, partly because there’s some competitive pressure there in the long term. Google has its own social network now [that connects consumers’ accounts with their reviews]. And then, of course, Facebook is another lurking giant with great identity and authenticity but not a lot of review content. But I can say we’re definitely going to see these big platforms move toward a much more transparent, authentic user base as audiences demand a higher level of transparency and accountability for the content they’re reading.