Five stars revisited

Nine years ago I wrote a post on here about the perils of star-based reviewing systems. This topic has been on my mind again lately, with the rise of companies like eBay, Airbnb and Uber which make customer reviews a key part of their service model.

We ourselves rent out a studio apartment in Sheffield with Airbnb, and so have learnt the importance of always getting five-star reviews. We’re doing pretty well so far — 4.7 stars on average — but to become a “SuperHost” Airbnb requires that at least 80% of your reviews are five-stars. We briefly crossed this magical threshold, but mostly hover between 75 and 79%.

SuperHost status is a nice to have, but not essential – it gives your listing increased visibiliity, but as we are already fully booked 80% of the time, this isn’t a big requirement for us. At minicab company Uber, insufficient five-star reviews cause real hurt: in Sheffield, drivers who get less than 4.7 stars on average have their pay docked; some claim that it actually costs them money to run a cab at this reduced rate of pay*.

The implication is that 5-stars is the new norm. Unless you are consistently getting 5-star reviews, then you are doing something wrong. This also decreases the usefulness of rating systems — on Tripadvisor, a 4.5-star review (or, god help us, lower) is a sign that a place is mediocre at best.

How did we get here? Surely this was not always the case. If a film gets a five-star review, I take that to mean not that the film was just OK, and ticked all the boxes, but rather that it is a must-see, an examplar of its craft. The same goes for other arts reviews – albums, books, theatre, exhibitions – Five stars is the cream at the top.

If I book into a 5-star hotel, I don’t expect those stars to mean “it’s OK, I was satisfied, they didn’t do anything wrong” but rather “the bed was a four poster; I had a jacuzzi in my bathroom; I got to bathe in asses milk and hummingbird vomit”.

So, yes: how did we get here? I believe a part of it is the personal connections we make when we engage with services like Airbnb and Uber: it’s very hard (for me at least) to look somebody in the eye and then go off and judge them as a three-star; if you make any kind of a personal connection then you will feel “hey, why not a five, it’s nice to be nice”. Another factor is the meaningless of arbitrary star ratings: you might know good from bad, but can you really distinguish a four-star from a five-star? What does that difference mean? Why not, in the event of any doubt, simply plump for the five.

I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is, but I suspect that one aspect of it will be to replace arbitrary numbers with words that actually mean something: e.g.I “did this driver get you there safely and on time?” Multi-dimensional yes/no questions could produce an even more effective rating, at the expense of being more of a hassle to fill in, so for example:

  • Did the driver drive safely?
  • Did they get you there in good time?
  • Were they friendly?
  • … etc

* This post previously stated that Uber automatically assigns four stars for rides where a customer fails to submit a rating. I’ve since been assured that this is not the case, and that drivers pay is based only upon ratings submitted by customers.