The Real Stars of the Internet

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In a 2015 study of ratings on Airbnb, researchers at Boston University found, similarly, that 95 percent of surveyed properties had ratings of 4.5 or above. “Hosts may take great pains to avoid negative reviews,” they wrote, “ranging from rejecting guests that they deem unsuitable, to pre-empting a suspected negative review with a positive ‘pre-ciprocal’ review, to resetting a property’s reputation with a fresh property page when a property receives too many negative reviews.” Any user or host on the service can attest to the peculiar, hyper-positive tone of communication within the app, as guests and hosts test one another’s commitment to the silent Airbnb user pact: part “I won’t tell if you don’t” and part “snitches get stitches.” (Airbnb, the platform, is “Mom” and “the cops” in these scenarios. )

As the starred review has become a more potent tool for companies, its usefulness for users has waned. A retailer trying to catch up with Amazon might use high overall product ratings, or sheer volume of reviews, as a subtle marketing tool. Reviews on Walmart are sometimes sourced not just from its own customers, but from outside product sites — a meaningful portion of the thousands of reviews for Pampers products, for example, are copied from Pampers.com, star ratings included.

Elsewhere on screens, stars shine abundantly. Perhaps no company has embraced the power of the star as thoroughly as Google. The company oversees countless products and services that use star ratings of some sort: Google Maps, Google Shopping and the Chrome and Android App Stores, where other star-giving entities are themselves rated with Google stars.

The company’s greatest effect on the star rating may be the way in which it has made them central to Google Search. Those pages of bagel shop reviews come from a variety of different sources, each with its own priorities, flaws and populations of reviewers. Each has taken steps to allow its star reviews to show up in Google Search, through what Google calls a “review snippet.”

Stars, it turns out, are a format that Google is eager to vacuum up given the slightest guidance. “When Google finds valid reviews or ratings markup, we may show a rich snippet that includes stars and other summary info from reviews or ratings,” Google tells developers. Including such snippets means that your Google Search result may show up with stars — a way to set it apart, visually, from other results, and to hopefully drive searchers to your site over others.

In Google Search folklore, this has translated approximately as: Stars are a way to get clicks. Naturally, there are guides. A story headlined “HOW TO GET YOUR BUSINESS STAR RATINGS IN GOOGLE SEARCH RESULTS” on the website of search engine consultancy Hit Search tells readers: “Have you ever seen one of your competitors with stars and ratings information appear in the search results and wondered how they got them? Well, these are organic star ratings and here’s a handy little guide to improve your chances of getting these stars next to your listings!”

The recommendations work, at least in this case: The link to this article shows up in Google’s search results with a 4.7 star rating, according to itself, rendered in Google orange, the same rating as my bagel place. At least, according to Facebook, according to Google.

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