- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

You may not know Angie or Judy, but they will still tell you all about the best roofing companies, dentists or restaurants.

Angie’s List and Judy’s Book, two of the Web sites where users post service and product recommendations, are part of a growing move by consumers away from relying on tips from friends and relatives to counting on comments from complete strangers.

The sites — including AngiesList.com, Judysbook.com, Insiderpages.com and Yelp.com — allow members to read and rank services such as pet grooming or plumbing, and establishments from hair salons to restaurants in their neighborhood. The sites typically have a report-card style A to F grading system and allow users to write reviews.

In popular and established cities, like Chicago, New York and in some instances, Washington, each listing has dozens of reviews, giving readers a good range of responses to look over. But obscure services, like the body-piercing page for Yelp’s Washington market, have none posted.

Overall, the lists are growing quickly. The number of reviews at InsiderPages has spiked from 50,000 to 600,000 over the past year. Angie’s List, which opened to the Washington area in January, already has 15,000 local members.

“One way to look at this is that these sites are the next generation of the Yellow Pages,” said Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence, an Internet research and consulting firm in Oakland, Calif.

Many of the Web sites are free to members and make money through paid advertisements. The oldest site, Angie’s List, is the only one that charges a member fee — $5.95 for a one-month subscription.

The sites are cutting into the $15 billion companies annually spend on printed phone book advertisements and the $18 billion spent on newspaper classifieds, Mr. Sterling said.

He suspects the sites are here to stay.

“These brands may not all survive; some want to be acquired,” Mr. Sterling said. “But the phenomenon of what they represent — the electronic word of mouth — this is absolutely here to stay.”

Traditional listings are moving to include reviews. Yahoo Local, Google Maps and Verizon’s online yellow pages, SuperPages, have added reviews to their local directories.

Each of the companies says one of its first objectives is to build a community in which members feel obligated to write honest and thorough reviews — and often. Without reviews, the Web sites are useless.

“The community is absolutely the most important part of it,” said Yelp Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman. “The people who are talking about local businesses and services are people who are passionate about them. Talking about your passion in a vacuum isn’t nearly as fun as talking about it with people who share the passion.”

Angie’s List founder Angie Hicks Bowman said members have an incentive to post honest and frequent recommendations: They use them, too.

“People view it as a club,” said Mrs. Hicks, whose site covers 44 cities. “They buy into the concept that if I don’t give a report, I won’t have a report to read.”

Stu MacFarlane, founder and chief executive officer of InsiderPages.com, said the key to building a significant number of comments is cultivating a community atmosphere where people want to help each other.

InsiderPages groups people by geographic area and then around organizations, such as a parent-teacher organization. Members may or may not know each other, but often feel like they can trust other posters because they are in the same group.

“There’s a concept of trust built into these communities,” he said. “People are much more likely to share good or bad experiences with people you know and trust and want to help.”

The sites cannot ensure that a business owner won’t write a glowing review of himself or herself. But they say they use some safeguards: They keep an eye out for overly fantastic reports and members who post one review and then drop off the site.

Judy’s Book allows companies to pay to make their own pages, while Angie’s List tries to settle disputes between customers and businesses.

“Merchants can tell their side of a negative story and it doesn’t compromise consumer content,” said Andy Sack, CEO and co-founder of Judy’s Book.

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