I've been doing a lot of thinking about ratings and reputation recently, about their importance in sustaining communities, particularly co-creating ones.
I come to conclusions such as:
Review systems which attach no value to reputation are doomed.
Reviews by people for whom the loss of reputation means nothing are likely to have less value to your average internet user. And reviews with less value = less incentive to contribute and less opportunities to inspire a purchase.
This makes it a critical element in any revenue-generating model. I've written more on this here (why reputation holds the key to revenue success). And more recently: Here
I believe it's all a question of what is at stake for the contributor of UGC. If there's little this may explain why it's a) not valued by contributors and therefore not growing like you expected it to, b) not inspiring a bucket-load of trust-related purchases to pay your bills.
So why do people so freely contribute to things like tripadvisor (10million+ reviews so far!). You can't even build a reputation for yourself on there (at least not one measured by community score).
It's likely people contribute because they have previously derived some value from a review before they booked their tip and, therefore, felt in some way obligated to return the favour. And there's clearly enough people who feel this obligation to overcome the freeloaders who just come, take their fill, and never contribute. Except of course the 'freeloaders' are contributing, by notching up page impressions and clicking on ads.
I still feel a model without a reputation system, and one which has a value attached, will eventually fail.
One reason is that there's another reason people are contributing reviews right now: Because they can.
It's not so very long ago that the only people who could publish were the owners of the means of publishing production. Now we're all publishers. And the novelty has yet to wear off. We get to see our work 'published', we get a little bit of fame, a little bit of influence.
Indeed it's only in recent times that models, such as TripAdvisor, have emerged which place user reviews at the heart of their proposition. Even more novel!
But as we become increasingly used to being able to publish our views and reviews perhaps this ability to out the bad and praise the good, and our valuation of our little-bit-of-fame, will need bolstering by getting something in return for our efforts.
It might be as simple as you-only-get-to-read-reviews-if-you-contribute-one. It might be a revenue share on items sold off the back of your review efforts.
Eventually we want a payback. And when you want something in return we need proof you deserve it... hence the need for reputation.
Ratings and reputation should vary depending on the context. For example a stag party might rate Malta a dull location. A couple seeking a romantic break would rate it higher. Your value of the review provided by the stag party will vary depending on how similar your needs are to theirs. Their reputation as raters of stag party venues may be high - of romantic locations, low.
Speaking of which, slightly at a tangent; Technorati's reputation system fails to understand how reputation should vary. It's a bit of a popularity contest rather than a selector of the best fit with what YOU need.
This blog's reputation is 55 today. Its value to people seeking blogs about horse racing ought to be close to 0. It's value to people interested in its themes might be much higher. All the rating tells you is that it's of a certain global value - but not what the value should be to YOU.
That value to you remains in the gift of the network of trust all blogs are capable of generating. If Technorati could segment ratings based on your specific interests, you might find the scores more useful.