Consumer Reports' Money Experts checked how the rating services work and whether the information can be trusted. Plus, what about those companies that pay for advertising on those sites? They check into that too!
Dr. Judy Weisman wanted to hire a house cleaner, so she registered with Angie's List. Like other rating services, Angie's List says its grades are based on reviews from real customers.
"Angie's List rated this business with an 'A,' but I had to go behind them after they had left and dust areas that were supposed to have been cleaned. I would have to give it no better than a 'B,'" Weisman said.
Consumer Reports Money Advisers' Margot Gilman says of course it's not unusual to disagree with user reviews. But be wary of jumping on companies at the top of search results.
"We've found that businesses with A or B ratings who also pay for advertising rise to the top of default search results on Angie's List. It's a big advantage," Gilman said.
Consumer Reports Money Adviser also checked out other rating services, including Yelp and Google Plus Local.
"Google Plus Local didn't respond when we asked how it verifies that its reviews are from real customers. Yelp told us that they have a way to identify and delete bogus reviews but admitted that the system has not been objectively tested," Gilman said.
Yelp also allows businesses to buy their way to the top of the pack in search results. But unlike Angie's List, Yelp clearly labels the ad.
"I think there's really no substitute for using family and friends for references for this type of service," Weisman said.
"Bottom line - ratings services aren't perfect, and we saw ratings for the same business can vary significantly from site to site. But if you can't get a recommendation from someone you know, it may be worth it to look up a business on several sites," Gilman said.
In most communities, Angie's List charges subscribers to sign up. Yelp and Google+ Local are free. Another free service Consumer Reports says is worth checking is the non-profit Better Business Bureau. It deals with complaints against companies and rates them on how well they resolve the problems.