Five Stars for Everyone: How Rating Systems are Diluting the Meaning of Excellence

I’m an Airbnb host. I have a super cute cabin in the woods that I like to share with others when my family isn’t using it. It’s been a great way to earn income while caring for the home and investing in my writing career. It’s also been a wonderful experience—meeting people from all over the world and sharing a little slice of my life with them.

The Airbnb software is easy to use and everything from booking, to insurance, to refunds has been thought of. Their customer support is outstanding. It’s never been easier to run a little business from my home. It’s almost effortless.

It’s also very ratings driven. This is key to the way the program works, hosts rate guests and guests rate hosts. This both increases quality as well as provides a certain safety net—I have yet to host any criminals, or at least none of my guests have stolen or defaced anything. This ratings system has a way of working that sort of element out of the community.

The five-star rating system isn’t new. Restaurants and hotel chains have been using them forever. What is new though, is the unique way businesses like Airbnb use them. Basically, the number of stars one gets is now directly related to one’s income. You know when you stay at the Motel 6, you’re staying in what’s considered a 3 star experience. Definitely not 5. That’s reserved for the Hiltons and Ritz Carltons of the world. Yet being a 3 star hotel doesn’t limit your earnings. There are plenty of folks who want that. They only have a set amount of money and know that they get what they pay for. If they had $400 a night to blow, they would. But they don’t, so they spend $69 and stay at the Motel 6. The 3 star hotel is needed in a world of economic diversity.

But in Airbnb, or Uber, Lyft and all the other sharing economy apps, 5 stars is required. Actually, a 4.5 star average. If your listing doesn’t generate that, then you’re either removed from the system, or penalized for not providing a good enough experience for your guests.

In my case, I must have 89% 5 star reviews to be what’s called a SuperHost. SuperHost listings are given priority in searches. Thus, the more 5 star ratings, the further towards the top of the search you’ll find yourself. It’s the same with Amazon reviews…as an author this is something I must battle every day. The number of 5 star reviews absolutely figures into Amazon’s search engines. Looking for a new book, you’ll only see the 5 star ones.

So what’s the problem? Customers only want the best. Why wouldn’t the ratings be important? I imagine in the beginning, they were meaningful, but now, years into the online disruption it’s become very clear that 5 stars no longer means a thing—for everyone seems to get that rating for whatever type of work they do. Unless you really, really suck, you’ll get five stars. And with time, the number of books with perfect ratings fills pages of searches and the number of SuperHosts grows so huge the meaning of SuperHost is lost—if we’re all Super, then how can an algorithm chose which ones the best?

It’s a dilution of excellence. Let’s take my Airbnb listing. It’s not a 5 star experience. Yes, it’s clean, sanitary and cute. I light a fire for you before you get there so it’s toasty and provide coffee and tea. However, there are cobwebs and spiders (I try my best but they build those webs the moment I’m done cleaning). In the winters, you have to manage the firewood to be warm because it’s the only form of heat, and we’re not close to town. I keep my price low for all these reasons, seeing myself like a Holiday Inn express. You want 5 stars, rent one of those fancy islands. Yet come to my cabin and you get home comforts and when you wake up in the morning to have your coffee on the porch, you’re greeted by Douglas Fir and California Redwoods almost 200 ft. tall, surrounding you in every direction, with the sunlight pouring through their branches dancing gently in the breeze. And a pair of adorable Pygora goats waiting to be fed. It’s 4 star lodging with a 5 star view and petting zoo.

Yet all my guests have been trained, and know that if I don’t get enough 5 star ratings, I can be penalized. So they give me 5 stars. Over and over again. Yes I should be happy, and I am. But something inside of me wonders, do they all expect to receive 5 stars as guests? Because not all guests are equal, just like our listings. Some actually do the laundry and vacuum before they go (that’s not even necessary and I wish I could give those folks 6 stars, because like, one more than 5). Others don’t even do their dishes (this is a HUGE no-no in Airbnb land, if you don’t do the dishes, you’re not getting a good review). And then there are those who’re in between. But if I save the 5 stars for those SuperGuests who practically do all the cleaning for me, then I’m giving a 4 to those who meet the requirements and a 3 if you don’t do the dishes. And that means the majority of my guests would get only 4 stars, which isn’t good for them. They too must have a certain percentage of 5 star reviews.

How then, can I reward excellence? How can I acknowledge the one who went out of their way? When 5 stars becomes mandatory, when perfection is the norm, where do we go from there?

We’re not all perfect. We’re not excellent every moment of the day. Some of us are excellent at one thing and horrible at another. In our drive for data driven or quantitative analysis, we’ve reduced ourselves to numbers and then made it a requirement that we all score the highest. Which is impossible. We’re not all 5 stars. Honestly, I think the effort to keep a wood stove going should count for something. And if you don’t do the dishes, that counts as well.

Maybe my hesitancy to label everyone as perfect comes from growing up as a gymnast. To get earn the coveted 10.0, you had to be perfect. It was rare. Then suddenly, it wasn't rare anymore. Girls were getting 10.0 all the time. So the USAG changed the judging system to make it harder to be perfect. They raised the bar, so to speak. Some might find that cruel, but it made for challenge and I think it advanced our abilities. Ever striving. Ever reaching. To me, that's life.

We’re not all birds, so don’t expect everyone to fly. Our society is based on generic, 5 star expectations that no longer mean anything. If you can’t fly, don’t. And if you can, then do so, even if others envy you


Daniel said...

This issue came to my attention when I started to use uber in a daily basis. Sometimes the driver us perfect, with an average car, I used to give him 5 stars... but that is not fair to the perfect drivers and very nice cars. When I give a driver 4 stars, uber asks me what went wrong. nothing went wrong, it is just not fair to give everybody 5 stars when there is a difference in quality.

Nicole Sallak Anderson said...

Hi there Daniel! Sorry that I'm just now getting around to seeing this comment. It was a crazy summer.

Yes, I totally agree. There is a difference in quality, how can there not be? And 4 isn't terrible, but it's not 5. Now 5 is for everyone which means we need a 6 because it's one more than 5...and thus fall into the world of parody.