Consumers can post their reviews via their smartphones before even stepping out of the door. But NBC 7 Investigates found that some ratings on those sites can't be trusted.
When you're looking for a restaurant or hotel, or need a gardener or an auto mechanic, websites like "Yelp," "Bing" and "Google+" can be a big help.
But NBC 7 Investigates found that some ratings on those sites might not give you the full picture.
And one social media expert says there’s a more reliable way to get the "low-down" on a business, before you buy.
Small businesses know how important your reviews are on social media websites.
So they'll sometimes ask you post a compliment if you like their product.
But Greg Van de Velde told us that moving into his downtown condo was a major headache.
"Horrific,” he recalls. “I mean, I've never seen anything like it."
Greg’s criticism is aimed at the ABC Moving Center, which he paid to move dozens of boxes, all of them clearly marked with their destination.
But he says the movers left the boxes in the condo’s entryway.
“And I'd say, 'That needs go to the garage.' And they would just turn and walk away."
Boxes meant for the bedroom, were left in the hallway.
"To the point where I would just have a stack of boxes, and I couldn't even get into the house what-so-ever."
A job estimated at four hours took almost six, with Greg doing much of the work.
"They were slow,” he says of the moving crew. “They were inefficient. One of them was talking on his phone all the time. They were bad."
So Greg called ABC Moving’s corporate office to complain, and ask for a partial refund.
"I was stunned when she said it."
Greg says a manager offered to discount the company’s $400 fee, if he agreed not to post a negative review on "Yelp," Google, or any other ratings website.
He also had to promise, in writing, that none of his relatives or friends would post a bad review.
"She bought me off, yeah," he admits with an embarrassed smile.
But Greg says that manager also taught Greg a lesson.
He says that experience “completely undermines Yelp", and now has much less trust in web-based ratings sites.
ABC Moving repeatedly declined our request for comment.
We also found other, less heavy-handed attempts to influence customer ratings.
ACE Parking offered a chance at fifty dollars in gas, for customers who posted a review on Yelp, about one of the company’s downtown San Diego parking lots.
ACE also declined our request for comment.
And e-mails from The Pilates Room offer free classes and a chance for a free membership, for customers who "like" the business on Facebook, and write favorable reviews on at least two websites of their choice.
In a written response to our questions, the owner of The Pilates Room says she has discontinued that offer, but told us: "Nobody will waste their time writing a review unless they like the service being offered."
She also guarantees that all her company’s good reviews are “authentic and honest”.
Rebecca Coates, a social media expert in the S.D.S.U. journalism department, says ratings websites are often the first thing prospective customers see, when they search the web.
She says companies will go to “desperate lengths" to get the best possible reviews on those sites.
Coates says Yelp clearly warns businesses they should not offer financial incentives to generate positive reviews, or discourage negative comments.
More importantly, she thinks those strategies can backfire, on ratings websites.
Coates says companies should instead deal with problems head-on, with a genuine apology, and refund, when appropriate.
"The (complaining customer) might post favorably,” Coates says. “You know, 'We had problems, but the management was gracious about it, solved our problem, gave us a refund.'"
Coates does use Yelp and other ratings websites.
But she avoids general reviews, good and bad, and instead looks for specific problems or compliments.
Coates says there's another way to find the goods and services that are best for you:
Talk with friends, or reach out to them on Facebook and Twitter.
You have something in common with them, so their likes, and dislikes, should be similar to yours.
And their recommendations are unfiltered.
A spokesperson for Yelp told us the website discourages businesses from soliciting reviews and uses an automated review filter that prevents some of them from being posted.
Yelp also confirms that its contracts prohibit companies from paying for reviews, and companies that do so can be removed from Yelp's pages.