You may not be one to scour online reviews in search of your next great veterinarian. Indeed, it’s not how I would recommend anyone find the best provider for any kind of service they might seek. Still, we all know people who use these as a starting place, or perhaps to confirm that a friend’s referral stands up to the internet test.

Veterinarians know this too. That’s why plenty of us detest these reviews. And so do some of you. As Will put it in a recent comment (on my post regarding back room veterinary care), “I don't trust the internet ratings/reviews of vets and clinics, there are too many nutcases out there either gushing or ranting.”

Yep. That’s the problem. We all have that one client who was angry over heartworm medication denial (even though their dog hadn’t been seen in three years), or another who got into it over a bill she thought was unfair (even though she was given a detailed estimate beforehand). Angry clients know they can take their grievances to the web to get satisfaction (even when they never paid the bill they disputed, for example).

We hate life’s little inequities. More so when they’re in the public domain for everyone to gawk at. When an unethical competitors’ machinations find their way onto Yelp!. When an aggrieved ex-staff member’s anger spills out onto Angie’s List. We all know it happens. And it irks beyond compare when it does.

That’s why so many veterinarians were dismayed when Google’s new online review service debuted last month. Sidewiki is a cool Google gadget that allows you to comment directly on a site. All you have to do is upload a teensy upgrade to your browser (Firefox or Internet Explorer so far) and whenever you feel like it you can post a review anyone can see if they use the Sidewiki, too.

The idea is to take online reviews to the next level. And I happen to like the concept––in theory, anyway. After all, more information would always seem preferable to less.

Problem is, Sidewiki offers the same double-edged sword that dogs the internet in general. You have no way of knowing which Sidewiki comments are penned by crackpots with an axe to grind and which are honest reviews that properly approximate reality.

So when a glowing review appears on the left hand side of your browser as you surf a veterinary hospital’s website, was it the hospital manager’s thinly veiled attempt to draw in more clients?...or a truly satisfied pet owner’s earnest review? Hard to say, right? Anonymity is just way too easily achievable on the internet.

(btw, if you do download Sidewiki, you can see that I’ve written my own comment on Dolittler’s sidelines urging you to actively participate in the community rather than use the Sidewiki as a sounding board. [Though helpful comments about the site in general are always welcome, of course.])

A recent Veterinary Information News Service article highlights the hatefulness of the online reviewing process among veterinarians. Though it sticks to the Sidewiki discussion, it’s clear that all online reviews are under attack. Meanwhile...how do the rest of us find out what we’re buying before trying it?

So you know, the same problem hampers the dissemination of information regarding physician experience and outcomes. Though a database collects and collates this data, the AMA and other physician groups vehemently oppose its dissemination among the public at large. It’s just too easy to misinterpret, most physicians argue. (Here's an interesting NPR piece from last month on this.)

But why so defensive? Whether we’re talking real data or online reviews, why do we always assume that consumers are too stupid to sort through the mess and come to a reasonable conclusion? Sure, some dingbats will always take anything written as gospel. Even if their knowledge of statistics is close to nil and they have limited powers of reason, they can still read a story and make up their own minds.

I may be biased, though. Our online reviews drive client adoption. Partly it’s Dolittler's doing, I’ll allow. But it’s also our hospital’s mixed reviews. Our clients have offered them and they’re fair and balanced. They don’t gush and they don’t bash. OK, so most contain very high praise, but not without a complaint thrown in here and there. And that’s how it should be. We should be able to take it. Even when the crazies do come out, most discerning readers will take their writings for what they usually offer: kooky rants.

Moreover, there are ways to mitigate the damage words can do. Rebuttals to negative reviews are allowed, after all. Sidewiki even makes it easy for a site’s administrator to keep an introductory comment at the top of the list of reviews, no matter what comes after. Despite this minor concession, ultimately it’s all fair in love and war online.

Whether it’s Sidewiki, Angie's, physician outcome stats or an ad taken out in the paper decrying our poor service, these tools have their place. And I, for one, would be sad to see them abandoned because service providers like me can’t take the heat––whether it’s warranted or not.