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A Worthy Epinion Can Earn You Some Cash

Saturday, January 22, 2000

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When I discovered Epinions.com, I saw it as a place where I could dump some unpublished notes about my trip across Asia and Europe, then find out if anybody actually read them. Unlike most other consumer opinion Web sites, Epinions.com encourages users to not only rate products but also assess the quality of other peoples' reviews.

Feedback from the Internet? I was intrigued.

Four months later I was even more enthusiastic when I beheld my first ``e-royalties'' check for $73, which I earned a few cents at a time whenever a visitor to the site clicked on one of the reviews I wrote.

The Web site is set up to display opinions about products such as beer or car insurance, like a populist alternative to Consumer Reports. But it also includes a category on travel destinations, and that's where I headed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the obscure places I wanted to write about, including a national park in Latvia, were already part of the Epinions.com system. Like Yahoo, the categories start with broad ideas such as Kids & Family, and gradually narrow down to individual brands and models.

I found the national park of Sigulda, filed under Latvia, with a descriptive blurb on the caves and castles found in this ``Switzerland of Latvia.'' There was a link urging me to ``Be the first to express your opinion.'' Over my lunch break, I dashed off a few hundred words about camping in Latvia, then went on to describe a Taoist mountain in China and my college town, Madison, Wis.

This was September 1999, and while the new Web site was promising that I would get paid for each time another member viewed my opinions, it didn't say when or how. I figured, I'll be lucky if another human being ever sees this stuff I'm flinging out into cyberspace. I never expected to see a dime.

As of today, one of my first epinions, ``I Want to Live in Madison,'' has been viewed by 83 people and earned me $5.70, or 30 cents for each Epinion member who view it. Page views by nonmembers are tallied but aren't paid for. The 19 other reviews I wrote made up the rest of the $73. And the old reviews just keep earning money as more people sign up at Epinions.com. Since I got that first check, my reviews have earned an additional $11.94, which I can redeem any time I want.

I felt pretty pleased with my check, considering that I'd tapped out my opinions during boring Caltrain rides or while waiting for other Web pages to download. But I wasn't a major earner in the ranks of Epinions.com, not even close.

Brian Koller, the current most- popular reviewer, has earned $550 for his 356 epinions, mostly about films, that have been viewed a total of 36,855 times. Unlike product reviews, opinions on movies and other entertainment only earn 10 cents per page view. Epinions.com's current rates are part of a special bonus program, which will probably end once the site has a good base of reviews.

Koller, who is identified in Epinions.com as BrianKoller, is a 36- year-old computer programmer who lives in Dallas. A movie fan, Koller used to write his reactions to films and post them on Usenet discussion groups. Back in July, the Epinions.com staff recruited Koller and others who frequently opined on Usenet to populate their site.

``Since I had been writing reviews for free, I figured that making some money was better,'' Koller wrote in an e-mail message. ``It's just a hobby for me, and if it pays my ISP and cable bills, so much the better.''

Epinions.com is a shopping site in the making; Koller's movie reviews are already accompanied by links to Reel.com, and my destination reports are linked to Travelocity.com.

When the site is completely developed, it probably won't look much different from Amazon.com or any of the e-commerce sites that incorporate user reviews -- except that Epinions will link to outside vendors, rather than selling its own merchandise. But because it rewards its reviewers, and because of a complex system called the ``Web of Trust'' that encourages honest, thoughtful reviews, Epinions.com will in the end be a much meatier and stickier site than a shopping mall.

But if it becomes known as shopping destination instead of a place to get and give advice, I wonder if Epinions.com will be able to keep its credibility.

``The first thing an advertiser will ask is, `Can we not have negative reviews?' '' said Mike Spieser, one of the company's founders. ``The answer is no.''

``The editorial integrity is going to be absolutely critical for these guys,'' said Ken Cassar, an analyst at New York's Jupiter Communications. Cassar believes that if Epinions.com or any other opinion site gets caught favoring advertisers or e-commerce partners, its business will go down the drain.

Epinions.com says its Web of Trust can prevent marketing executives from flooding the site with positive reviews. The Web is also supposed to filter out poorly written reviews and personalize the site so it appears differently to each registered user.

It works by asking readers to rate individual reviews, and to decide whether they trust the reviewer overall. If Brian Koller adds me to his list of people he trusts, I don't get paid for that, but my reviews appear a little higher on the list of entries that Koller sees when he logs in.

Spieser explained how the Web of Trust prevents advertorial contributions by evoking an image of group of Apple employees wanting to promote the iMac computer. They could all write positive reviews of the iMac, add one another to their personal lists of trusted reviewers, and mark each other's reviews ``Highly Recommended.'' When they logged in, they would see one another's reviews listed right at the top of the category for the iMac. However, no members who weren't their friends would be likely to give those booster reviews high marks or add those members to their Web of Trust, so the bogus comments wouldn't get much attention.

``Some people in that group will have to be trusted on our system in order to have impact on the system,'' Spieser said.

But the Web of Trust can't kick those hyped reviews off the site, and those reviewers would still get paid every time someone viewed them.

Koller believes that the most common form of abuse on the site comes from people trying to get easy money.

``There is a lot of `You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours,' and mutual admiration societies,'' he wrote. ``You recommend me and mine, I'll do the same for you.''

OK, Brian, I'll mark your take on ``The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'' Highly Recommended. Can you do the same for my description of China's Taishan mountain?

                    Products            Reviews and Ratings	 
Zagat.com           20,000 restaurants  3 million	 
Epinions.com        60,000-plus         100,000-plus	 
Deja.com            38,973              896,201	 
RateItAll.com       10,000              150,000	 
ConsumerReview.com  30,000              125,000	 
Productopia          2,000                3,000-plus	 

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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