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Vanno launching crowdsourced Better Business Bureau competitor (invites)

Can crowds do a better job than the BBB?

Vanno is a clever new business rating system that asks users to rate stories about companies as either serving to support or knock down their scores in several categories. It can be cathartic to review tales of company cruelty and malfeasance and ding the scores of the guilty firms. However, I can't yet recommend that you use those scores to modify your own consumer behavior.

For example, a story about a Southwest Airlines customer arrested upon landing because he made one too many trips to the lavatory will certainly get your dander up. So you click the button, indicating that you agree that this hurts the company's reputation, presumably in the categories of Human Rights and Customer Safety (it's hard to tell). But then you'll discover that Southwest is ranked No. 2 of 124 travel-based companies; its high scores in Community Involvement, Customer Service, and Environment (for an airline?) swamp the tale of the gestapo flight attendant and the sorry passenger.

Vanno users rate Southwest Airlines.

There's a lot of really interesting data in Vanno. But the paintbrushes the site uses to characterize companies (the scores) are too broad, and the rich details that go into the scores are not clearly attached to the scores themselves, although I'm sure they are under the hood. Co-founder Nick DiGiacomo told me, "We're completely transparent... The only proprietary feature is the Bayesian algorithm that we've developed to approximate how news is filtered by individual beliefs to create opinion, and how that opinion (and opinion about opinion) then moves through larger populations." The site is off to a good start, but the transparency needs work.

The site has tracking and social features: you can follow companies to get alerts when there's new news or ratings about them; or individuals if there are corporate critics you think have a lot to say.

My fundamental beef with Vanno is that it is based on news reports and users' rankings of those reports. The service doesn't fact-check the stories that go into its ratings, relying instead on users to vote stories up or down. But even crowds of users can get fooled; an erroneous story could end up exerting undue influence in rankings if enough users were taken in. It's likely that most rankings accurately reflect on their companies, and more importantly they will reflect how customers feel about companies; but I think there's still a significant margin for error in the scores and rankings.

Vanno is an interesting site to explore if you are curious about the practices engaged in by companies you patronize. There are 500 private beta invites set aside for Webware readers.

When you submit a story to Vanno you specify which parts of a company's reputation in impacts.

See also: Webware: GoodGuide will save your skin; also the Better Business Bureau, Dotherightthing, and MeasuredUp.