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Will McCarthy | Longreads | January 2023 | 12 minutes (3,313 words)
Somewhere near the center of Nevada, on the western slope of the Toiyabe Range, there’s a little meadow beside a creek running down from the mountains. In 2019, long before I had ever been there, a man named James Fredette drove his mobile home down the gravel road from the highway and went fishing. It was a lucky day: He caught three big rainbow trout. Then, as the light turned golden and began to fade from the canyon while Fredette packed up his gear, he thought, why not, and walked back down to the creek to try his luck panning for gold. He turned up a few nuggets, right there. Yes, it was a very lucky day.
Fredette had been living in his run-down motorhome for months, trying to fix what he could of the slowly failing vehicle, while saving up to buy parts with his Social Security check. Maybe these nuggets of gold got him thinking. What if there really was a long-lost main vein somewhere around here? A motherlode that the gold rush decades had missed? He could live a lot larger than now, that’s for sure, and finally have the money to fix his motorhome’s engine. Maybe he could even ditch it, buy a house, and get off the road altogether.
If I could just find that vein, he thought, as the last ray of light disappeared behind the mountains.
Instead, the next morning Fredette would drive west. He’d stop at Subway and Taco Bell. He’d do some laundry at a nice laundromat in Winnemucca with a friendly attendant. And then he’d hop back into his motorhome and keep driving.
Stay away from my gold, Fredette thought as he set off to his next destination. “I’m going back to get rich this time,” he wrote.
At least, according to Fredette’s Google reviews of a creekside campground and other stops on his journey, that’s what I imagine had happened.
For a while now, whenever I go somewhere new, the first thing I do is check Google Reviews. If you’ve searched for locations and businesses on the internet, it’s likely that you’ve read a Google review — or perhaps written your own. Most reviews are straightforward. Want to find excellent banh mi in Shreveport, Louisiana? Wondering whether a bed and breakfast in Boise, Idaho, has bed bugs, or if the temperature of the pool is just right? Look to the countless people who have expressed thousands of opinions embedded in Google Maps’ trusted interface. Google Reviews taps you into a nearly infinite community of people who have, out of the goodness of their hearts, shared their experiences so that others might learn from them. It’s like having millions of friends around the world who can give you a reliable recommendation on literally anything.
But in reality, it’s not always like that. Most of the time, reviews alternate between angry, comically banal, and downright bizarre. One star for Laurie’s Gentle Pet Grooming in Terrebonne, Oregon: “She butchered my pomeranian I would not recommend.” One star for a Walmart in Columbia, Kentucky: “I don’t go in Walmart stores, my husband went in. I hate Walmart.” Two stars for the New Hope Baptist Church in Five Points, Alabama: “Can’t really say …. car broke down and had to replace a radiator hose in the parking lot.”
There’s a darker layer, too — instances in which reviews have been used to retaliate against businesses for political or social reasons. At least once, a business posted a dissatisfied customer’s personal information online after receiving a bad rating. A man in Bridgnorth, England, was accused of being a pedophile in a review of his computer repair business. It took him a year-and-a-half to get the comment removed.
Describing the world on a five-star scale creates a binary where the vast majority of reviews are either overwhelmingly positive or negative. (A lot of bad reviews are really just stories of people having a bad day.) Google’s vetting process is intended to automatically flag fake reviews or inappropriate comments, sorting through hate speech, misinformation, and threats. But it doesn’t always play out that cleanly, and businesses can’t remove every negative review. On the flip side, positive reviews can either help a small business find new clients without advertising, or create an environment where every disgruntled customer holds the threat of a bad review as blackmail. Too many glowing reviews can make a place sound too good to be true, or ultimately ruin a hidden gem.
Sometimes, the whole thing feels like a mess. One of the many internet experiments for-the-good gone wrong. But I love Google Reviews. The good and the bad. Which is not surprising: I like maps, so that’s how it started — just scrolling on Google Maps and seeing what was out there. It wasn’t until later that I realized I spent more time reading the reviews of places — wondering about the people who’d come before me, reconstructing a story from their lives across a two-dimensional landscape — than looking at the map itself. It’s like glancing into apartment windows as you drive down the highway, and feeling that strange and fleeting connection to other people on earth.
It’s been said that “news is the first rough draft of history.” But maybe it’s actually Google Reviews.
Born out of early product reviews of the ’90s and early 2000s like RateItAll and eBay, Google Reviews is a digital marketing tool that allows businesses to collect testimonials about their services. The idea behind Google Reviews was to digitize a service that previously existed through the Yellow Pages, word of mouth, or specialized product guides (like the Michelin Guide). The concept was simple: People wanted to know which products were good, and the easiest way to achieve that was to crowdsource reviews.
In 2001, Google purchased the intellectual property rights of Deja, one of the leading review sites. Yelp popped up on the scene several years later. By the mid-2000s, there were at least half a dozen websites that offered reviews and recommendations for nearly everything. So began the slow march toward today’s era of ubiquitous online reviews, and an internet that influences all the decisions we make, the places we go, and the experiences we have. Eventually, Google Reviews began to dominate the industry.
Even our most cherished memories — that shaved ice we enjoyed with a friend in Lubbock, Texas, or that Spanish-language school we attended on the Gulf of Mexico — have their roots in Google Reviews. No longer just a tool to rate products and businesses, it’s evolved into something bigger.
With a typically rosy view of the World Wide Web at the time, in 2003, the co-founder of RateItAll said that his vision for online reviews was to give “anyone with access to the Internet a chance to tell the world what they think.”
That is, ultimately, what happened — with some unexpected results.
For a long time, I lurked in Google Reviews. I had never reviewed anything before — until last year. I was riding my bike through Baja California, and one night I planned poorly and got stuck in the dark somewhere between Ciudad Insurgentes and La Paz, next to a small concrete overpass spanning a dry creek. Looking on Google Maps, I noticed the overpass had a name — Puente Las Bramonas — and had nine Google reviews. Three of these reviews included comments, which Google translated from Spanish.
“Basic bridge,” Pedro Monroy Cruz wrote.
“Ugly,” Jesus Garibay observed.
“Excellent road condition,” Karina Núñez commented.
I slept under the overpass that night, and in the morning, I wrote a review: “Reasonably good bridge. A little loud for sleeping.” I gave it four stars. After I set off on my bike, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Because of Google Reviews — because multiple people took the time to review this squat bridge in the middle of nowhere — I felt like I was part of some shared human experience, the newest member of an obscure club. Maybe the other reviewers would disagree, but this moment felt powerful, like seeing other people’s names etched into a park bench or finding yourself deeply moved by the graffiti inside a public bathroom stall. But it was also weird: This tool for consumer reviews had become a digital guestbook for anything and everything in the world.
After that experience at Puente Las Bramonas, I started looking for reviews everywhere. Three stars for an 18th-century governor’s mansion in New Jersey (“very clean old and haunted,” Brianna Baker wrote). Two stars for a shop selling natural handcrafted products in Prince Edward Island (apparently they sell too much tea tree oil, which is toxic to dogs). Four stars for the Environmental Protection Agency office in Chicago (“great time,” writes Ryan Shippen). Hospitals and government agencies are frequent targets, with Google Reviews serving as a form of protest against frustrating systems far bigger than ourselves. On the outskirts of Chicago, unhappy truckers have dragged the rating for a railyard dock down to 2.7 stars, giving insight into an unhappy drama of delayed and misplaced shipping containers and exasperated big rig operators.
The overwhelming crush of reviews — everything rated, every opinion commodified and digitized, every small subplot in life available for critique — borders on farcical.
Some reviews read like poetry: “The bell has rung but not late for school. Am i in the right class,” David Prescott wrote of a Taco Bell in New Jersey. Some lines read like odes to Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “Unknowingly purchased sick Nigerian dwarf goats,” Joseph Hardwick wrote of the Hilltop Acres Goat & Sheep Auction in Romance, Arkansas. Sometimes it feels like the reviews are reaching toward some great metaphor. In remote Bowman, North Dakota, Ron Kramer stared at a scarecrow cowboy riding a red, white, and blue USA missile. “The missile warhead fell off,” he wrote.
It might take some imagination, but I think Google Reviews reveals the pure breadth of people out there, and the many ways we can interact with a place and come away with completely different experiences. Take the reviews for Sego Canyon rock art in east Utah — a truly beautiful, undeniably spiritual place with ancient Indigenous petroglyphs dotting the canyon walls. To some, it’s an awe-inspiring display of perspective and timescale. To others, it’s junk.
“This whole area is amazing. It’s a gift to be able to see.”
“A couple glyphs and a small road to a abandoned mining settlement. Ok.”
“The art isn’t even art, just a bunch of stick figure sheep and crappy looking aliens.”
Sifting through reviews sometimes feels like the world is up for debate. But it’s also a way to find common ground.
Timothy Pfeiffer of Four Corners, Florida, rambled around North America in an RV with his wife for almost four years. He initially used Google Reviews the way it was intended: to find recommendations for eating and sleeping, and to help fellow travelers. As a Local Guide, one of Google’s most prolific reviewers, he’s written thousands of reviews.
“Google actually said I was in the top 1% of all reviewers,” Pfeiffer said. “I got a little flag for that.”
When Pfeiffer first started exploring, he just read the reviews, but it wasn’t long before he began to write his own. Over time, Pfeiffer viewed the undertaking as a way to document his travels.
In the process, Pfeiffer began contributing to a vast, chaotic, beautiful, and mildly deranged collection of human experiences. It’s tempting to call Google Reviews an archive, but archivists wouldn’t agree.
Google Reviews is constantly changing. There’s no effort to preserve it — content is sometimes deleted or edited without warning. Google policies governing the reviews shift intermittently. And unlike an archive, none of the reviews have been disembedded from their original context, nor are they easily accessible or searchable. Just the opposite, the reviews are a jumble of unorganized experiences in product-guide form.
If the idea of an archive is to treat the evidence of human existence as somehow sacred, Google Reviews does not. Instead, it’s a throng of memories that could disappear at any moment, like life itself. It’s ultimately this notion of impermanence that makes the experience of reading Google Reviews feel so lonely to me.
When I spoke to Pfeiffer, he was happy to show me how his reviews reflect the trip he took up from Florida, across to the West Coast, into Canada, and down through Mexico. They’re like entries in a ship’s logbook. When I asked him if he would be upset if all his reviews were deleted tomorrow, he paused for a while.
“I would be,” he said. “I really would be.”
For someone like Pfeiffer, I can’t help but think that Google Reviews is more than just a diary or a scrapbook. It’s a story of your existence.
In December 2021, at a Plato’s Closet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bradley Hawthorne had a hard time trying to sell his sister’s clothes.
She had passed away about a year earlier, and Hawthorne’s mom had been holding onto her clothes, unwilling to let them go. But after 12 months, the family decided to try and sell them.
Hawthorne had a bad experience at the store: It wasn’t open when it was supposed to be, and it only accepted items at certain hours of the day. The staff didn’t seem to care about the clothes one way or another. Hawthorne gave Plato’s Closet one star.
But Hawthorne doesn’t take writing reviews lightly. He approached his response like a five-paragraph essay, with a thesis and supporting arguments. If you’re going to rate something, Hawthorne said, you should state the facts to back it up. The reviews shouldn’t just be opinions.
But even the hundreds of words that Hawthorne wrote couldn’t convey how hard it was for him to take his sister’s clothes to a secondhand store.
“Growing up, never once did I think I was going to outlive her. She never had any medical issues,” Hawthorne said of his older sister. “But then she started getting these headaches.”
He didn’t worry much at first. But her headaches got worse. Eventually, his sister drove to a hospital for a brain scan. They learned she had stage three cancer.
His sister lived another year. During that time, she had been going through a divorce. The family struggled. So when Hawthorne walked into that store with his sister’s clothes, he just wanted someone to see their worth.
“It wasn’t just me trying to hawk some clothes,” Hawthorne said.
It feels impossible to fully connect and empathize with all the people we interact with each day, to see the full existence of every person we pass on the street. It’s easier to keep your head down. But all these stories, these small nuggets of humanity buried in Google Reviews, feel like opportunities for us to practice that empathy.
Customers having bad days at an Autozone in Norman, Oklahoma. A daughter treating her terminally ill father to lunch at a diner in rural Kentucky. A veteran at Arlington National Cemetery, reckoning with the friends he met in basic training who never came home from Vietnam. Hidden beneath all the absurd, bizarre, and hilarious reviews is real and honest vulnerability.
For Amanda Vasquez, Google Reviews is an outlet through which to process a series of tragedies in her life, including the deaths of two family members to COVID-19. For S.M. Newlin, it’s a way to reflect on how a remote lake in California has come to represent the passage of time. With wistfulness and joy, he writes about watching his daughter catch her first fish in the exact spot he did so many years before, the same place where his mother’s ashes are scattered.
“Recognize that this place is very much alive,” Newlin wrote. “Know that for some of us who’ve seen and been through the worst of mankind, the peace found in this place is second to none.”
For Mary Ellen Kepner, Google Reviews is a space to express gratitude for one of the scariest moments in her life: being rushed by helicopter to an emergency room right before Christmas. There, at Piedmont Columbus Regional medical center in Georgia, she was treated with dignity and care.
On the surface, these personal stories read like strangers shouting into the void, demanding for their lives to be heard and recognized. I have lived, these reviews say, I have fought and struggled and cried in the face of beauty. I have felt pain, and I have been to Taco Bell and it was only average. To review is to mark your actuality. To not review is to be lost to time in this strange, crowdsourced record of existence.
* During the writing of this story, Kepner changed her original review and 4.5 rating of the facility. Her updated review now gives Piedmont 5 stars.
In the end, though, it’s still Google Reviews. Kepner, for her life-saving holiday experience, gave the hospital a 4.5 rating.
“I have yet to see anything deserve 5 stars,” she wrote.*
In September, I visited the west coast of Alaska to work on a story. A historic storm had flooded the small community of Hooper Bay, tearing homes from their foundations, turning parts of the village into islands, and tossing fishing boats out onto the tundra. At the end of a day of reporting, I walked a few miles down from the village to the Bering Sea, imagining the destructive power of the ocean and sky.
It was a rare sunny day, and the water was glassy and smooth, lapping against the shore. This ancient, frigid body of water separates Asia from North America, plunging 13,442 feet down at its deepest point. The sky reflected off the ocean; the ocean reflected off the sky.
It was so beautiful that I wanted to cry.
More than 600 people have rated the Bering Sea on Google Reviews.
“Didn’t enjoy, too much water.” One star.
“its ok i guess.” Three stars.
“at the time we were out, i had Tmobile and hubby had Verizon. i had service and he didn’t.” Five stars.
As I stood on the edge of the continent, reading absurdist reviews on my cracked iPhone screen about an ocean that’s many millions of years old, I wondered: Why do I do this?
There’s a guy I’ve been following on Google Reviews for a while. He travels around the western U.S., writing reviews that are entertaining and unusually intimate. He’s gone to many of the same places I’ve been, and I think we would get along. He’s reviewed Cactus Pete’s Casino on the border of Idaho, a wildlife refuge in southern Nevada, a Walmart near Lake Tahoe.
And, with each review, he builds a narrative of his life as he goes. In some versions, he travels with a girlfriend or a wife. Sometimes his romantic partner is replaced with kids and they’re out on the road together, having picnics. Other times, it’s just him and his dog.
Maybe it’s all real, but I can’t help but think he’s using Google Reviews to leave a digital breadcrumb of a life that he’s not yet living. Maybe it’s aspirational, like manifesting your own reality. Maybe it’s a little sad. But his approach to Google Reviews feels, in some ways, like the most honest of them all.
I’m pretty sure that some of these hundreds of reviewers have actually been to the Bering Sea. It’s possible they stood in the exact same spot I did, also overcome with emotion. Maybe they quietly gave it a five-star rating, without elaborating, because they knew words would never do it justice.
Even if it’s wishful thinking, I really want to believe that buried beneath the mundanity, the weirdness, and the loneliness, there’s something powerful and ineffable about this record of shared experiences. Even after all this time mining through the reviews, I still don’t know exactly what it is. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find gold.
Will McCarthy is a reporter and audio producer. He’s written for the New York Times, National Geographic, Texas Monthly, and elsewhere. You can find his work at www.willmccarthy.net.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Tina Knezevic
Copy-editor: Krista Stevens