Online user reviews have completely changed the way we shop and select service providers. I use Yelp religiously for finding hot new restaurants. I scour through online comments when buying clothes, decor, and furniture, to look for tips on fit and assembly. I wouldn't ever consider a handyman without making sure someone has vouched for him first.
But when it comes to things that are a little bit more personal--like finding a new medical specialist or a hair stylist who knows how to work with my hair texture--online reviews left by strangers sometimes feels a bit too anonymous. I don't know Yelp's buffmuscles2005 from Adam, so how can I trust his recommendation for an oral surgeon? For those services, I feel more comfortable asking my friends and family directly, yet even that method can take some time to find what I'm looking for.
New iOS app GemShare wants to fix that. This private reviews network lets you search for and share recommendations for local businesses and services, but only within a community of trusted friends and friends of friends. It's designed to help you find recommendations quickly by accessing your entire personal network at once.
Cofounders Claudine Ryan and Maryam Mohit created GemShare in order to store and save word-of-mouth recommendations. They had frequent conversations with others where someone asked, "Does anyone know of a good [fill in the blank]?" only to lose that recommendation later, or where someone recalled having a different conversation about a local speech pathologist but couldn't remember the name or who said it.
"We realized that there was no service out there that gave access to resources like this within our personal networks," said Ryan during a demo. Ryan and Mohit quietly launched a pilot program in September 2013, where 1,000 people from around the San Francisco Bay Area tested GemShare and gave tips on their favorite local services. Recommendations they log are known as "gems."
"According to feedback from our testers, we've found that GemShare has quickly become the first place that most users are looking," said Mohit.
Building a trusted network
When you join GemShare, the first step is to create your network. You can connect to your Facebook or Google accounts (which only looks at contacts--GemShare doesn't share any of your info), or just use your phone's onboard contacts. The app looks for friends of yours who are already using GemShare; if no one is using it yet, you can invite other friends to join. Then, set your location, and select local interest groups to join. GemShare gives you access to gems that your friends have posted, as well as friends of friends.
GemShare's main landing page is your activity feed, where you can see what your friends are searching for or recommending. For example, one of your friends might be looking for a live band for his upcoming wedding; tap on the listing to respond. You can respond with a gem of your own, point him in the direction of a friend you think could help, or just give a simple acknowledgement that you can't help this time.
If you're looking for a recommendation, start with searching for a service by using the search tool at the top of the screen. GemShare will search for your network's gems to see if anyone has a listing that matches your needs. Results are shown by location, but you can switch to view results by connection. If nothing comes up, tap "Ask for a Gem" to reach out to your network. Fill out what you're looking for, and leave a brief description with more info. That post gets broadcasted to your direct network and friends of friends, who can respond if they have a lead.
Of course, the network can only thrive if everyone posts their gems in return, which Ryan says hasn't been an issue during testing.
"Being in a network with friends is a big motivator," she said, "so about 70 percent of users are contributing content to help out their friends."
To list gems, tap the Give Gems button and enter the info you'd like to share. GemShare connects with Google Places, so if you enter a business by name, it will give the full listing and contact information. You can also list a specific person to recommend, and leave a quick review about why you like that business or professional. Finally, mark your listing as a gem (which has your full stamp of approval), a gem for some (for businesses that are great, but might not suit everyone's needs), or heard good things (for businesses that you haven't tried yet, but have heard good feedback). Everyone in your network can see that recommendation after you've posted it.
Apps like this are only as good as the community behind it: GemShare is a great idea and was clearly designed with our busy, mobile, go-go-go lifestyles in mind. Yet, the pilot sample was based in the Bay Area, so new GemShare users have to start essentially from scratch to get more users onboard in their local community, perhaps relying again on word of mouth.
Still, I think GemShare will catch on, mainly because it fills a void that other apps haven't met. Personal recommendations directly from friends are probably the most trusted sources you can have, especially because you can comfortably ask follow-up questions or call your friend directly for more details.
"GemShare has a high signal to noise ratio," said Mohit. "It's just the best reviews from people you know and trust."
GemShare for iOS is free in the App Store, with an Android app to follow.