Homestars.com is a publicly accessible reviews site that does not require any registration in order to read reviews. Posting reviews requires an account. Homestars is focused solely on the “home improvement companies and resources for homeowners” niche.
Homestars’ focus on a single vertical is smart and they are executing on it well. The most specific advantage of this approach is that selling targeted advertising at a premium will be much easier for HomeStars, who have very specifically motivated users in the home improvement space. These people are ready and willing to spend money, and if HomeStars can get them to the site, there is no doubt that advertisers will be ready to pay.
Perhaps it is a result of the narrow focus of the site, but the user interface is very easy to navigate and it is a lot of fun to just dive in and start (as I did) looking for pissed off people skewering their plumber or driveway repairman. As you dive in you will notice “Sponsored Ads” on some pages. If you look up a review for Plumber Bob, who seems like an honest and hardworking guy, you will see that Canada Wide Plumbing & Mechanical Services Inc. have a “sponsored” ad on Plumber Bobs page. To get one of the premium spots, and to add pictures and a few other things to your own page, you pay a monthly fee of $80. These premium spots make up the bulk of HomStars’ revenue.
Because people often want a review of something as specific as a Plumber or a Roofer only intermittently, I think HomeStars have done the right thing in making the site as public as possible. Home Rennovations is a niche that has been overlooked so far and unlike books, music, travel, or cars, it has been hard to get decent local reviews of these services.
Homestars have also recently done a deal to provide their review data to another Toronto based startup: ZipLocal.com, who, as we have mentioned before, appear to be treading water and perhaps are hoping that bringing in more high-quality review content will generate some additional traffic. I think HomeStars has to be careful about licensing their reviews outside of Homestars.com; I am not sure that when a user enters a review on HomeStars the user expects it to be syndicated.
The most glaring problem for HomeStars is accountability. As far as I can tell there is no way to see what other reviews a particular user has posted, so it is hard to know if a review is just a one-off from someone, or if they are an established and helpful reviewer. I think HomeStars will need some sort of scoring system that gets applied to the individual reviewers, based on their participation. Otherwise, HomeStars risks filling up with spam reviews.