Ever wonder what people are saying about your company? Visit the world of consumer-driven e-mail groups, Web sites, and community listservs that have become powerful arbiters of opinion about the companies to patronize — or to avoid.

If you're lucky, you might find something like this: “Once again, they did a great job for us. We are happy to refer them to anyone looking for a contractor. One thing that stands out is that they show up every day to do the work. … They have been very detailed about the work and even our old walls look new …”

Or you might find some variation on this: “Awful! We were lied to, deceived, and phone calls were not returned a majority of the time! Craftsmanship was substandard and the finish work was virtually nonexistent! The foreman was extremely difficult to work with, and on average they worked two to three days a week, every other week. …”

Welcome to the sprawling and unpredictable new world of virtual homeowner grapevines. Unlike business-driven online referral services, these networks can feature your company — in the form of raves or rants, or maybe both — without your knowledge or consent. They epitomize what Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson calls “the tyranny of the consumer,” a Web-driven phenomenon in which one or two negative postings, whether accurate or not, can threaten to unravel many years of accumulated goodwill.

Better Than Advertising? Perhaps the most influential national consumer-driven Web service (and the source of the reviews quoted above) is Angie's List ( www.angieslist.com), a membership-based network in which neighbors review companies in more than 250 home-related categories, including general remodeling, kitchen and bathroom remodeling, decks and porches, and carpentry/woodworking. As of early October, the service operated in 72 U.S. cities and had more than 500,000 dues-paying members, according to Jonathan Swain, communications director for the Indianapolis-based company.

For homeowners, Angie's List fills a genuine need. Instead of having to ask around for contractor recommendations, they can go online to read the opinions of hundreds or thousands of people in their community. Each member “report” covers several criteria, including the project cost, description of the work, and an ‘A' to ‘F' grade for each of six categories: price, quality, responsiveness, punctuality, professionalism, and overall.

Members agree to be truthful, accurate, and to provide information based on their own experiences within the last six months, Swain says. He adds that each report is checked “to make sure there's some integrity” before it is posted. Ideally, the result is unbiased, real-life reviews that set good remodelers apart from those who bring down the industry.

On the plus side, positive reports of remodelers seem to outnumber negative, based on the sites for Chicago and Washington, D.C. For instance, the D.C. Angie's List had eight recent reports under general remodeling for Case Design/Remodeling's Bethesda location. All but one gave the location an overall rating of ‘A' or ‘B.'

One report on Case, excerpted here, is typical of the service's often better-than-advertising quality: “Project manager was awesome, and the lead carpenter was incredible. Everything ran like clockwork…. They finished a month early and were $5,000 under budget.”

“If the homeowner feels positively, Angie's List can be great,” says Joaquin Erazo, Case's vice president of marketing and public relations. Many remodelers wisely ask their best clients to rave about them on Angie's List and similar services.

On the other hand, Erazo notes, “your entire reputation is just a click away.” If someone doesn't like you, he or she can damage your reputation with a few scathing words. Angie's List almost never removes negative reports, but it does allow companies to post responses. (See “Having Your Say” on page 30.) Case responds in 70% to 75% of these cases, says Erazo, who advises other remodelers to do the same. “Don't get into arguments,” he cautions. “Don't say anything negative, but explain your side of the story” and lay out the steps you've taken to prevent the problem from occurring again.