Norman Rockwell beat us to this story 65 years ago. “Gossip,” his painting on the March 6, 1948, cover of The Saturday Evening Post, shows how a story gets twisted when it’s passed between 15 people. Back then, commentary spread via word of mouth. Today it’s transmitted over Angie’s List or myriad other online review sites. But the premise remains the same: When a few people have juicy information, plenty of others will listen.

This month’s cover package aims to explore and explain how online review sites are rocking your world — even if you didn’t know it was happening. By “rock,” we’re talking about both good and bad implications, because this story definitely has two sides.

Just as definitely, it’s a developing story. Angie’s List is losing money faster than it’s gaining members, and sooner or later its stockholders will question the concept’s viability. Meanwhile, scandals involving fake restaurant and hotel reviews are souring many Americans toward online ratings of all types, as are rumors of customers threatening to write scathing reviews unless they get perks and discounts. Ultimately, how reliable are those?

On the other hand, a survey conducted for architecture and home improvement ideas website Houzz, released in late March, shows that people continue to rely heavily on the views of fellow homeowners when picking a remodeling pro. Of more than 73,000 Houzz users nationwide who responded to the poll, 81% gave “good reviews and recommendations” a score of five on a five-point scale when asked to name key factors in their decision to hire. You’d think the pro’s expertise might count more, but it scored 11 points lower with this crowd than did peer reviews.

In a sense, online review sites are just gossip with a megaphone. The difference is that they broadcast the gossip to more people faster than you get from chats over the back fence, and for that reason they can exaggerate the impact of both good and bad ratings. Dealing with them requires that you learn some new skills, some of which we lay out here and others we’ll get into in future issues.

But I’m betting that you’ve always relied on customer referrals and always have worked to keep a bad rating from hurting business. So it will be 65 years from now, when one of Norman Rockwell’s heirs uses whatever is the gossip machine of that era and begins recounting a tale to others.

—Craig Webb is editor-in-chief of REMODELING.