The first place I remember seeing this was Amazon. On Amazon, I can see reviews from people who have previously bought a book or movie or any other item (since Amazon has grown to the point that I can't think of what they DON'T sell anymore). In Amazon's case though, you just have to take the price that they offer as the sole source provider.
As eCommerce and the internet marketplace have grown, we started to find more places that offered customer reviews of the seller in addition to the product itself. I think eBay was probably the first place I remember seeing this, and then Pricegrabber.
Nowadays, before I buy anything, I usually check the ratings and prices on both Pricegrabber and on ePinions. I've found that neither site has 100% coverage of everything I shop for, but between the two I can usually find a handful of user reviews.
The one thing that I think has been slow in coming is user reviews of local restaurants and businesses. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it was out there and I just never happened upon it.
You will see occasional reviews for businesses if you do a Google Maps search for a business, but it's not very well populated yet.
The first website that really grabbed my attention as a good source for restaurant reviews by average people like you and me was TripAdvisor. My wife started using TripAdvisor to research where we should go when we went on vacation, like the trips we made to Maui and the Big Island. As a matter of fact, you don't have to be going on a trip somewhere. It's a great resource for looking up restaurants and businesses right around your home town. I think the name of the website probably sets people off as thinking it's just a place to plan vacations and whatnot.
Now I've happened upon a new website for customer reviews, and I really like it.
Go check out Yelp! It appears to me to be a cross between TripAdvisor and ePinions. I like the standardized questions it asks about each restaurant - thinks most people would like to know like cost, if they have takeout, dress code (fancy or casual), parking availability, reservations available or recommended, etc.
I've started to populate my Yelp profile with reviews of my favorite restaurants. In some cases, there are already several reviews, so I just add my vote for how many stars and write a quick blurb. In other cases, if there aren't any or many reviews of a place, then I'm cutting and pasting my review from my blog into the Yelp site to provide more information for other users.
One thing Yelp shares in common with TripAdvisor is that it keeps track of your grade distribution. In other words, looking at my Yelp profile, you can see how many times I've given a restaurant 5-stars versus 4-stars versus 3-stars, etc. I both like and dislike this feature...
I like it from the stand point of grade-inflation. If everyone gets 5-stars, then how do you know what places are the best?
Aside: This is sort of like the Navy evaluation and fitness report system that keeps track of the reporting senior's average grades. If a senior officer gives everyone 5.0 grades, then how do you know which ones were really truly the top performers? I try to keep my reporting senior average down around 3.5, so that if you see an eval signed by me with a 4.5 on it, then you know that guy is really truly a top performer.Anyway, I hope that a 5-star rating from me will carry some weight because I only give them to our absolute favorite restaurants.
At the same time, I dislike this feature because it means more work for me. It means that I have to write reviews about "meh" and "blah" places that didn't impress me so that I establish my average low. You can't just write about the places you love if you want those places you love to stand-out.
Then again... maybe I'm just way over-analyzing this.
Does anyone else look at the reviewer's average and say, "Hey, this guy is a tough grader, and he gave this place a 5, so it must be REALLY good!"?