Rating sites, especially crowd-sourced platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor, have proliferated online and now wield considerable influence. Yet, because of confusing -- sometimes opaque -- methodologies, brands have a difficult time figuring out this landscape.

“Because in our social media driven world anyone can put up a cloud-driven review, it's becoming a game and its lost its innocence,” says Peter Zandan, global vice chair at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, one of three authors on white paper released today “Rating the Ratings: Wisely Navigating the Rating Service Universe.”

For instance, ad hoc polls posted on sites, like Survey Monkey, often yield sample sizes or voices that aren’t considered representative, yet are sometimes positioned as such. And increasingly, services are cropping up that populate these sites with positive reviews and, in the case of apps, downloads.

Zandan points out in the report, before the rise of social media, rating services were fairly methodological with information gathered and distributed primarily through reports or magazines, like Good Housekeeping or Consumer Reports. These media entities employed in-house teams that conducted tests and explained the results. Now, of course, social networks - like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp --  have flipped control to the public and amplified the speed at which judgments are made on everything from people, companies to ideas.

“The public trusts peer review --- peers are more trusted more than experts,” Zandan says. This means, the issues with user-generated data will not only persist but likely balloon. After all, these players range from social media to sites like Amazon, Glassdoor and onsite retailer ratings, as well as the “pay for play” awards and lists. So, what’s the ultimate impact for communications, especially considering the business impact ratings can have on the bottom line?

“It’s the Wild West out there and communications would be wise to help form and shape some standards that help consumers,” Zandan says. Ultimately, these standards would likely come from the reviews industry, but probably after significant pressure from consumers and the companies being reviewed.

Until that happens, Zandan urges consumers -- and companies -- to look closely at the review sites they’re hedging their decision-making -- and reputations-- on.