The Review Games
Not only have I written hundreds of product and travel reviews over the years, for several websites, but I have read untold thousands of reviews. In that time, I’ve come to one conclusion: Reviews should always be taken with a grain of salt. The more I’ve written and read reviews, the more that holds true.
And it seems that The Review Game is a three-way dance among dissatisfied customers, self-written endorsements, and reviewers trying to make a buck in the middle of it all.
There are several reasons why someone would take the time to post a review online. In a large number of cases, reviews are penned by dissatisfied customers who want to rant or warn others about their bad experience. Unfortunately, those who have a bone to pick with the company or product are typically more motivated than those who are simply satisfied and didn’t feel compelled to write that everything worked as planned.
Another problem with negative reviews is that they are sometimes written in response to something other than the merits of the product. For example, many As Seen on TV products are test marketed and run into back order status quickly. Customers dissatisfied with slow shipping may hit review sites to vent their frustration. Thus, it isn’t unusual to see a product rated 1-star, with the majority of negative reviews based on something other than the product.
The powers responsible for selling products know that consumer ratings are vital to their success, and are known to infiltrate review sites and leave glowing endorsements for their offerings. While it used to be pretty easy to spot fake positive reviews, it is becoming much more difficult. In the old days, you could simply look at a reviewer’s history and tell if it was a shill account or not. Savvy marketers now create complete accounts and leave a variety of reviews for other products, and sneak in the glowing review for their own along the way. They also enlist the help of friends and family members to spread the reviews out over more people and writing styles.
More than once I’ve seen old acquaintances on Facebook asking for people to leave positive reviews for something they obviously didn’t use or try.
Although this trend seems to be waning a bit, in years past product reviews were often heavily diluted by “affiliate” reviews in which the “reviewer” stood to make money by selling the product. In these cases, you’ll typically read a glowing endorsement of a product, with a link at the end which urges you to buy it. These are obviously not genuine reviews and should be discarded.
Reviews on Official Website
You may see an official product offering glowing testimonials by its readers, and while I have no doubt that some of those are probably real, one must wonder how fair a company can be in posting unfiltered user reviews. I once pointed this out in one of my product reviews, and the company responded by saying they never thought to include negative reviews when presenting their product.
I’ve seen a product rated 4.5 stars on an official website, and 1.5 stars virtually everywhere else.
Some “review” sites exist for the sole purpose of consumers to express negative opinions about a product or service. While these can be helpful in some cases, the rants posted on such sites may only be a small minority of consumers, and might not reflect the majority of people who have tried the product. Satisfied customers don’t typically head over to a rant-type site to say they had a good experience.
For the reasons cited above, websites which rely solely on consumer ratings are not always as useful as those which offer editorial ratings alongside consumer reviews. There are, of course, such sites, and these are the ones which I feel give the consumer the best chance at an unbiased view.
There are also “review” sites in which the writers don’t actually use the product, but merely compile information from the internet and let consumers completely control the rating and discussion. While these may be of limited use for informational purposes, readers aren’t assured of an unbiased presentation if the writer has had no experience with the product. These are also susceptible to problems with negative and positive reviews cited above.
I can think of more than one specific occasion when new “1-star” products were blasted by user complaints of slow shipping, yet the final product in my hands turned out to be a pretty decent item.
Free Sample Reviews
One trend I’ve noticed over on Amazon is an initial surge of positive reviews by people who were supplied free samples in exchange for a review. While I don’t doubt that these are real people evaluating the product, I believe the fact that they received the product for free gives the manufacturer a psychological edge. After all, how could you bash a product when these people gave you one for free? The other problem is that these people didn’t wage their own money in the purchase of the product. In other words, they lost nothing, and are probably more forgiving in the product’s shortcomings. Had they plunked down hard-earned money, they may not be as kind when experiencing a product’s flaws.
I have been offered free samples over the years, and on very few occasions I have accepted them. It’s not the same as when I’ve handed over my own cash for a product, although I feel that my years of product reviews have allowed me to retain a certain bias even when evaluating a free sample.
I even tell those wishing to provide me a free sample that I always point out any potential negatives in order to give a balanced review, so at I’ve least warned them that they won’t get an automatic glowing review just by providing a free sample.
There is probably no such thing as a truly unbiased review, as everyone has their own biases and preferences. Consumer-led review sites, however, offer a less objective overview – skewed by fake positive and sometimes unnecessarily negative reviews – than those which include editorial observations.
Sites which offer an editor’s review in addition to consumer reviews offers the reader the best chance at making an informed decision.