What You Don't Know About That Online Product Review

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Do you shop or research purchases online? How much weight do you give to online reviews? Are you skeptical of what you read? If you're not verifying your sources, you could be doing all that research for nothing.

Bloggers: Looking Out for You or The Product?

You may or may not be aware that some of your favourite blogs receive free product in exchange for reviews. By itself, this isn't an issue unless the reviewer isn't declaring it on their site or (much worse) tends to give only favourable reviews. I've also read blogs that will only post about a product they receive if they like it, without disclosing all the other products they received and didn't review because they did not like them. The blog may appear to like all the products it tests, but in fact it prefers to never criticize products.

This works against you, the reader, because you only get half the story: By only being served reviews of the products that warranted good reviews, you could potentially make the mistake of buying a bad product, one that the bloggers chose not to write about. If the blogger is more concerned with making themselves attractive to companies than serving the reader their honest opinion, you should probably take their reviews with a grain of salt.

Now, there are exceptions. There are bloggers who only review products that fit their topic perfectly, but really, what are the chances that a person likes everything they use? Keep that in mind with blogged product reviews.

Refunds for Reviews: A New Online Model

So what about buyer reviews on shopping sites? Well, I recently read an article on New York Times called: For $2 a Star, a Retailer Gets 5-Star Reviews. The article talks about a company that was busted for selling a product, then contacting buyers and offering them a refund if they would post favourable reviews of the product on Amazon.com.

Now I knew that companies hired stealthy PR firms and contracted people to do this kind of thing, but to be so bold as to lift the curtain of dishonesty and reach out to the actual consumer to participate in the deception quite surprised me. I was struck that the company wasn't afraid of exposing their dishonesty to the consumer. Other companies will refund you if you bring in more clients, say a gym that will give you back part of your membership if your friends join. But in this instance, they didn't have to make a sale as a result of the customer's review; they just wanted to have thousands of positive reviews to increase their "legitimacy" as a seller on the site.

You might be wondering: wouldn't it have been cheaper to hire a few people to spend time creating fake accounts and write fake reviews? Sites like Amazon and eBay can figure out when someone is trying to game the system, using new accounts to provide reviews. The brilliance of the approach this company used is that all of these reviewers had authentic accounts, with a wide variety of creation dates and purchase patterns. The critical flaw (beside being incredibly unethical) was that using real people means you can't control their behaviour. And some of them talked. (You can check out the article for the whole story)

Protect Yourself: Caveat Emptor

So, what's an online shopper to do? First of all, choose your sources wisely.

Depending what you're shopping for, you might need to first research review sites before you research the product or service itself. Yes, search for product descriptions but check the URL of the sites you are clicking on to see if they are legitimate sources for the product type. When I'm looking up gadgets, for instance, I usually start with
"(product name) cnet review"
because CNET has been around almost as long as I've been in tech and I trust their opinions as a good starting point. [Pro tip: looking for a download? Try "(program or app name) CNET downloads" for trusted virus-free downloads.]

Second, search for bad reviews. Don't you want all the information so you can weigh your purchase decision wisely? Try searching
" (product name) disappointed"
to see reviews by people who may have had a bad experience with the product. For really harsh reviews, try
"(product name) sucks".
Take these with a grain of salt though. Some of these could be done by the competition or people with a clear hate for the company.

Third, poll your friends and networks (either in person or via social media). Search the product name on social media if you dare. (By that, I mean that you should be prepared to be bombarded by spambots if it's a hot product like an iPod or the hot Elmo toy of the season.) Keep your wits about you: check whether the source's posts are repetitive, touting a specific link or message using a similar format all the time, or perhaps showing no posts at all. Spambots and trolls are easy to weed out if you just take the time to look.

But, this all sounds like a lot of work

No, you don't have to do any of this. But consider this: if a purchase warrants being researched, don't you want to spend the time to make sure that you're only relying on legitimate reviews?

Caveat emptor, friends.