Read Between the Stars: Make the Most of Online Reviews

Photo credit: Jonas B via Foter.com / CC BY
Photo credit: Jonas B via Foter.com / CC BY

Overall, online reviews, spawned by e-commerce, have been a tremendous boon to consumers. They are easily accessible and provide a significant advantage when it comes to making wise choices on what we purchase. Prior to the dotcom boom, one had to traipse down to the public library to read product reviews in the Consumer Reports.

But online reviews must be objectively evaluated. Merely counting the stars doesn’t cut it. Be aware of the shortcomings, pitfalls and gotchas.

To that end, I give you ten recommendations for making the most of online reviews.

  1. First thing you do: subtract one star. Think about it. You buy something that turns out to be a total piece of junk. You spend an hour on hold with customer support only to be connected to a service agent that’s completely clueless, reading from a script. You decide to write a disparaging, critical product review to vent your frustrations. What’s the worst possible score you can give that product? Five minus stars? Nope. Zero stars? Nope. You have to give it at least one star. This significantly skews the average review score, making everything appear rosier than it really is.
  2. If a product has an average of 3.5 stars or less, give it a pass: Building on suggestion #1, think long and hard before buying a product with less than 4 stars. Less than 3.5 stars, forget it; your purchase will likely be an exercise in frustration and wasted time and money. Even products with scores in the low 4’s can be iffy
  3. Look at the distribution of reviews, especially on the low end. If there is a ‘barbell’ distribution of 5 stars and 1 star reviews, it’s best to give it a pass.
  4. Factor in the honeymoon affect: It’s simply human nature. You just got some new gizmo or toy and you are in love. After waiting days for your beloved new possession to arrive, you immediately sit down and write a glowing review about it. For the most part, these types of reviews do not carry much weight. Better to read a review from someone who has lived with the product for a while, not the one who has just taken it out of the box.
  5. Factor out extraneous information: Frequently, people give positive reviews because of the purchase experience but not necessarily the product itself. It “arrived promptly”. Or it was “well packaged” Or the sales person was “especially helpful”
  6. Scan the one, two and three star reviews for legitimate complaints: OK. There will always be portion of products subject to defects and infant failures. There will be cranks who complain no matter what. There will also be the clueless who neglect to read the fine manual (RTFM in geek speak). But do take time to read the lower reviews for clues about a product’s faults and shortcomings.
  7. Be on the alert for fake reviews: Some review sites are better policed than others. If you encounter a review with a lot vague praise, that is not necessarily coherent or lacks any detail about a product, ignore it.
  8. Look for products that have a fairly large review base: A high star rating is not statistically significant if there are less than 25 reviews (see #7 above.) The more reviews the better.
  9. Also research product reviews provided by third parties: In addition to reviews by consumers typically found on a retailer’s web site, also seek out third party reviews. I provided some links below. But be aware that third parties may provide a biased evaluation.
  10. Give back by participating in the online review community: If you have benefited from online reviews, give back by submitting your own reviews. Tell others about the phenomenal, the good, the bad and the ugly. I plan to share some of my online reviews in a future posting.

Here are some links to third party review sites. I’d be happy to include your recommendations for third party sites.

Consumer Electronics and Computers:   CNET     engadget    PC Magazine Appliances:  reviewed.com      Appliance Buyers Guide
Autos:   Edmonds 
Restaurants:   Yelp    Zagat   Trip Advisor

And don’t forget the perennial authority: Consumer Reports. In print at your local library or online with a paid subscription.

© 2016 Paul J Reimold

 

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