Public Opinions: Inside User Reviews
But Woznicki isn't your typical reviewer. For one thing, he gets most of the products he reviews free from manufacturers. For another, he has reviewed more than 1500 products. Woznicki's situation brings up a couple of questions. Can receiving freebies influence his reviews? And can anyone really know that many different products well?
Woznicki's circumstances are unusual, but questions about user reviews are not. Does the reviewer have any real knowledge of the area he or she is writing about? Could a sly company submit top reviews about itself to drive up its own score? Finding reviews you can trust is always an issue.
We went behind the scenes to find out how much you can depend on user
reviews. We interviewed expert reviewers and the people who work at review
sites; we also put the sites through their paces as we searched for user
reviews of PC-related products. We looked at sites that focus on product
reviews only (like Amazon.com), as well as those that handle both product and
merchant reviews (such as
Our findings? In general, you can trust a lot of user reviews, though it
might take some work--and a dose of skepticism--to ferret out the reliable
ones. Of course, the great thing about user reviews is that the people who
write them live with the products in the real world. By contrast, editorial
A few user-review Web sites reported that some funny business does go on, however. Sometimes, a merchant's employees will try to post phony reviews either to bump up their own company's rating or to drive down the competition's score. The sites do their best to stop such tampering before the reviews get posted. Beyond that, some sites offer tools to help you filter what you see so you can get more out of the user reviews.
Our two favorites:
Generally, posting a review is straightforward. Most sites require
that you sign up with an e-mail address before you submit your review. Then you
write the review, select a rating (or whatever the site requires), and click
Sites like PriceGrabber.com and Amazon.com monitor submissions for
profanity and nonsense text. Most sites will also exclude a review if it's
clear that the user either does not own the product or has never interacted
with the merchant. Sites will take down offensive postings, but they usually
won't edit the text or correct typos. Note: PCWorld.com's Product Finder is
Web sites that specialize in merchant ratings sometimes run into fraudulent activity: "Many unscrupulous companies do try to submit reviews for themselves on ResellerRatings.com," Scott Wainner, the site's chief executive officer, acknowledges. Such companies are usually merchants with poor ratings trying to boost their overall score. But some companies also bad-mouth competing merchants to force their ratings to drop.
To combat spurious reviews,
Questionable postings may also come from people who are compensated for writing reviews of products or services. Such compensation can come in the form of free merchandise or cash.
Mike Woznicki gets to keep the products that manufacturers send him.
He says that this arrangement doesn't affect what he writes because he chooses
the products he wants to review. "The idea that I would favor one [company]
over the other doesn't happen," he says. (Note: Manufacturers provide products
Woznicki's situation seems to be the exception rather than the rule, however. Other reviewers said that they don't receive free products. Epinions.com is the only site we looked at that pays money--albeit a nominal sum--for reviews. The site pays only those users whose reviews on popular products are highly rated by members, says Sarah Leary, vice president of marketing at Epinions.com. And the average review earns less than $1 during its lifetime. "I've racked up a whole 50 bucks in over a year of review writing," says a hardware reviewer at the site who goes by the name of Zero.
In light of the potential for conflicts of interest and fraud on review sites, you do need to exercise your judgment on whose opinions you can trust. You must also look out for reviews from writers who may not know what they're talking about. For example, a negative review may stem from a problem involving the user and not the product itself. Perhaps the reviewer had used the product for just one day or didn't know how to operate it.
Trusting a site's reviews is one side of the equation; ultimately,
it's what you get out of a site that counts. Some make it easy to find the
reviews you want. Epinions.com,
When we looked at the sites, we didn't find many reviews of newer
products; no site had more than three reviews of Sonicblue's Rio S50 MP3
player, for example. Some sites have pages of reviews for one product but a
handful of posts for others.
Though reviews on most sites have undergone at least minimal inspection, it doesn't necessarily mean they're worth reading. That's where community feedback--if any--comes into play. Sites like Amazon.com, Epinions.com, and PCPhotoReview.com ask you to vote on how helpful you found a review. Based on those votes, the sites will automatically push the highest-rated reviews to the front so you see them first, which saves you from wading through the muck.
Most sites let you sort reviews by date or rating. Epinions.com offers even greater customization: You can create a "Web of Trust," which lets you pick reviewers whose opinions you feel are in line with yours. After that, any relevant reviews of theirs will bubble up to the top of the list.
Even after you've used filtering and other tools on the sites, you
still have to decide whether the review says anything worthwhile. "The ideal
review is detailed, compares a product to similar products, and is written
after someone has used the product for long enough to really know it well,"
says John Shafer, channel manager for PCPhotoReview.com. So delve into the
details, especially the negative comments, and look beyond the overall rating
With practice, you'll become very adept at scanning reviews and zooming in on the informative ones. Remember that most people are motivated to write reviews either when they're thrilled to bits or when they're just ready to vent. So expect to see reviews that are either very favorable or really negative (one good reason to focus on the details and ignore the overall ratings). And make sure you read as many reviews as you can handle. That way, the useless or fishy ones will be balanced out by the real gems.
As with any source of information, you must know what to look for. Keep these tips in mind the next time you peruse the postings.