User Reviews: How to Use Them, And How Not To

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Before the rise of Internet shopping, the only reviews you'd encounter at the point of sale were testimonials selected by the manufacturer or retailer. Real reviews were the domain of specialty publications, written by professionals who were paid to put devices through their paces and report the results.

But behold the transformative power of the Internet: These days, online reviews have evolved to take advantage of the medium's strengths, and they've expanded to fill the extra space. Retailers like Amazon love user reviews, and have made them an integral part of the sales cycle: “Do your research right here, on this page, before you buy!” they seem to say, passing off user reviews as a complete replacement for professional reviews.

Bloggers, fans, and enthusiasts by the millions now share their feelings about all sorts of tech products--on their own sites or as free content for other sites. And marketers, faced with the reality that traditional marketing has lost much of its power, now create replicants that walk and talk like authentic reviews, but ultimately just repeat feature lists and phrases crafted to appeal to specific demographics.

It's not all bad news. Though there's a lot of noise at review sites, there are also many more sources of good advice that a consumer can look to prior to making a purchase. The challenge is to figure out how to filter out the junk and find the feedback that tells you what you need to know.

Here are three strategies to get the most out of user reviews. Taken together, they can help you ensure that you'll make a wise decision on your next purchase.

Figure Out Your Real Needs

First, be honest with yourself. If you plan to buy a digital camera, be clear in advance about whether you plan to be a professional photographer or are simply looking for an easy-to-pocket model that you can use to capture snapshots of birthday parties and recitals?

Being realistic about your needs will help you impose an appropriate budget on yourself, and it will enable you to home in on the right review types--casual anecdotes from past customers, mass-market overviews from newspapers and general-audience Websites, in-depth and standardized evaluations from professionals, or hard-core geekery from specialty forums. You needn't--and shouldn't--limit yourself to one review source (more about that in a moment), but knowing where to start will help you avoid wasting time and will prevent you from being overwhelmed or seduced by jargon.

Another crucial step is to make your own feature list. Doing so will help you organize your priorities so that you can quickly evaluate models before plunging into the reviews. A quick online search for "intro to HDTV," for example, should help you gather enough information from experts to assemble (in less than 15 minutes) a short list of must-haves, would-like-to-haves, and deal-breakers. Create this list before you start browsing user reviews: If you look at the reviews first, they may subtly influence you to add things to your “must-have” feature list that don’t belong there.

If you want some feedback before you start shopping, run the list by regulars on a forum that specializes in the category--but be sure to explain just what kind of consumer you are so you'll receive relevant advice.

Balance Your Reviews Diet

User reviews on retail Websites are the quickest way to see what real shoppers think about a product. But the trap--especially with retailers like Amazon which have mastered the technique--is that user reviews make it easy to do all the research you can stand without ever leaving the shopping page you landed on. You want slice-of-life examples of the product in use? Highlights of problem areas? Entertaining little feuds between different reviewers? The ability to interact with the reviews by voting them up or down? It's all conveniently located there, right below the 'Buy' button.

The problem is that the proximity of all of these options to the point of sale subtly transforms them into an extension of your shopping experience, as if each review were enabling you to hold the product in your hands from a slightly different angle. And when you've seen enough, you can always just press the 'Buy' button and put your shopping expedition to rest.

Will Chambers, the editor-in-chief of Steve's Digicams, has been writing and editing reviews for a decade. He says that he looks to user reviews on sites like Amazon as a supplement to more-rigorous reviews when he's shopping for new electronics. "It's nice to see what actual consumers have to say about products they've purchased," he says, "To see if they're in line with what the professionals are saying." If every shopper on Amazon complains about some weakness that all the pros missed, Chambers says, it can give you an edge when you're deciding what to buy.

Lack of Standardization

On the other hand, Chambers notes, user reviews lack the standardization required to make accurate comparisons, which is why they function better as a supplemental source. After all, it's much easier to compare laptops if someone has measured the number of seconds it takes each one to apply the same graphics filters to an image, for example, or how long each one's battery lasts in indentical longevity tests. "Standardized testing is key. Make sure that whatever type of electronic you're looking at, [the reviewer is] using a standardized test that every manufacturer's model is being put through, so results are consistent," Chambers says.

A good standardized review should clearly state how the product is being tested, and present the results in a way that lets you quickly compare them to the results of previously reviewed models.

Try the User Forums

Then there are user forums, which tend to mix experts with newbies, objective real-world tests with subjective preferences, sober judgments with passionate opinions. Chambers says, "You get a lot of feedback from people who may have purchased not only that model but several of its predecessors. You get feedback from professionals in the industry or from enthusiasts who buy every model that comes out."

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