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Saturday, January 11, 2014

1442. Can I Trust Online Reviews?

I often find myself trying to decide between a number of different products, and being a smart shopper, I do my online research. I find lots of reviews on Amazon.com and other retail sites, and wonder if I can really trust the reviews. How do I know that people aren’t paid to provide reviews? Where can I go to find unbiased opinions?
Funny you should ask about unbiased reviews. Ken recently heard a news story about Yelp (a site that provides reviews and information about businesses). It turns out that there are accusations that Yelp has been treating business that pay Yelp for advertising differently than those that don’t. There seems to be proof that for advertisers, Yelp removes negative reviews and promotes the best reviews to the top of the list of reviews. For non-advertisers, Yelp seems to be removing positive reviews, and promoting negative reviews, as a means of “strong-arming” businesses into paying for advertising. If it’s true, it’s a horrible proof of the fact that you can’t believe anything you read online; if false, it simply reiterates the concept that you can’t believe what you read online (in other words, either way, it seems like you need to be skeptical about everything you read online).
So where can you turn? Are the reviews on Amazon unbiased? (We tend to take positive reviews with a grain of salt, figuring that reviewers got free stuff in trade for good reviews. Bad reviews on Amazon are slightly more informative, but not completely trustworthy either.) Probably not. Recently Doug uncovered a means of finding a self-moderated source of unbiased reviews. This won’t work for every product, but it turns out that many products receive their support via online forums. On these support forums, customers can post questions; other customers generally provide the answers to the questions. You would be amazed at how much information about the use of a product you’ll find on online support forums!
For example, imagine that you’re trying to decide whether to purchase a Samsung TV. Searching online, it’s nearly impossible to find reviews you can trust. On the other hand, check out the support forums here: http://forums.cnet.com/samsung-forum/. It might take some digging, but you’ll find all sorts of comments if you have the patience to read through the messages. For your own searches, look online for the product, plus the words “Support Forum”.
We have two other suggestions: First, many product manufacturers provide Twitter feeds that they use for support. You may find it useful to follow the Twitter feed of the manufacturer of the product you’re researching, to see what people are asking about it. In addition, Ken swears by the product review site http://www.thewirecutter.com. The folks who run the site do amazing research on consumer and electronics products. Very highly recommended!

Most importantly, always treat any online reviews with some amount of skepticism. Do the research, and you’ll end up making more informed purchases.  

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