User Product Reviews, How Far Do They Take Us?

Let’s say you’re looking for a new blender.  Why do you need a blender?  I don’t know, something about “healthy smoothies” or something.  You go on Amazon you look up blender and because you want super duper crush technology and “total annihilation mode” you find the XF-8756 Samurai model.   The blades were fashioned by ancient Japanese Samurais, curved blades that look like katana blades. The Samurai blender slices up bananas and protein powder like ancient Samurais did during the  Sengoku period.    So this blender is like $200, while most other ones are $30, but again, you want that total annihilation mode.  So you get this one, you read the reviews because you a smart, independent consumer who ain’t need no salesman.  Basically 90% of them are 5 star, now you can rubber stamp your purchase and be on your way.


Photo credit: Canadian Veggie via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Reviews, reviews, reviews.  Ask someone if they did their research and like asking little Jimmy if he did his homework you get a “yesssh”.  What research, well you probably just browsed the reviews.  I’m talking, in this context, user reviews.  I’m not  necessarily talking about professional reviews, or Consumer Reports (better science and resources are put into these reviews). I also want to say that there is nothing wrong with reviews,  reviews are actually darn important for making decisions about stuff, where else to get information but from the people who already made the plunge.  But reviews should not be the supreme court of your decision making abilities. And here’s why:

1. Most people intentionally buy the things that they reviews
What? What am I saying, you might be asking.  Let me say it again (err type it I guess), PEOPLE INTENTIONALLY BUY THE THINGS THAT THEY REVIEW. Did that make more sense?  I could type it again, but then you’d probably think I’m getting paid by the word (jokes on you, I’m not getting paid at all).  Okay, okay, keep in mind that I’m talking about the thought process that goes into buying an item.  So, in essence, people who buy something usually employed whatever heuristics to buy an item.  This is hidden most of the time, thus we only really get to hear if the item met that person’s expectations.

For instance take this broom which has the following fictitious ad : This Klassic  broom sweeps with the power of 6 hurricane Katrinas, and just like that, your kitchen is calling for FEMA. Well then  you probably gave it five stars.

Here’s another good example, take the PC building scene.  Look at reviews, as long as the product didn’t arrive DOA (dead on arrival) or was deceptive, then chances are the product will probably get a four or five star. It doesn’t narrow items down as much as you might think.  This is a good time to segue into my next neat bullet point:

2. Not good for alternatives

“Yeah these no-slip socks are way better than General Meow-Meow’s no-slip socks, because these socks are made with actual fabric instead of reclaimed panty-hose”. That is typical of the alternative thought process with items.  It does glean an important piece of information, but still much of the puzzle is still a mystery.  Some people might let you glean into their thought process and tell you why they bought item X, more dangerous yet, some may make unsubstantiated claims about another product.    So unless you’re using professional reviewers who have reviewed a series of products, take advice with a dose of Great Value Salt.

People might (and they may be right) suggest a reviewed product (or inverse recommend another), but how can we really know what the better choice is without more information?  In short, typical consumer reviews can only focus what they reviewed and are unable to reliably suggest alternative products.  Reviews can induce a positive feedback loop. I saw this in the PC building scene. Why does a particular brand of RAM have much higher reviews than another, nearly identical RAM?  I’d reason that for whatever particular nominal advantage, brand 1 got more sales, which garnered reviews. People searching for RAM just basically look at the number of sticks, the size (2,4,8 GB, etc), and perhaps the CAS latency or frequency (which by and large make negligible difference).  People sort by reviews and choose by highest reviewed.  In the end they may leave a review, probably another 5 star which spurs more sales.

3. People are more likely to speak up if there is a problem

Businesses have this problem all the time.  Satisfied customers are less likely to review and speak out.  Many negative reviews can certainly signal a problem,  they can also be over-represented.  But again, a torrent of negative reviews is probably indicating a problem like a noisy Geiger counter.

4. Reviews could be fake

Reviews are a huge part of selecting an item, sellers will take advantage of this and post fake reviews. Why would people lie on the internet?  Who knows, but it happens.  In short, vague reviews are typically fake.  This goes with five stars and one star reviews.  Much like you can post a glowing review to amp up the score, competitors can post one star to demolish a product.  Watch out for ones that bring down a product but suggest another one in the same breath.

5.  Intended Audience can shift reviews. 

Okay, let’s take the first book I reviewed for this website, The Financial Matrix by Orrin Woodward.  My written review is the only written critical response to the book.  What do the other reviewers give it? 5 stars, 5 stars and 5 stars.  Why?  Because audience.  Who is buying The Financial Matrix? People who wasted $250 on a business kit and needs merchandise to sell down-line.  The book wasn’t a great tract on economics or finance, yet it has many five star reviews.  Because the product did well with it’s intended audience.    The reviews do not reflect the general crumminess of the book. The high standing is because a  specific audience reviewed it.  A weakness in niche products that have a loyal fan base.

So there are some pitfalls, but here are some good uses of reviews.

Reviews are good for

1. Teasing out quality
Assuming the product has been on the market for a bit, reviews can share how well the quality of the product is.   This goes with books to0, if you buy a book people can chime in on how well the writing is, the plot, the research, etc.   Buying cheap gizmos, a review could tell you that the stem breaks easily or certain areas wear out quicker than others.

2. Sharing common problems or include information that isn’t disclosed in the information part
For instance, when I was looking at different motherboards some reviews mentioned things I didn’t even think about, such as how many SATA cables came with the motherboard, a piece of information that was surprisingly absent from many product descriptions. Reviews let you look into the future like a fairground gypsy.

The bottom take away is this: be vigilant when doing research. Subjective items can probably be only assessed on user reviews (video games, music, books), but items that have actual benchmarks and whatnot, you should strive to see what is available.   For instance when I was looking for hard drives I went to see if someone had any failure rates available.  It turns out a big data company ran a study on it’s hard drives and published it’s findings.  Better than hearing just another “Yeah, arrived in time, no problem installing it, works fine, 5 stars”.

 

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