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Be careful with online reviews
Old 05-30-2015, 08:12 AM   #1
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Be careful with online reviews

The smart community here probably already knows all this, yet I wanted to bring something up again.

You all know that many, many reviews out there are done by regular people like us, but they get the products in return for free?

I am not speaking about the dishonest practice of having "professional reviewers" working on the sly. No, rather these are just regular Joes (like me).

And I literally mean me. I am one of these people. One day, I got a strange e-mail from one of the big box stores commending me on my excellently written reviews. They asked if I would like to join a program whereby I got to choose from a basket of products every few weeks, and my only obligation was to write a review: good or bad, just honest.

Sure!

It has actually been pretty lucrative. I've gotten some nice furniture and some useful small appliances. Oh, and a raft of other goodies like window cleaner, towels, etc.

So here's the thing: this process plays tricks on the mere mortal's mind. Let me tell you my experience. When I get a brand new grill, for instance, it feels like a "gift." In return, something in my brain makes it really hard to write down, "But it heats unevenly." Trust me, I did finally write that, but it was hard. This got me thinking that most of the time I even missed my bias. There's a bias out there. Then I read some of the other "club members" reviews and they are even more biased to the high end.

What I'm saying is we are not trying to be biased. Trust me. But it happens. It is insidious.

Now, the big box people emphasize they want honesty and we will not get kicked out for bad ratings. I believe them. But human nature kicks in.

Oh, I should mention something else. When you write a bad review (on any site, whether you are in a review club or not), the manufacturers are also playing a game with you. You will get brow-beated into submission to change your review. I'm learning to ignore those, but that is hard too. The best way I can state this is that it is similar to auto dealers who tell you they "need a 5-star review and contact us first before going lower."

I'm not in Amazon's program. It is called "VINES". The other retailers all have them too. Most are on the up-and-up and tagged with an icon or special text. Please be aware of them! We're really doing our best, but our brains are being manipulated. Really!

Finally, I want to say that I think this process must really be working. On my program, they've tremendouly increased the amount of product, and type of product. Manufacturers have learned that it works and is cheap advertising.

Happy on-line shopping. Be careful out there.
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Old 05-30-2015, 08:48 AM   #2
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Agree it's human nature to nurture the goose laying your golden eggs. Unfortunately, this is true in most areas of life. It's a form of self-censorship. Bad enough when it happens with routine consumer product reviews, but even more troubling in some other areas. Like news or political reporters (even whole networks) not asking the 'tough' questions for fear of being denied further interviews or other access. Or funded academic researchers not publishing results unfavorable to the foundation or company awarding their 'grants'. All too easy for truth (or parts of it) to be lost when it is thought (consciously or not) to be a threat to one's career

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Old 05-30-2015, 09:03 AM   #3
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I tend to read the three star product reviews more than the fives and ones. You definitely have to sift through and look for trends and commonalities between reviews. Ignore the people who are obviously emotional because of bad customer service or the fact that they just bought the thing yesterday.

We abuse Trip Advisor and regularly review local places we want to see stay in business on Yelp, but I'm not one for reviewing consumer goods... Yet.
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Old 05-30-2015, 09:15 AM   #4
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I was aware of the existence of reviewers who get the product for free (there was a Planet Money podcast on it); hadn't thought of the "halo" effect of reviewing something that feels like a gift. It certainly removes the question of whether it's worth your hard-earned money out of the equation!


Still, on-line reviews have been a HUGE benefit of the Internet. I just posted my 173rd review on TripAdvisor last week. Mine are specific, with pictures- how was the breakfast, were the pool and the fitness center big enough, is there highway noise, what's within walking distance, etc. I've gotten a lot of great information for our travels and I'm happy to contribute. (Alas, no offers to put me up in the Hilton Wialeah at no cost in return for a review.) It's usuallly pretty easy to weed out the people who had unrealistic expectations, or assume that the one awful review in the last 50 was just a bad day when everything at the hotel went wrong. We also have an Angie's List subscription.


It's clear that businesses now live and die by on-line reviews. Some hotels have little business cards in the lobby with the TripAdvisor URL on them; others have their manager respond to every review. It's given the consumer a lot more power.
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Old 05-30-2015, 09:39 AM   #5
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Wasn't that how The Beatles started with the teenage girls screaming during their concerts. A few "plants" in the audience and then the craze grew like wildflower.

I suppose getting something "free" can cloud the judgement. Maybe that's why those financial seminars offer those "free" lunches. After all, what can you lose?
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Old 05-30-2015, 10:17 AM   #6
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JoeWras, that is a really helpful and thoughtful post--and I didn't know what the Vines designation meant in the Amazon reviews (at least those reviewers are identified). So interesting that the big box approached you to encourage you to continue writing reviews and gave you a little something for the effort.

I do read reviews but discount the best and worst, and don't make them the deciding factor on whether to do something.
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Old 05-30-2015, 11:31 AM   #7
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I do read reviews but discount the best and worst, and don't make them the deciding factor on whether to do something.
I must admit that I have not been as smart as BWE - - the Amazon reviews are probably the biggest factor in my decisions on whether or not to buy something. Thanks, JoeWras, for describing what may be an innocent/unconscious bias, by some reviewers of even long, informative reviews! I hadn't thought of that. (Usually if a 5-star review seems brief and uninformative, I do assume it is biased.)

I generally read the 1, 2, and 5 star reviews but may begin to read the 3 star reviews too, due to this thread.
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Old 05-30-2015, 11:38 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by nash031 View Post
I tend to read the three star product reviews more than the fives and ones. You definitely have to sift through and look for trends and commonalities between reviews. Ignore the people who are obviously emotional because of bad customer service or the fact that they just bought the thing yesterday.

We abuse Trip Advisor and regularly review local places we want to see stay in business on Yelp, but I'm not one for reviewing consumer goods... Yet.
+1

I find I am looking for specific tips and techniques and gotchas and this seems to weed out the vague reviews and the people upset about something "off topic". If there is a product defect, it usually comes out loud and clear if you read enough reviews.
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Old 05-30-2015, 01:01 PM   #9
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This may explain why some items are 4.5 stars on Walmart and 3 stars on amazon or vice versa. I usually look at the 1 and 2 stars for the defects to determine whether I can live with the chance of the defect (or if it's not that serious).
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Old 05-30-2015, 01:18 PM   #10
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It has actually been pretty lucrative. I've gotten some nice furniture and
some useful small appliances. Oh, and a raft of other goodies like window
cleaner, towels, etc.
Interesting. Are these items that you have requested or are they sent you randomly?

I have never heard of this kind of freebe but am interested in learning more about the process.
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Old 05-30-2015, 01:31 PM   #11
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I don't pay much attention to reviews anymore. Reviews have become a marketing tool. Between the "vine" reviewers, the online "sponsored" reviewers with dubious disclosure policies (they get the stuff they review for free - very prevalent on Youtube), and then the fan boys who will defend the worst product until they are blue in the face, getting any objectivity at all is difficult. I know that, on Amazon, some of the reviews I have left for less than stellar products with strong followings have been thumbed down to oblivion. So I stopped wasting my time with this game.
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Old 05-30-2015, 01:37 PM   #12
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I have read about this, but it's interesting to hear it more directly from you Joe.

I keep a small blog about my ham radio home construction activities. It attracts fairly decent and steady traffic, but nothing ground-breaking. I was quite surprised to receive, on a couple of different occasions, a solicitation from a well-known distributor of electronic components, offering me free product in return for a mention on my blog. I politely declined, as I like to blog about what I want, when I want. The value of the product was low too, which helped the decision! However, if products of greater value, that I would be considering purchasing anyway, were on offer, it would make the decision a little harder.

Ultimately, I have quite a strong aversion to anything that curtails my perceived freedom, and it would have to be a compelling offer to make me consider an arrangement like this.
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Old 05-30-2015, 01:55 PM   #13
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Still, on-line reviews have been a HUGE benefit of the Internet. I just posted my 173rd review on TripAdvisor last week. Mine are specific, with pictures- how was the breakfast, were the pool and the fitness center big enough, is there highway noise, what's within walking distance, etc.
Now that I'm an insider, I look for reviews like yours! I just bought a BBQ brush on Amazon. First I looked at the 5-star reviews. I noticed that every single review was a "Vine" review! I went to the next product on the list. I discounted it entirely. Man, I feel dirty for revealing this inside info. No, not really. I love this forum for the no-nonsense aspect of it and that's why I'm alerting you about this insidious issue.

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Wasn't that how The Beatles started with the teenage girls screaming during their concerts. A few "plants" in the audience and then the craze grew like wildflower.

I suppose getting something "free" can cloud the judgement. Maybe that's why those financial seminars offer those "free" lunches. After all, what can you lose?
Right. This is nothing new. Just notifying ya'll that it is rampant in reviews on-line.

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JoeWras, that is a really helpful and thoughtful post--and I didn't know what the Vines designation meant in the Amazon reviews (at least those reviewers are identified). So interesting that the big box approached you to encourage you to continue writing reviews and gave you a little something for the effort.

I do read reviews but discount the best and worst, and don't make them the deciding factor on whether to do something.
Good. That's what you need to do.

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I must admit that I have not been as smart as BWE - - the Amazon reviews are probably the biggest factor in my decisions on whether or not to buy something. Thanks, JoeWras, for describing what may be an innocent/unconscious bias, by some reviewers of even long, informative reviews! I hadn't thought of that. (Usually if a 5-star review seems brief and uninformative, I do assume it is biased.)

I generally read the 1, 2, and 5 star reviews but may begin to read the 3 star reviews too, due to this thread.
W2R: here's the deal. Read the reviews, but be VERY CAREFUL over the overall STAR RATING. See, that's the problem. This hit me like a hammer last night. I'm looking at my "free" vacuum right now. It says, "Most 5-star online reviews" right on the box. Uh oh. Actually, it is a pretty good vacuum (one of the SHARKS), but it woke me up to this problem. Please look further than the star rating. If you get anything out of my insider info, that's my suggestion. Don't just look at 5-star reviews. Look deeper. And read, and watch for special icons and wording.

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Interesting. Are these items that you have requested or are they sent you randomly?

I have never heard of this kind of freebe but am interested in learning more about the process.
It is crazy awesome! Every month (and sometimes a random bonus time in between) we get an email to "shop". I have about 1500 products to choose from. Depending on the month, it is anywhere from 2 to 5 products to choose. They categorize them, so I can weed them out.

"Competition" is fierce for the best products. I think some people literally just get the expensive stuff and sell it on E-bay. What a shame. But it happens. Then they put up a sham review. I don't do that.

However, after 2 years of this, I've learned the product types, so I develop a "shopping list" each month before I get the email. Some months I hit paydirt, other months I strike out. The product change. So sometimes I find myself just buying soap and towels. And that's OK too.

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I have read about this, but it's interesting to hear it more directly from you Joe.

I keep a small blog about my ham radio home construction activities. It attracts fairly decent and steady traffic, but nothing ground-breaking. I was quite surprised to receive, on a couple of different occasions, a solicitation from a well-known distributor of electronic components, offering me free product in return for a mention on my blog. I politely declined, as I like to blog about what I want, when I want. The value of the product was low too, which helped the decision! However, if products of greater value, that I would be considering purchasing anyway, were on offer, it would make the decision a little harder.

Ultimately, I have quite a strong aversion to anything that curtails my perceived freedom, and it would have to be a compelling offer to make me consider an arrangement like this.
Major Tom: we need more people like you. Thank you! See, you are getting a more direct solicitation than the program I am in.

Really, it is scary. I'm starting to think everyone out there on the internet is "on the take" to use a rather pejorative description. I've also really, really, put up my shields regarding magazine editor articles and local radio spots. You've all heard them: "I just had my carpets cleaned by So-and-So and they did a great job." You can be assured that the radio personality paid nothing for that, even if it was a full kitchen remodel. Trust me. They got compensated.
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Old 05-30-2015, 02:51 PM   #14
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......... I noticed that every single review was a "Vine" review! ........
How do you know a VINE review when you see it?
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Old 05-30-2015, 02:58 PM   #15
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Most of my online shopping is at Amazon. I use one star reviews to determine if there were any difficulty with returns. People with a frustrating or costly return are usually headed for the lowest review possible. Amazon labels the reviews as "Verified Purchaser"(s). I only pay attention to real customer comments. If there are only a few reviews, I read them. Otherwise, at Amazon, I search for comments addressing particular issues. For example, what do "Kindle" users say, if anything.
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Old 05-30-2015, 03:00 PM   #16
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The things I look at on Amazon are how many reviews are there? What do the 5 star reviewer's other reviews look like? Is this there only review? Are all the reviewer's other reviews five stars? I pay more attention to the longer reviews by people who have a history of writing reviews with a normal bell curve of ratings. And I think the more reviews a product has the harder it is to game. When there are a slew of one star and five star reviews and not a lot in between, I suspect the one stars are more likely to be real customers and the five stars from marketing agencies.

Here is how you can tell if there is a high probability a company has a marketing firm working for them writing fake reviews and blog comments. Make an obscure blog with only one or two links and write a negative review. If somebody's writes a lengthy comment critical of your negative review within 24 hours, it is highly likely they had the company / product name on Google alerts and are getting paid to do defense. Otherwise no normal web surfer would likely find such an obscure blog, let alone take a half hour to write a retort.

I proved to my husband that some over-hyped tourist trap he insisted we see had a marketing agency writing fake reviews for it by doing the negative blog / Google alerts test, though my negative review was well deserved. I put a negative review on trip adviser, too, but they had paid shills push my review down the page the next day. When there were no negative reviews, the shills stopped posting, so you could tell by the patterns of reviews and the dates they weren't likely to be real visitor reviews.
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Old 05-30-2015, 03:10 PM   #17
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How do you know a VINE review when you see it?
It would be just under the title of the review, on the 2nd line,i.e,
"BY name VINE VOICE May 30, 2015"
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Old 05-30-2015, 03:46 PM   #18
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I generally read the 1, 2, and 5 star reviews but may begin to read the 3 star reviews too, due to this thread.
And sometimes, when a product gets a LOT of 1-star reviews, it's because the people who bought them didn't read or understand the item description.

A while back I was looking for a video cable, one which converts an HDMI signal to a digital RCA input signal for a somewhat older DVD player that didn't have HDMI. Almost every review was 1 star or 5. The item description clearly said that this does not convert digital signals to use in older analog RCA inputs, but would either need a converter box in between or the older set needs to be able to decode digital.

Half the people were giving one star because the product "didn't work". The other half almost exclusively give five star reviews. Guess which group didn't read the description and ordered an inappropriate item, and then chose to blame the item? I suspect almost all of the 1-star folks were trying to take a digital HDMI output in a newer cable or satellite box, or game console, and feed it into an analog TV, despite the description *telling* them it wouldn't work.
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Old 05-30-2015, 07:06 PM   #19
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I do agree about being careful with online reviews. That said, I think that online reviews are extremely helpful. You just have to be careful about them.

Let's say it is Amazon. For some items I will read every review. For many items, of course, there are too many. I do a sampling of the reviews and usually read most/all of the 1 and 2 star reviews.

I am looking for why someone liked it or didn't like it. Sometimes, the negative review is because of something that doesn't bother me at all, for example.

I look for reviews with a lot of specifics. I don't mind Vine reviews. These are usually well written reviews.

I do tend to avoid products that only have a few reviews. I am mindful that reviews can be faked (for good or ill), but I think that is less likely to be a factor the more people who have reviewed an item.

The thing I like most about reviews is you get to here about problems with a product that the manufacturer won't tell you about. It may be that the problem is one that doesn't bother me, but often the reviews are the only way to find out about something that would be a big negative for me.
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Old 05-30-2015, 07:25 PM   #20
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How do you know a VINE review when you see it?
Look up top on the signature line, it will say "VINE". These reviews can be very valid. Just keep in mind, they can also have some of the unintentional bias.

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Most of my online shopping is at Amazon. I use one star reviews to determine if there were any difficulty with returns.
I've 1-starred some things on Amazon, and you would not believe the amount of pressure I got from the vendors for doing so. In my mind, 1-star reviews are very important. That said, your point about people being just plain stupid is also important. You have to read them.

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I do agree about being careful with online reviews. That said, I think that online reviews are extremely helpful. You just have to be careful about them.
Totally agree. I'm not saying "ignore reviews", just be careful. Read them. Pay attention to the source. Are they compensated? Are they just clueless? Etc.
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