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10/10 Recommend: The Review Wars

It’s an accepted fact that we are living in the era of information. More than ever, people have instant access to knowledge that can help them make decisions in their everyday lives.  People are using their smartphones, computers, and other devices to make informed choices about their medical care, their political views, and how to spend their money.  And it has never been easier to spend money thanks to the convenience of shopping online.  Open access to information about products and services means we now have endless choices to consider.  So how do people figure out the best way to get the most for their money? Even with all this new technology, people still rely on an old-school method:  recommendations and reviews.

There are so many services and websites that provide us with consumer reviews.  This should make the process of selecting the best products and services easier but somehow things are still just as complicated!  There are two ways most of us look at reviews online: separate review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor OR the reviews sections of websites that directly sell products like Amazon.com.  Products and services that are well reviewed generally jump to the top of any results list.  But it seems businesses have responded to these attempts to empower the consumer with fake reviews.  Supposedly, individual users of sites like Amazon.com are meant to buy a product, use it, and then rate or review it with feedback for other individual users to contemplate when making their own purchasing decisions.

So how does a company that sells products on a site like Amazon get individuals to write bogus reviews?  By offering incentives, of course!  Some companies have set up Facebook groups to recruit potential reviewers by offering full refunds on the product they were selling if the reviewer provided a high number of stars and a glowing review.  This ensures the product will appear at the top of search results, creating the illusion of goodness rather than revealing an accurate assessment of it.

Of course, the idea of sending out free product in hopes of good reviews is not a new marketing strategy.  Business have done this for years.  The difference now is where vendors previously hoped that the free things would sway people’s recommendations, companies now require an explicit exchange to occur in order to secure a good rating for their product:  you get this thing for free if, and ONLY if, you write a good review for us.

YouTube is another treasure trove of reviews that would appear helpful since videos allow potential buyers to see a product in action.  The comment section of review videos can also aid consumers suss out potential problems.  But brands have discovered a way to take incentives a bit further than just providing free products to content creators.  Many brands now sponsor lavish trips to exotic destinations and invite select “influencers” that reflect their key demographic to participate when new products are launched.  I imagine it’s pretty tough to film a negative review of a product from a brand that has just sent you on a fre trip to Tahiti, a reason many YouTubers cite when they simply opt NOT to talk about a product on their channels at all instead giving it an honest, critical review. In reality, many content creators are not able to monetize their channels or other social media platforms and thus depend on free products to keep their reviews going.

The tension between free products from brands and honest reviews puts consumers in the middle.  Now that the holiday season is kicking off, more and more people are shopping online.  This past Black Friday and Cyber Monday seemed especially focused on online deals, with some starting the weekend before Thanksgiving and others extending to the week after.  Clearly, with our busy lives and holiday seasons, we are drawn to the convenience of shopping via the Internet. But if we aren’t able to examine the quality of the goods we’re purchasing or make any kind of assessment until they arrive in packages at our houses, we have to use reviews smartly to our advantage.  Using a few basic techniques and some common sense will help you spot a product with many fake or biased reviews.

First, it helps to read a bunch of positive reviews for a product.  Notice the language.  Do reviewers use the same key phrases or words to describe the product? If so, that can be a sign that the brand has provided reviewers with preferred talking points to include. Secondly,  look at how specific or detailed people are in their review.  The generic phrase “This product is great” doesn’t really help anyone decide if the product is a good fit.  If a review can point a few different things that made this product worthwhile or call out a few small drawbacks, it’s more likely the review is genuine.

It also helps to know when a product came on the market.  If it’s just been released and there are many glowing reviews, it can be a sign that the vendor solicited biased opinions that aren’t accurate or helpful. Finally, and this is for the truly detail oriented folks, if you start to notice the same usernames providing positive reviews for multiple products in a short period of time, you can generally conclude that reviewer might have been swayed by the promise of free stuff.

Online shopping is one of the miracles of our current technological age.  Theoretically, we should be able to save  time and money by engaging in a very targeted consumer experience rather than traditional browsing.  Through online reviews, we also have access to the best consumer resource out there:  other people’s experiences.  But even though technology has helped us spend more money than before, in order to spend it wisely, we still must evaluate our information in ways librarians have been recommending for years:  consider your sources carefully and verify the facts before you decide to hit that “Place Order” button.

Kate Tigue is the Assistant Children’s Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read Kate’s column in the December 7, 2017 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Liz Reed

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