April 29, 2023

Are online product reviews legitimate?

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

We've probably all done it. When looking for a product, one of the best things to do is read online reviews. I've found myself Googling "what is the best (insert thing here)" and while reading reviews it became obvious that some authors never touched the product. Yet, they were telling their audience what was best. Read on for my experience writing for one of these websites in early 2023.

At my previous job, I would have my hands on products to provide an evaluation on everything from installation to management to usage and included bench testing metrics. After evaluating a product, I would typically do a Google search on it to see how my review compared to others. It was clear that few people actually put their hands on the products, or if they did, they didn't actually test it. I saw many glowing reviews over (frankly) subpar products. Poor performances were not discussed and glaring faults were never written about.

I cannot stress enough how much this in itself is an extreme disservice to readers wanting legitimate information.

Fast forward to January 2023, when I was hired as a freelance "tech evaluator" by a website. My intentions were good going into it, but it went south pretty fast. I was first tasked with writing an article on "the best (insert product)", yet I would not have access to any of the products. After Googling "the best product" and reading 20 other opinions, I formulated my list. I sent that to the editor with the order I deemed most appropriate and it got rearranged. In addition, a product I never heard of (and was not on anyone's "best" list) was added. So the list wasn't mine, the order wasn't mine, but the article was. This was a "training" article and I looked past it just to get it published. It felt more important that I had the formatting and affiliate links correct than having honest content.

I became the thing I hate.

My next article was a comparison - this versus that. Again, no hands on so essentially it became a spec review. After weaving the article the best I could, I was informed that I needed to craft a winner. So here I am again put in a spot where one company could potentially lose sales because I said it didn't "win" in an article where I didn't use the product. I cannot ethically do that. After I got my way without creating a "winner" my article was locked to me, edited and a winner was created on my behalf.

I quit a short time later.

To wrap up, my advice is to pay attention to any online product reviews you read and take them all with a grain of salt. The review could be one of the following:

  • A quantitative hands on review (extraordinarily rare)
  • A qualitative hands on review (eg: I am the expert)
  • An unbiased review by someone who used the product with no monetary incentive (typically YouTubers) except for getting paid for views.
  • A review not intended to piss off the vendor because they give free gear or pay the bills (analysts)
  • A review by a reseller of the product (wholly biased-why would they negatively review a product they sell?) 
  • A sponsored/paid "nice" review
  • Specification reviews (just the facts, ma'am)
  • A review by someone who never touched the product and is filled with affiliate links

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