Online Product Reviews

Filtering Out the *Noise*

By Evan Stos

My wife, like so many other people, is a huge fan of online shopping. She doesn’t compulsively order things day-after-day, but as I write this, our “Saved for later” list on one particular site has more than 20 items on it; the products range from clothing, to toys for our kids, to a “personal hydration pouch” (To my wife Megan, if you’re reading this, please don’t pull the trigger on that one—you’re too young to wear what appears to be a glorified fanny pack). I want to add that she is a very frugal shopper, always looking for a deal.

I’ve also started to notice a recurring theme in her shopping habits: When it comes to either A) Products she’s relatively unfamiliar with or B) Comparing several similar items on a particular site, she always reads the online reviews. Whether it be the ones the site handily puts front and center for each of their products, or simply entering “product -abc- customer reviews” into her favorite search engine, she will always try to do some research before making her final decision.

While sometimes this approach nets us a decent—dare I say excellent product—there are far too many times when despite the overall positive reviews, we’ve ended up with things less than spectacular. And by “less than spectacular,” I mean a “knock-off roomba that basically doesn’t work, and I’d be better off crawling on my hands and knees picking tiny objects up by hand and throwing them in the trash” and a “pair of sandals that are already coming apart after being worn three times.” Sorry, those purchase wounds are still fresh.

Both the knock-off roomba and the shoddy sandals had hundreds of reviews, respectively averaging 4.8 and 4.7 stars out of 5. She did what I’m sure most people do when shopping online; skimmed through a few of the reviews at the top of the page and took the overall score at face value. After doing some digging, though, I’ve found that is exactly what these sellers want you to do.

I’m sure many online reviews people provide are legit, but by and large the “non-legit” ones far exceed them in number. It only took a couple hours of research to discover that bogus, online product reviews are an epidemic. Companies regularly plant positive reviews of their own products online. Conversely, they also like to tarnish their competitors’ products with negative reviews. Going back to my Amazon (I’m putting their name out there!) example, according to a study done by Forbes magazine in late 2017, I’ve found that their fake review problem is worse than ever. In some cases, the newer product companies will offer discounts, prizes, etc., for 5-star reviews.

Five-star product reviews are not always “legit.” Search several sources and read many reviews to get a comprehensive overview of a product.

Of course, there are the separate “review” sites you’re bound to find if you were to enter “best robot vacuum” into a search engine. You’ll notice that usually the first couple results have “Ad” pasted next to them, but we navigate to them anyway, looking for sage advice leading us to the best ones on the market. But remember, they say “Ad” for a reason: THEY’RE ADVERTISEMENTS! These sites are for-profit, meaning they will gladly accept sponsorship money. Remember how I just mentioned that product companies will offer incentives for 5-star reviews on Amazon? So what’s to stop the infamous “knock-off roomba” I mentioned earlier from making a generous contribution to one (or several) of these “review” sites to ensure its product is listed in their “Top 10” rather than not on the list at all?

I’ve found that in the platform software business, many of the same concepts hold true. When we’re talking to potential customers, they’ll regularly ask for some sort of “magic chart” or “top 10 list” sourced by separate “ratings” companies that provide those sorts of things. As I’ve discussed earlier, these would-be Onspring consumers are trying to “filter out the noise” and see how we’re doing compared to the other players in our market, which makes sense on paper. However, they are unaware of how much additional “noise” they may be introducing as a result. Believe me when I say that landing on those “magic charts” and “top 10 lists” costs money, and the higher up you go, generally the more that company is having to spend to make that happen. That isn’t to say they’re totally without merit, but they certainly aren’t 100% unbiased either.

So how do you filter out the noise, you may ask? By going back to the basics: If you know someone who is using or has used a product you’re looking at acquiring, ask them how they like it. Here at Onspring, we’re always happy to refer potential customers to existing ones, even if what is shared between them isn’t 100% sunshine and puppy dogs when it comes to our product. So, read online product reviews with a grain of salt. They can be very helpful, but sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish credible reviews from the phony material. Still, go ahead and look at the online stuff, but talking to customers directly to get their honest opinion is also an excellent option.

Ultimately, buying anything online carries a bit more risk, but there are still ways to avoid ending up with a lackluster robot vacuum that provides more value as a make-shift go-cart for my 2-year old son than as an actual vacuum.

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