Last year, when the new Macbook Air came out, I was considering buying a new laptop. Like any potential buyer of a tech product these days, I read the reviews that came out: CNET, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, etc. After days of scouring reviews, mostly positive, written by professional reviewers, I still hadn’t pulled the trigger, basically because it was a major purchase for me. It wasn’t just about the price, though the high prices of Macbooks certainly were a factor, but I wanted the laptop to last about 4 years and wanted to take my time making the right decision. It wasn’t until I turned to Amazon.com (disclosure: I buy almost everything from Amazon; who doesn’t these days?) that I found out that there was freezing issue with the new Macbooks. Apparently, the issue was so prevalent that it had 5,000+ entries on a Mac forum. Based on that, I made my decision: I would postpone buying the Macbook until the issue was resolved.
My experience highlights a problem consumers have when they rely on reviews from major media. Often the first place people turn to, these reviewers are pretty influential and widely read. But the reviews often skew positively towards a product and do not talk about problems or issues, unless they are glaring. When Windows 8 first came out, many media outlets produced positive reviews for Microsoft’s newest operating system, and I went ahead and bought a Windows 8 laptop. It wasn’t until I started using the laptop that I realized there were problems (I’m not going to go into what they are; if you’re curious, read this). If you go to Amazon, however, there were many reviews by end users about the exact same problems I had with Windows 8. Notice how different the reviews are (Amazon vs. NY Times).
With this in mind, I created as simple 2-rule guide for consumers who are shopping for new products:
1. The most important rule: do not rely on professional reviews; consult reviews by a site like Amazon instead, written by real end users. While professional reviewers at CNET or WSJ are also end users, one might say, they are professional review writers who sample a multitude of products at a time, and work for a media company that rely on advertising from the same manufacturers whose products they are reviewing. While most media firms will have a line separating advertising and editorial, journalists and reviewers are mindful that what they write may impact the business side. Amazon’s reviews are written by “real people,” if you will: consumers who are grappling with the pros and cons of a product they purchased and will have no problem citing negative issues if they see one.
2. Take the positive with a grain of salt, while the negative may be true if it comes up over and over. There are teams of paid people who write online reviews for a living, and it’s hard to separate the real reviews from the fake ones. A good rule to go by is not to trust a positive review too much, while if a negative issue is brought up by many reviewers, you can bet that there is a problem there. A site like Amazon has so many reviews, it is bound to have just as many positive ones as negative ones – read them carefully for issues that pop up many times.
Obviously, this can be applied to almost any purchase decision. If you are looking at restaurant reviews, you can start by reading professional restaurant critics who often know what they are talking about, but consult Yelp as well. If you are planning a trip and need to research hotels, by all means check out the travel magazines, but don’t forget to go to Tripadvisor. Just because the reviews are written by experts does not mean they provide a full picture of a product for you; make sure you also check out reviews by ordinary end users for a more accurate description of how you might experience the product.