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No, purchaser reviews on online web sites aren’t worthless

A magazine editor whose name I dare not mention pontificated this weekend that it’s never worth reading reviews on web sites like Amazon.

I expect more from someone with that job title–better writing and better thinking. There are times for words like always and never, but this certainly isn’t one of them. The reviews certainly have their uses. The trick is knowing how to read them.

Here’s how to wade through the muck, find good reviews, and use those reviews to find good products.

It’s true that people who are extremely dissatisfied with the product are likely to speak up, and some percentage of those are dissatisfied because they’re clueless, and it’s their fault, not the product’s fault. And it’s true that some number of reviews are written by people who have a conflict of interest. In statistics, they call both cases outliers. Generally it’s pretty easy to spot those reviews and ignore them.

Sometimes all the reviews are outliers, especially when there are a small number of them. But when there are a large number of reviews, there typically is someone who has useful things to say about the product.

Coincidentally, Rob O’Hara wrote last week about a bad experience trying to write an online review. Unfortunately he couldn’t get his review through Tiger Direct’s filters, which is a shame because his review was excellent, and it’s precisely the kind of review I look for when I’m shopping. I’ll borrow it and quote it here–I’m pretty sure he won’t mind.

My wireless router is upstairs and my PlayStation 3 is downstairs. Even though my wireless router supports 802.11n, the internal wireless network card in my PS3 only supports b/g. When connected using 802.11g, video streaming via Netflix as well as videos streaming from my server sputtered, hung, and crashed. I installed the Amped Wireless SR300 (takes 2 minutes to install and configure) which supports 802.11n, and connected my PS3 to it using the console’s 100 megabit wired connection. Videos now stream perfectly over the wireless connection. I’d rather pay the $100 than try and string network cable across the house and in between floors. It’s been up and running for a week so far, no complaints here!

He stated his problem, he stated why he needed the product, and he stated that the product fixed the problem. And he gave a timeframe. A week is short, and sure, something could go wrong after a week, but most failures happen within 24 hours. I know that’s true of computers, Rob knows it’s true of computers, and I’ve had multiple people, including a mechanical engineer who now works for Boeing, tell me that’s true of pretty much anything that meets the definition of machine, so I’ll go with it.

Beyond that, it’s clearly written. It’s well thought out, the tone is reasonable, and he gave himself a week to think about it. He also didn’t make any outlandish claims. It’s a positive review, but he doesn’t say it’s the best product in the world, the best of its kind, or anything like that. He just said it solved his problem. He said exactly what he knows after using the product for a week, and nothing more.

The further a review deviates from that, the more likely it is to be a bad review. It might even be fake, but you can spot that. And if you find a review that does none of what Rob’s review did, just ignore it. Or if the site has a button to flag it as unhelpful, click that, then it gets easier for everyone else to ignore.

So how do you find a good product? Find a product that has multiple reviews like Rob’s. (Rob couldn’t get his review onto Tiger Direct’s site, but I’m sure neither Amazon nor Newegg would have a problem with it.) Then take a look at the five-star and one-star reviews. Are the people unreasonable? Some percentage of them always are. When a large percentage of the reviews are negative, and the majority of those negative reviews sound authoritative and reasonable like Rob’s above does, then you have a problem. I recommended against buying OCZ Vertex 2 drives a few months ago, having never seen the drive, for exactly that reason. I saw way too many negative reviews that were clearly written by people who knew what they were doing, had done all the right things, and had drives fail.

The editor whose name I dare not write can keep on ignoring online reviews if he wants. That’s his prerogative.

As for me? I had to pick up a few things this weekend. I did some comparison shopping at home first. Since the store I was visiting had no reviews of the products in question, I searched for the products on Amazon and read the reviews. Then I made my decision, drove to the store down the street, and bought them. Normally you hear of people doing the opposite, right?

From what I’ve learned by shopping that way, I think it’s kept me from getting burned a couple of times.

Why not just buy the products on Amazon and save the trip? I do that sometimes too. But in this case, I needed the products this weekend.

Getting sued over a review you wrote is another problem. Here’s what I have to say about avoiding that.

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