Fake Amazon reviews are at an all-time high. Be an informed shopper.
While writing his biography on Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson learned of Jobs’ childhood experience building a fence with his father. Fifty years after the fence was constructed, Jobs showed it to Isaacson, still standing and recalled a lesson about making things of quality that he learned from his father. Touching the boards of inside of the fence, he said that “He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.”
He said that his father refused to use poor wood for the back of cabinets, or to build a fence that wasn’t constructed as well on the back side as it was the front. Jobs likened it to using a piece of plywood on the back of a beautiful chest of drawers. “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” This philosophy led jobs to at least attempt to manufacture Apple products with the same care, even in the details that would be invisible to the user. When the first Apple II casings were delivered, Jobs noticed a thin plastic seaming that was often the result of the injection molding process, he had Apple employees sand and polish them to be displayed at a computer expo.
As shown by Apple’s success from these basic principles, consumers care about these details.
We’ve come a long way in online shopping. For years, the retail industry has been experiencing a powerful shift toward online commerce. There were always big hurdles keeping us from buying things sight (relatively) unseen, not the least of which the ability to trust in quality and meeting expectations after seeing a glossy, well-lit product photo and powering through checkout in a mad fervor. It was impossible to see the details that Jobs described without seeing the products in person. We all remember the time when our first thought when landing on an online clothing store was “I can’t buy this without trying it on”. Then came the ability to easily return our regretfully ill-fitting clothes, reducing buyer’s remorse. With the increased volume in purchases came user reviews. We now had the collective wisdom of hundreds of shoppers’ experience and description of these products. Over time, e-commerce giants have easily has smashed the misconception that quality cannot be accurately judged in online shopping, opening up many other product categories.
We rely too much on user reviews, which are easily gamed. E-commerce is now a very mature industry. As is often the case with mature industries, the key becomes competition through optimization. As the industry has solved its biggest adoption hurdles, the largest area for optimization is also the most deceptive: online reviews. The “best _______” search query for product research is easily gamed by SEO, listicles, and, most heinously, paid and fake reviews. There’s no such thing anymore as a user-generated review system that reliably surfaces the most high-quality product. Many sites even work to maximize referral fees by surfacing better reviews for products with larger margins and commissions higher than others. So the whole system is complicit, and geared toward margins rather than product quality. If you use a tool like Fakespot, you’ll see that almost every Amazon purchase you make is riddled with 20–70% fake or dubious reviews, and the largest offenders tend to be high margin products with a lot of subjectivity around efficacy. Try searching for beard oil and neutraceuticals using Fakespot. Accounts that have never posted before or after, or who use suspiciously similar and “on brand” language to tout a product’s benefits. We’re being duped, America.
There are still objective reviews, but they’re a lot of work. The importance of transparency and objectivity to being a good consumer is paramount because we are always voting with our dollars. Being truly informed about product quality, reliability and durability can encourage better products through accountability. Rather than relying on the fake and adversely selected user reviews from sites like Amazon, we should make better use of professional reviews. These are entire teams who are tasked with finding objective conclusions on product comparisons, testing multiple options, and doing long-term stress tests. For all their faults as promotional tools, at the end of the day, there is a huge reputational risk for the press in issuing faulty reviews. When Consumer Reports botches a review process, as it did for the Tesla Model S years ago, it suffers a big credibility blow, which can lead to lower traffic and, ultimately, lower revenue. With this in mind, testing is rigorous, comparisons are controlled with similar methodologies, and write-ups are extensive.
There are better tools. We must be careful when using professional reviews for product research, as there are many sites that are built to look like credible review sites when in fact they are shills for the manufacturers that market them or even build the sites. What makes most sense is to start to build a list of trusted review sites, and check them first, especially for big ticket purchases. Luckily there are tools to help. I already mentioned Fakespot. Gear Caliber (built by me) vets these sources, aggregates them, and gives an accurate picture of product quality. You’d be surprised at the results.
Be a better consumer. Help the world have better products. Avoid fake reviews. We’ll all be better off for it.
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This article is cross-posted on the Gear Caliber blog.