What’s the Value of a Review?

Whey Phase, as reviewed by Labdoor. The product has a 5-star rating on Amazon, but is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit for false labeling and low-quality ingredients

What’s the value of a product review? In other words, what’s a review worth to you? I’d guess the value is somewhere between the time it takes a customer to write the review, and the total cost of the product. It also depends for whom we’re talking. Are we asking about the value to a prospective customer, or to a sales executive who wants to move thousands of units? Clearly the value can vary. But for many retailers today, the value is always just a few dollars. That’s what it costs to buy a positive review on Amazon.

Alleged fake Amazon reviews, courtesy of an Amazon lawsuit against a pay-for-review website

When Amazon started selling “everything from A to Z”, it changed the way Americans shopped. We’d already started to buy products online, but now we could do it with confidence. Previous customers had already tested the product and given us their assurances. It’s very altruistic.

But this is capitalism. It’s a bloody, cut-throat game, and retailers will do what it takes to get to the top of those search results. That includes :gasp: cheating! It didn’t take long to figure out that a few fake positive reviews on a new product could steer it toward a lifetime of successful sales, or that negative reviews on a competitor’s product could provide an advantage. This evolved into an entirely separate marketplace where third-party companies will pay people to review a slew of products from vitamins to TV sets. In some cases, they demand positive reviews, but in no cases are these reviews unbiased.

Reviews-for-hire are easily found on Google, and have become big business

Now we’re at a point where the marketplace is saturated with fake reviews. Amazon is responding by suing both reviewers and sellers who violate their policies, which is testimony to the size of the problem. Sites and apps are also now emerging to help weed-out paid reviews, but I’d like to argue that’s neither the solution nor the actual problem at hand. It’s the real customer reviews, and the very premise of customer reviews itself which are at fault.

Think about a coworker who sits near you at your job. Is this person qualified to determine which flashlight is brightest, or which bluetooth speaker has the best sound quality? I promise you they can’t say with any authority which multivitamin is most nutritional value. Take the customer reviews for Whey Phase protein powder as an example. Whey Phase has a 5 star rating on Amazon and 8.7/10 on bodybuilding.com, with the average reviewer proclaiming the product’s great value. Whey Phase is also now the subject of a class action lawsuit, because they’ve been caught spiking their powder with protein imposters. In our own tests at Labdoor, we found the protein content was 62.2% below label claims. Remember, this is an Amazon 5-star product.

Bodybuilding.com customer reviews for Whey Phase, a product that has 62.2% less protein than reported on the label

So why do we trust thousands of complete strangers for their advice? I think it’s some mix of naivete, short-sightedness, and laziness. It’s cheaper and easier to let everyone buy the products and post their reviews than it is to hire an expert. Or is it?

Some people still buy a subscription to Consumer Reports, the 80 year-old magazine in which experts test and rate a variety of products from juice to automobiles. It’s not very popular now, but there was a time before Amazon when industry-specific publications measured quality in all types of consumer goods.

I think expert reviews are something we’ll be returning to. People inherently seek truth. We don’t like to be deceived, neither purposely nor accidentally. At some point, the uncertainty of knowing who’s honest, and hassle of weeding through so many inexperienced reviews will become too frustrating and fruitless.

This is why I took a job at Labdoor. I’d read about their tests of multivitamins, and thought to myself “Of course this is a better way to it”. I’d been working in pharmaceutical research and appreciated the methodological similarities. Instead of gambling with every purchase, certified lab technicians can spend a few hours and tell us with quantifiable accuracy which vitamin was best. In retrospect, the Amazon customer review system felt akin to reinventing the wheel.

A Labdoor review of Flintstones chewable vitamins, which shows poor results for label accuracy, safety, and value

Let’s agree that modern civilization works best when people specialize in their respective fields. I’m not qualified to tell you which car will give you the best MPG, and your coworker probably shouldn’t be reviewing supplements. I firmly believe that when we leave this work to the professionals, we’ll find these reviews to be a lot more valuable.

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