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How to Make the Best Use of Online Reviews of Products & Services

If you’re planning on buying a computer, dining at a restaurant, or hiring a contractor, you’re also probably planning to check out online reviews of the various options beforehand. While this can be a great way of verifying the quality or legitimacy of a product or service, some sites (and the reviews they contain) are better and more accurate than others. It’s important to think critically about the reviews you read – don’t let your excitement about making a purchase compromise your ability to make good decisions.

While it can be difficult to determine the legitimacy of a review or review site, there are a number of tips to make the best use of online reviews.

How to Use Online Reviews

Select Your Site

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There are several different sources for online reviews, and some may meet your needs better than others:

1. E-commerce Sites
Some retail sites, such as Amazon, have a ratings system built right into their product listings. If you are looking to buy a specific product, check out the reviews of several different vendors while doing your comparison shopping. These reviews can often give you detailed information from real users of a particular product. The downside? Some unscrupulous retailers may delete negative reviews in hopes of selling a product. Reviews may also be poorly moderated, if at all, which allows people to add fake reviews (both good and bad) to a site.

Furthermore, there are some companies that actually pay people to write good reviews of their products on e-commerce sites. To spot these reviews, look for posters who don’t have a long history of posting on the site, who praise a product without providing a lot of detail, and who use specific keywords or phrases (such as the full name of a product along with its brand name) multiple times in their review. These posters may be trying to counteract negative reviews or product publicity.

2. Dedicated Review Sites
Sites like Epinions, Yelp, and Angie’s List are made up of consumer reviews. While these sites may make money from advertising, affiliate programs, or user memberships, they aren’t as sales-driven as e-commerce sites. These sites also make significant efforts to attract new visitors and reviewers, so they may be your best source for multiple recent reviews of the same business or product.

Investigate how these sites moderate their reviewers and manage their review listings. If a site relies on advertising from reviewed businesses, there is the risk that the site may remove negative reviews in hopes of not upsetting an advertiser. You should also find out whether the site has ways of vetting the quality of a review and whether it is willing to pull reviews (positive or negative) that aren’t legitimate.

3. City Guides
Local city guides also may include user reviews. These sites and reviews can be really handy when visiting or moving to a new town. They are also great if you just want to get to know your own city better, as they may have information about small neighborhood businesses that don’t get a lot of attention from tourists or journalists.

With the advent of mega-review sites like Yelp, some of the old city guides have turned into virtual ghost towns, and their reviews may be old. Check the dates on reviews before giving them much credence.

4. Social Media Sites
Many consumers take their complaints and concerns to social media, including Twitter and Facebook. Check out a company’s Facebook page, or search for its name on Twitter to see what consumers have to say about their service or products.

Many irate customers turn to social media as a way of getting a company’s attention after efforts to resolve a situation via its customer service department fail. There are some people, however, who go to social media immediately, before even trying to work with a company via phone or email. Unfortunately, public complaints can give the false impression that a company doesn’t care about customer complaints. Read the complaint, as well as any company responses, before passing judgment.

5. Consumer Complaint Sites
Some sites are dedicated entirely to consumer complaints. Unfortunately, these sites are often poorly moderated, and there is no way to determine whether a consumer registering a complaint even attempted to work with the company in question to achieve a resolution. While it can be helpful to read complaint sites to see if the complaints reflect the opinions on more reliable consumer review sites, you should view such sites skeptically.

Many complaint sites allow businesses to respond to posted complaints, which can be helpful in understanding both sides of the story. However, you should check to see how a complaint site verifies the identity of those posting as business owners or employees. Otherwise, you may end up reading a series of exchanges between sock puppets.

6. Blogs
Many bloggers review products, and their insights can be invaluable. Reviews written by niche bloggers are often extremely detailed, and may include helpful photographs and tips on using the product or service.

Find out a blogger’s product review policies before relying on their recommendation to buy a product or service. Some bloggers participate in affiliate programs, giving them a commission if you purchase a product or service through a link in a review. This may cause a positive bias. Blog posts should disclose whether the blogger received a product for free, has any connection to a business or product under review, accepts paid advertising for the product/businesses, or whether the post contains affiliate links.

How Use Online Reviews

Review the Reviews

Once you find several reliable review sites, you must evaluate the reviews themselves. While it’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of an angry or elated customer, it’s important to remain objective.

  • Check the Amount of Reviews. The more reviews you have to work with, the better. If you find that a business has few recent reviews, try to find other sources of information.
  • Check Dates. When reading reviews, be sure to check their publication dates. While reading an old review can be helpful, it may not reflect how the business currently operates.
  • Look for Patterns. If you see patterns emerging in reviews, such as complaints or praise about a particular menu item, employee, or the comfort of a shop or restaurant, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect from a business or service professional. You should also look for patterns in grammar, syntax, and misspelled words within reviews. Several reviews for one product or business that include the same phrases or misspelled words may be the work of one individual posting under different aliases.

Consider the Source

Most review sites provide a link from a user’s name or avatar to his or her other reviews. Check these out to get to know the reviewer better. If he or she consistently writes thoughtful, balanced reviews, he or she is likely credible. The same goes for bloggers – if the blogger is a good writer with a strong reputation within the blogging community, his or her reviews are probably worth your attention.

At the same time, try to get a sense of the reviewer’s tastes and preferences, and consider whether they match yours. If you notice that a reviewer or blogger consistently praises restaurants that serve relatively bland, American-style food – and your preference is for more esoteric cuisines – you’re likely to be disappointed by his or her dining recommendations.

Several other factors to keep an eye out for include:

  • Angry Reviews. If a person often uses profanity or makes threats to call the authorities, he or she may be overly vindictive.
  • Personal Attacks. It’s one thing to describe an incident of poor customer service, but when a reviewer criticizes things that are irrelevant to the product or service received (such as a staff member’s attractiveness, or lack thereof), he or she may be bullying or harassing an individual.
  • New Reviewers. Many review sites indicate when a user joined the site. While everyone starts out as a “new reviewer” and likely has some good information to share, a “newbie” – particularly one who is anonymous – may be posting with an agenda.

What to Do If You Encounter Bad Reviews

It can be disheartening to find out that a business that you’d like to work with or patronize has bad reviews. While switching to a better-rated company may seem like a common sense course of action, there may be times when you really want to work with a business because it offers good prices, fast delivery times, or a hard-to-find product or service.

Scrutinize the bad reviews, and contact the owner or manager to request his or her side of the story. If the problems raised in the bad reviews involve employees, keep in mind that some very decent businesses occasionally make mistakes or hire incompetent employees. The business may also be the victim of a scammer who blackmails businesses by threatening a negative review if the owner doesn’t provide services for free. Ask specific questions regarding the dissatisfied review, and if you aren’t provided a straight answer, find another business to patronize.

You can also contact the Better Business Bureau or your state’s attorney general to learn more about official complaints, or check out local media archives to discover whether the business has received positive or negative attention.

Finally, contact friends and family. Before the Internet became an integral part of life, getting recommendations via word-of-mouth was the standard way of determining which businesses to work with.

Encountering Bad Reviews

Final Word

While review sites are helpful, don’t blindly follow their guidance. Instead, use your common sense when reading reviews, and don’t let even a five-star rating keep you from asking hard questions about the way a business operates. Investigate a variety of sources for consumer information, and don’t forget to tap your own social network for referrals and advice.

How do you determine whether to purchase a business’ service or product?

Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen holds master's degrees in Library and Information Science, Theological Studies, and Divinity, and spent five years working in regulatory compliance for a major education publisher. A lifetime Chicagoian, she recently spent almost a year living in the woods of Southern Oregon before deciding to head back home to her family and friends.

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