Buying with Confidence: Reviews, Trust, and Accountability

A few weeks ago, in the July 2010 issue of Bon Appétit, Andrew Knowlton succinctly summed up the way I feel about trusted and untrusted reviews:

If I’m curious as to whether a restaurant is worth trying out or not, I don’t consult sites like Yelp – I ask a friend. That way, I can hold the person accountable.

Accountable is the key word here. As time has gone on, I have come to value the accountability in a review or a recommendation very highly – and this has significantly altered how I make my purchasing decisions.

Why is accountability important? If there is no drawback to a person giving you misinformation and no benefit to them giving you good information, then that person is working strictly from their own agenda.

For example, take a restaurant review on a site like Yelp. If a competitor goes on the site and wants to trash that restaurant, they can toss up a poor review under an assumed name and no one is the wiser. There is no drawback to the competitor doing that – he doesn’t care about the reputation of the assumed name. There is no benefit in an honest review, either – there is only benefit in a negative review, which will drive customers away from the reviewed restaurant and (possibly) to the competitor’s restaurant.

On the other hand, if that person chose to use his or her actual name, there’s a lot more at stake. Honest reviews have the ability to help his business, while dishonest reviews can only hurt the business. The reviewer’s integrity is at stake here, and that integrity can be a help – or, if he chooses to post dishonest and biased material, it can hurt him, too.

Because of the accountability issue, reviews and recommendations behind a screen of anonymity have far less value than reviews and recommendations given by a real person with an identifiable track record.

Here’s how I decide which reviews and recommendations to trust, using the filter of accountability.

Personal friends The first place I look for recommendations is from friends, family, and other close acquaintances and associates. They have a vested interest in providing trustworthy information because they directly care about me and also know that my trust in them will drop if they provide bogus information.

Known reviewers Similarly, I tend to trust reviewers that I don’t personally know if they’re willing to put their true name out there and their career lies on the professional reputation of that name. Yes, that’s not 100% foolproof, but I know that people who do such a thing rely on their good name to find future work and thus there is a serious cost to them in providing bogus information. Consumer Reports comes to mind here, as do a big handful of the better blogs out there.

Major media sources I have some trust for major media reviewers, but that trust isn’t as strong as it is for independent reviewers with a reputation to uphold or personal friends. The reason is simply that many major media sources have agendas to promote and products from other branches of the media company to sell. Reviewers might be fully independent in what they write, or they might be told to “take it easy” on a bad product or “talk up” a mediocre-to-good product if it’s a product made by the company or an advertiser with the company. Thus, my trust in such reviews is lower.

An example of the distinction between “independent reviewer” and a major media source: I tend to trust movie reviews by Roger Ebert more than I do reviews by CNN’s website. For one, Ebert has a long reputation of great reviews and because of his reviews (and his efforts in building a reputation), he is fairly independent of bias. He has much more to lose by shilling for a bad film than he could gain in the payoff. On the other hand, a nearly-anonymous review over at CNN has less to lose by an unfairly positive review (and more to gain) than Ebert. I might not agree with Ebert’s reviews, but I can rely much more on a sense that he’s giving me his true take on the film than I can rely on other sources. He’s built that reputation on years and years and years of solid reviews.

Data from the manufacturer What are the specifications of the item? What is the warranty like? The raw, true numbers from the manufacturer – not reviews or anything else – play a key part in deciding which item to buy. Yes, many items seem identical or very similar from this data, but such information can also help you quickly toss away items that don’t meet your needs, saving you time when you’re seeking other reviews or shopping around for the best price.

These guidelines for purchasing a product all have accountability in common. Without it, a review isn’t worth very much because you don’t know anything about the agenda of the person providing that review.

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  1. Steve says:

    I agree that friends and family are a good starting point. I tend to use reviews for products on Amazon because it’s fairly easy to pick out the shills and trolls and find the “real” reviews.

  2. Jackie says:

    I agree with your priorities for trusting reviewers, but don’t get how “accountability” is involved. If I have a bad experience at a restaurant recommended by a friend I don’t hold that friend accountable. I’m not mad at them and don’t expect them to defend or make-up for my bad experience.

  3. Rob says:

    I think reviews on Amazon or Yelp or whatever are useful as review aggregators, at least if the item/restaurant is reviewed many times. In other words, it’s fair not to trust an individual review on Yelp, but if 250 people have given an average of 4 stars (or 1.5 stars), you can get a view of the general consensus.

  4. Lee says:

    Your scenario about a competitor posting a fake review happens from time to time. But yelp in particular has an excellent review filter that will hide such reviews. Over time the only reviews shown will be those from active members of their community. It is controversial, but as an active yelper I can say that it works very well. Other such review sites are wide open and can be spammed (for good reviews or bad).

    I would also suggest finding local food bloggers in your area. Their opinions should be fairly objective, especially if they have established a reputation.

  5. Why would a single person’s review be more valuable just because you happen to know that person rather than the reviews of a large population?

    It just seems like a simple sample size issue.

    If you have a friend who had a great experience at a restaurant, he/she could give you their honest recommendation and you could go and have a horrible experience for any number of reasons. I think it’s kind of weird to then hold that friend accountable for that.

    Meanwhile you could probably consult a resource like Zagat or Yelp and it would give you a much more realistic expectation for that place based on hundreds of visits.

  6. Michelle says:

    I tend to go by volume. If something has a lot of reviews, I’ll look at the aggregate rather than relying on one review. I figure that’s a good way to weed out the spam.

  7. Valerie says:

    I agree with Michelle and look for volume of reviews. If possible, I read reviews from several sites. I ignore the top and bottom reviews. The ***** are usually “OMG FABULOUS Product” while the * are “YUCK YUCK YUCK only an idiot would buy this”. The middle of the road reviews usually go into detail about why it didn’t deserve the 5th star, what could be better, how the product meets the reviewer’s need, or why it wasn’t right for them but might be better for another purpose, and how the reviewer was treated if there was a customer service issue.

  8. jim says:

    The more reviews you get the better. If a restaurant on Yelp has 50 reviews then I am pretty confident that their average score is a good indicator of the restaurants quality. If theres only 6 reviews then I’m less confident. Same for things like movies or products. Rottentomatoes and Metacritic have dozens of movie reviewes averaged out. That average score is a decent indicator. Amazon products with dozens of reviews also give a nice indicator. The more reviews you have the less you need to worry about shills, bias, or other agendas.

  9. valleycat1 says:

    When I came back to check on more comments, I realized I want to hear more about just how the referring friend is held accountable. And just how does that help Mr. Knowlton? Did he elaborate in the article?

    If I thought my comments regarding any product or place were going to make me “accountable” to my friends & family, I don’t think I’d ever offer my opinion!

  10. Debra says:

    I just have to comment on this one! Are you familiar with the site fiverr.com? People say what they are willing to do for $5, and people can pay them to do so. Take a look at the people who say they are willing to “Write a positive review of your product/business/website…” for $5. It will make you think twice about reading any strangers review seriously again!

  11. Sarah says:

    I think you have some good points, but your view seems almost outdated, and doesn’t match up with someone who blogs for (part of) a living.

    As someone mentioned, spamming yelp isn’t totally simple, and a lot of “active” yelpers are accountable to their yelp peers. Which is not the same, but it isn’t nothing. From reading reviews, it seems like some of them even get together in person to try new places. I am not an active yelper, so I’m just a lucky eavesdropper on some foodies. Plus, you can start following a reviewer you trust. These aren’t really “known reviewers” or “personal friends” but something sort of in between. Kind of like how people trust your financial advice without knowing you personally or without you having official credentials!

    While I definitely trust friend’s recommendations highly, if I’m looking to try a new thai place, only a handful of my friends are even into Thai food. Through yelp, I found my favorite dish in the world.

    (This seems to mostly apply to food. For a new washing machine, I’d be much more likely to trust consumer reports than online reviews.)

  12. WR says:

    Good article.

    I will add track-record and aggregate to your list if I may.

    I find that track-record is increasingly important to me. Consumer Reports has the best track-record for me. The way I define it is simple. Did the review live up to the actual product. In most cases, CR.org has exceeded my expectations. I have purchsed cars, paint, cameras, Barbecues, fridges, etc. based on their thorough reviews. It is not all perfect, their Computers and Electronics reviews get dated rather quickly but with a little cross-referencing it usually works out OK.

    I have become fond of aggregation sites like metacritic and rotten tomatoes for movies and games as a commenter already mentioned. I don’t, however, read any of the reviews until after I see the movie. There is almost always a spoiler in there and worse, the review can ‘plant’ expectations that I would not have otherwise.

    I have a very simple restaurant selection process while on the road. I go to the restroom first to wash my hands. If they can’t take care of their public facing potty, they are not going anywhere near my food.

    -WR

  13. Jules says:

    I also have to agree that numbers matter here. If something is that bad, it’s unlikely that two people will have missed it.

  14. Accountabiity is a great point.

    Plus, you never know who has an axe to grind, who may be writing a review for a financial incentive, and a million other factors. Its good to go somewhere where there are some consequences to people’s opinions, in a matter of speaking.

  15. Brian says:

    I think there are two things going on here. Trent seems to be talking about trust – whether the person is honestly reviewing the product / movie / resturant, whatever. On the other hand, you always have to ask yourself, will I have the same experience as this person? Will the restaurant treat me as badly, and do I even enjoy that kind of food? Do I like these kinds of movies? Will I use this product in the same manner as this reviewer? So I think the most detail possible is the best review because it allows me to make those judgements. Friends are good since you can ask follow-up questions.

  16. reulte says:

    I usually look at the bottom reviews to discover how a produce is bad. If there’s no reason given then I ignore the review. A well-articulated positive review which goes into details is much more valuable than simply accolades for the product and everyone connected. I don’t really hold my friends accountable for bad reviews or information, I just recognize that they have different experiences and different tastes. A recommendation will usually lead to a conversation about the why and wherefore of the positive or negative experience. Example – You best friend recommends the restaurant where she got engaged. Do you think all the positive emotions from getting engaged may have spilt over into her recommendation?

  17. littlepitcher says:

    I’ve written reviews for a couple of sites, but only on items I’ve purchased personally. One uses my first name and location, the other a screen name. I’ve been invited to submit reviews for a software I use and like, in exchange for an additional month’s coverage per review, and plan to take the company up on this.
    Negative reviews? Those go to Ripoff Report or trade magazines.
    I do pay attention to app reviews because these tend to be crowd-sourced in volume and the numbers average out to accuracy.

  18. partgypsy says:

    I agree about the restaurant reviews. My husband works at a restaurant and there was a customer who was an a** (interrupting servers who were serving other customers, leaving no tip among other things). This person then went online to post a an atrocious review. It made me realize reading reviews, you have no way of knowing what kind of person is posting those reviews, and whether you would trust their judgement on ANYTHING, including a restaurant meal.

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