Buying with Confidence

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.

How I Decide Which Reviews/Recommendations to Trust

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.