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How To Write Genuinely Useful Reviews Online

Before we buy a new gadget or try a new restaurant, most of us look at the reviews at Amazon, or Yelp, or whichever online retailer or site we’re browsing, just to make sure we’re not wasting our hard earned money on something useless. Even so, those reviews can be a crap-shoot.

Some are useless and angry, and others are so glowing that they can’t be real. The best ones walk between, and regardless of the experience the reviewer had, they offer up the kind of information that’s invaluable when making a decision. Here’s how you can write those kinds of reviews.

Photo by unnormalized.

Last week, I had the privilege of being a guest on NPR’s On Point, where we discussed the usefulness of reviews on the web, and how those reviews impact people’s buying decisions and the businesses being reviewed. I was surprised to learn how many businesses have yet to realise that even the most scathing reviews can have a useful message underneath their hate, and how many people didn’t trust positive reviews at all. Yesterday we discussed how important it is to contribute to the overall betterment of the internet. Now it’s time to put what you’ve learned to work.

Think Before You Write: Some Tips to Remember

  • Include relevant details, and omit the extraneous ones. Don’t get me wrong, everyone likes a good story, and a feature of the best online reviews I’ve read is the way the reviewer set up the situation so I could identify with his or her experience. Even so, you want to make sure you include things like the date you went to a restaurant or shop, when you placed an order or opened your product, who you ordered through if it wasn’t the site you’re writing the review on, and of course, lay out your experience with relevant information to your complaint or compliment. If you had a tough time getting service at a restaurant, other readers will want to know what time of day you went, whether the restaurant was crowded, and whether the staff ignored you outright, or something specific (like your order took too long to arrive, or it took a long time to be seated) was the root of your issue. Trim out the fat, like the weather, what you were wearing, or where you sat unless it’s important.
  • Leave out the proper names. One of the biggest criticisms of online reviews is that too many of them are vindictive and targeted at specific individuals instead of addressing an actual complaint or issue. It can be tempting to praise a specific server at a restaurant by telling everyone on Yelp who they are, or to blast an apartment manager on Apartment Ratings by telling others to “look out for so-and-so”, but ultimately it makes your review less useful, even if it’s more bombastic. If the server is promoted to manager, or if the apartment manager was only filling in for a week, your review is already worthless and outdated. Instead, discuss the experience you had, and omit individual names.
  • “Good” is not always positive. Remember, a “good” review is the type of review that’s useful to the people who come along behind you. If you need to take some time away from the keyboard to really organise your thoughts and think about your experience from multiple sides of the issue, take it. Don’t start writing in a fit of rage. Check your spelling and grammar, use complete sentences, and lay off the exclamation points. Even if you’re writing anonymously, write like someone’s going to read your words back to you. It won’t happen, but it does make you stop and think about how you’re making your case — which should be intelligently, coherently, and honestly, even if you had a horrible experience with a store’s customer service, or a manufacturer who refused to replace a damaged shipment.
  • Offer yourself up for validation. This one may not work for everyone, but it can go a long way towards making sure that your review stands out, and no one doubts its veracity. Open yourself up to commentary. If you’re writing on Yelp or Amazon, use your real name, or invite readers to message you if they have additional questions about your experience. If you want a response from the business or the manager, leave some contact information, even if it’s an email address you opened specifically for the task. Giving people a way to contact you to corroborate your story, or even share their own experience, makes your words more powerful. Again, it’s not for everyone — sometimes you need the cover of anonymity to be truthful and honest without fear or reprisal, and we understand that. If you can stand behind your words though, it helps.
  • Remember and note that your review is just your experience. Qualify your statements with that — no one needs to hear “and I’ve heard lots of other people have the same problem.” That just sounds like you’re manufacturing those “other people” to bolster your opinion. Make it clear that this is what happened to you, and that other people’s experiences may vary, even if yours was particularly positive. Point out why you think you may have had your specific experience — perhaps your meal was late because of what you ordered? Or maybe a hotel upgraded you to a suite because you approached them with kindness. Don’t be afraid to speculate — future readers will benefit from it.
  • Address the other side of the story. Finally, remember that there’s another side to your story. Positive reviews almost never get challenged, but they’re also most often ignored by future readers. Negative reviews draw the most attention, and while most people are smart enough to look over all reviews and omit the ones that are strange, particularly useless, or irrelevant to them, even negative reviews can be useful if you address why you think your experience unfolded the way it did, by putting yourself on the other side of the issue. Sometimes there’s no excuse for poor treatment, bad service or a horrific experience, but if you can show a little understanding, it goes a long way towards validating your review as an honest one — even if a future reader still decides to steer clear of the place.

A Template Review You Can Use Anywhere

Even if you’re in the right mindset to start writing, you may still be at a loss for how to lay it all out. Let us help! This is a template review you can use just about anywhere. Just fill in the blanks with information relevant to your experience.

Name of the service/restaurant/store
Pros: Specific, simple, one or two word highlights you experienced, separated by commas
Cons: Same – don’t leave either of these out – every experience has both! Even if there’s no place to put them, jot them down so you have your thoughts in order.
Cover the basics. Time, date, etc. “On February 11, I stopped by Bob’s Deli on the corner of 12th and M streets for a sandwich. It was around 1.30pm, and I had hoped I’d missed the lunch crowd. I wasn’t expecting a line, but I definitely got one. The line at the lunch counter was about five people deep when I walked up and another five people were waiting to pay at the register, and there was only one person working in each spot. I had heard the place could get busy, but this was ridiculous.”

Information specific to your situation. Keep the rules above in mind, and tell the whole story, regardless of what the outcome was. “The housecleaning crew arrived on time, which was impressive considering I’d only made the appointment the same morning. The cleaner in charge came in first while the others got their equipment out of the truck, and went over the paperwork with me. She took a look around, and presented an estimate that was a bit higher than I was expecting. I pointed out that their dispatch told me that their services would be less than this, and showed her the email estimate I received. She explained that their dispatch service had calculated a rate based on a smaller house than mine, but said they could make it work with the lower price.

When I set up the appointment, I had a feeling the rep on the phone was busy, and didn’t hear me when I answered his questions, but I wasn’t about to pay for the mistake. I’ll keep it in mind next time I call their 1-800 number, but I’m really glad the people on the ground are flexible enough to make adjustments on the fly. That alone earned some respect.”

Now’s the time to make your conclusions, offer yourself up for commentary, and keep it classy. “Overall, my experience with the Roadrunner SuperFast 128GB SSD was positive. I was up and running within minutes of installing it, and the thing is much faster than the old WIL-E 128GB I had to return as defective. DriveShop was really helpful in getting me a shipping label and overnighting the replacement drive, but it was a shame I had to be so aggressive in letting them know it was urgent. If you’re shopping or a drive, I have no compaints about the Roadrunner SuperFast, it’s been performing well for me over the past week. The WIL-E model though could have been a one-off, or a systemic problem. I probably won’t buy the WIL-E again. If anyone has any questions about the Roadrunner though, leave a comment to my review and I’ll get back to you.”

Obviously, you don’t have to be as lengthy with your impressions and you can feel free to cut to the chase, but the important thing is to make sure you include the information that’s relevant to your story, keep your perspective in check, and be honest. It’s the best way to make sure your reviews are useful, influential and timeless.

Do you write reviews of products, restaurants or services that you’ve tried? Do you read or trust reviews that you’ve read? Share your thoughts, and your suggestions for better review writing, in the comments below.