Online Reviews: When To Trust Them, How To Write Them

If you shop on the internet, chances are you check out online reviews first. That's a sensible strategy, but only if you learn to distinguish the useless reviews from the fakes and the unfocused complaints. We'll show you how to spot helpful reviews, and how to write your own.

Learn To Use Reviews Better

Reviews are rarely objective. The writer, whether they're an amateur or a professional, is going to inject their own opinion and perspective. That's not a bad thing, but it does mean you need to learn to take some reviews with a grain of salt. A missing feature might make one person very upset, but not matter to you at all. What you need to aim for is an educated decision as quickly as possible.

Before you start reading reviews, write down a list of features that are important to you for the product you're considering. When you're reading reviews, make sure you're not swayed by features you won't use.

We make a lot of stupid mistakes when shopping, but even if we can avoid those, the range of choice can be overwhelming. Given that range of choices, even easy decisions can become really hard to make.

The solution? You need make a choice and move on. Using something like a pro-con list is great to help you find what you're really looking for, but don't waste hours picking between two similar products.

If you're worried about buyer's remorse, or that you're making the wrong choice, pick a site with a good returns policy. If you have to, set yourself a decision time, force yourself to make the choice, and move on.

Learn To Spot Fake Reviews

Fake online reviews come in two main forms: people paid to write praise, and trolls seeking to stir up trouble. Both can skew your perceptions of a product, and both are relatively easy to spot. To identify a positive-but-fake user review, The New York Times suggests you look for a few key things:

  • Reviews that seem to use "I" or "me" too often.
  • High adverb use.
  • High verb use.
  • Way too many exclamation points.

The Consumerist also points out that it's good to look for reviews with empty adjectives, and glowing praise with no downsides. NPR suggests you ignore the star rating and just read the review. Ultimately, if a review sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

To spot trolling reviews, you essentially follow the same steps as above, but watch out for overtly negative reactions that don't talk about upsides. You'll often find these types of reviews in cases where brand loyalty is a factor, or when a reviewer receives something that's just dead on arrival (which is bound to happen with certain kinds of products). Unless you see a lot of these types of reviews, you can usually ignore them.

Why You Should Contribute Reviews

Once a product is in your hands, or a meal is in your stomach, it's easy to walk away thinking you're done with the experience. However, writing a quick review is a huge help to other shoppers and businesses.

It's no secret that when you write a review or rate a service you're helping other shoppers make better choices with their purchases. This could be highlighting a great purchase you've made, or by warning people away from something that turned out terrible.

When you're reviewing products and services, you're not just helping others make better choices. You're also helping yourself. Since many sites use your own reviews to recommend new products, you're making it easier to find the things you actually want, and you'll stop getting those crazy recommendations for things that don't matter.

Obviously you don't need to waste time on simple or cheap things like HDMI cables or a pack of spoons, but for anything that could potentially break, or might be a risk, your review is potentially helpful to someone out there.

It also helps support your favourite businesses. When you discover a new restaurant or store that you end up really liking, be sure to put together a quick review or rating and share it on an appripriate site. You don't have to spend hours on a food critic worthy review — a few sentences about your experiences is enough to bring in someone who might be on the fence. It's not much if your favourite shop is struggling to stay in business, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Write A Good Review By Keeping It Simple

Writing a good online review is about brevity. You don't need to repeat anything already in the product description, or get long-winded with a description of how amazing your BLT was.

When we walked you through the best ways to write an online review, we pointed out that it's good to stick to relevant details that matter to everyone. Don't bother explaining too much about your circumstances. Instead, stick to the experience itself (with a product or store), and talk about what you think.

Also, remember that a positive review is just as useful as a negative one. That said, if you had a serious problem with a product, or if it broke after six months, go and write that review — even if it has been a while since you purchased it. Timeliness is rarely a necessity with reviews, and long term experiences are great when you're talking about big budget items.

The goal of shopping for and then reviewing products is to help make your voice heard to people who matter. When you shop smart and follow through afterwards you're rewarding people just like yourself. It's a good feeling.

Title image by Dominick Rabrun. You can find his illustrations on his personal web site and works in progress on his blog.


    If I find something I want, I'll typically look at the lowest star rating first and read that review and see if I can figure out the reason why they dislike the product. If its due to reliability, I'll then check if other people have similar problems. If its due to a badly designed feature, I'll consider whether or not that feature matters to me.

    I look for language that reveals the reviewers thinking, and gives me solid facts to consider. What I'd call technical credibility. Often its obvious the reviewer doesn't know what they're talking about, or hasn't understood the fundamentals about the product.

    u jus gt 2 make sur dat u dun reed ne1 who rite like dis

    It's always fun to find the genuinely funny reviews too even if they are completely useless. Like this guy's Amazon reviews

    Last edited 04/10/12 5:17 pm

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