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    A Review of Reviews

    Wednesday, January 14, 2015

    As a buyer, how do you use customer reviews? As a businessperson, how do you feel about reviews of your own products?

    Personally, as both a buyer and a businessperson, I love customer reviews. They strike me as more valuable overall than professional reviews (and I say that as someone who wrote professional reviews during the 1990s).

    The Value to a Customer

    As a customer, I tend to browse the 1-star reviews first. My goal is to pinpoint potential deal breakers before I buy. It’s easy enough to skip the horribly written reviews, and the off-target ones—those that complain about the mail, or a particular retailer’s policy, or anything else not related to the product itself. (Consider these “25 One-Star Reviews People Actually Left For Famous Tourist Attractions.”) If I find a common theme about a particular product feature, however, I can decide before buying whether that feature applies to my own intended use.

    Next, I browse the 5-star reviews. In this case, I’m hoping to discover the very best features of a product. Again, it’s fairly easy to skip the thoughtlessly gushing reviews (which, frankly, are sometimes the work of shills). If a common theme about a particular feature is repeated, however, that’s something to consider in relation to my own expected use of the product.

    Lastly, if I haven’t yet made a purchasing decision, I spend some time in the 4-star reviews. These tend to be more well-thought-out and better expressed than the 1- and 5-star reviews. They’re also often longer, requiring more time to consider.

    In my experience, the 2- and 3-star reviews are generally too non-committal to be of much value. They don’t often reveal anything damning, nor do they offer much helpful advice. Frankly, I’m not sure why people bother posting them.

    The Value to a Businessperson

    As a businessperson, I have pretty much the same feelings about reviews of products I’m involved in. Those 1-star reviews aren’t threatening, because they so often disqualify themselves from serious consideration by the quality of their writing. But if many of them point to a similar disappointment, that’s something worth considering in future production of the product. Similarly, the 5-star reviews are valuable only if they point out a common praise. The 4-star reviews tend to be what I learn most from, and any 2- and 3-star reviews are of dubious value.

    Let me add that I generally think a large body of reviews averaging 4 stars is more valid and convincing than just a few, glowing 5-star reviews. It’s better to have an honest debate among customers than just a few devoted fans.

    The Trouble with Professional Reviews

    Think about “At the Movies” with Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert and Roeper. How often did these reviewers agree? Sure, watching them could be entertaining, but how much did it affect your choice of films to view?

    Again, speaking as a former professional critic, I’d suggest that these sorts of reviews are more concerned with art than pragmatism. Professional reviewers tend to be people with strong opinions about a subject. Those opinions often color their reviews, leading them to write about how they wish something had been, rather than actually evaluating the thing as it is. As Mignon McLaughlin put it, in The Neurotic's Notebook, “A critic can only review the book he has read, not the one which the writer wrote.”

    This is why even on a review site like CNET, I’m prone to weigh the “User Reviews” more heavily than the “Editors’ Take.” Frankly, users spend more time with a product than professionals can, which means they learn its “ins and outs” more thoroughly.

    Next Up, How to Write a Review

    The one advantage professional reviewers have over the average customer is writing experience. That need not be a problem for customer reviewers, however. Watch for our next blog post, in which we lay out a tried-and-true formula for quickly putting together your own most helpful product reviews.

    —Lester Smith