Updated February 2017
One of the greatest things about Amazon is also one of its biggest problems: the reviews. Can you trust Amazon reviews? More importantly, can the reviews truly help you buy a product you'll love, or at least by happy with? The answer, as with so many things, is "it depends." You have to be savvy about reviews. You have to learn what to pay attention to, what to ignore, and what you can and can't believe--and why.
Since I started The Rational Kitchen, I've immersed myself in online reviews and Amazon reviews in particular. I often find myself frustrated because reviews just don't feel right for one reason or another. And it isn't always an issue of dishonesty. Sometimes, people give mediocre products 5-star reviews for other reasons--and buying these products based on those overly positive reviews can result in just as much frustration and disappointment as trusting paid reviews. It's important to know how to spot both types of reviews: the dishonest ones and the ones that aren't very helpful. You can learn how to use Amazon reviews, as well as other sources of information, to buy wisely.
Here, I talk about the two big issues, as I see them: fake reviews and unhelpful reviews. What they are, how to spot them, what to do about them--so you can find and buy products you're going to love.
Issue #1: Fake Amazon Reviews
Reviews are a huge part of why people buy what they buy on Amazon. A lot of positive reviews roughly equates to a lot of sales. This being the case, sellers have learned to game the system. They give away or greatly discount products in exchange for "honest reviews." Or they use review mills to generate reviews--yes, there are actually businesses that write fake reviews for profit.
Paid reviewers have been used for awhile by marketers and manufacturers to create buzz about their products on Amazon. And while there are still a lot of them around, they are slowly going away. Since early in 2015, Amazon has filed a number of lawsuits against these paid review companies. The lawsuits have shut some of them down already. You can read more about this here.
A lot has been written about fake reviews, so I won't spend a lot of time on them. But here are a few basics--most of it you probably already know.
Spotting Fake Reviews
Look for three things when reading Amazon reviews: the "honest review," too many positives, and too many reviews clustered around the same date (usually when a product is newly released on Amazon).
The "Honest Review"
Many companies offer people free or discounted products in exchange for an "honest review." These are easy to spot because the review will contain a disclosure statement along the lines of "I received this product in exchange for my honest review." If you see a statement like this somewhere in the review (usually at the end), don't give the review too much weight (unless it's negative, in which case it's probably very honest, indeed).
This doesn't necessarily mean that the reviewer is lying. They might actually be giving an honest opinion. However, research has shown that these "honest" reviews are overwhelmingly positive. So proceed with caution.
Too Many Positive Reviews
Look at the ratings distribution. This is the graph that shows the percentage of each rating for the product. You'll see it at the beginning of the review section, or, if you hover your mouse over the star rating just below the product name at the top of the page, it will open in a pop-up window. It looks like this:
Positive reviews are good. But if there are too many, or if the table seems skewed in addition to having a lot of "honest" reviews, this is suspect.
Of course, sometimes products are just that good--and that's what you want! So a skewed distribution in and of itself isn't necessarily bad. You have to weigh it in conjunction with the other factors.
In this example, the distribution could be skewed, or it could be a pretty great product. So look for "honest reviews," then look at review dates...
Too Many Reviews at the Same Time
If you still suspect dirty dealings, look at the review dates. If they're all clustered around the same date and are all positive, then you may have a case of paid reviewers. When marketers release a new product on Amazon, getting reviews is imperative to sales. So they will sometimes release a whole bunch of "reviews" to ensure the product sells. These could be paid reviews or "honest" reviews in exchange for a free or discounted product.
This isn't always indicative of a bad product, though. Sometimes a product is so great, people just want to share their enthusiasm about it. I think this was the case with the Joule immersion circulator (see below). So again, this has to be weighed against the other factors.
Fakespot.com: The Answer to Online Consumer's Prayers
Or, instead of doing all of the above, you may just want to copy the Amazon URL and paste it into Fakespot.com. Fakespot analyzes the reviews and pops out a grade, from "A" to "F" to tell you if it thinks the reviews are legitimate or not. It also includes other helpful information like the manufacturer's grade and details about the wording in the reviews (i.e., why it thinks the reviews are fake). It's a pretty cool site, and one I use now every time I'm trying to decide if a product is worth purchasing.
Fakespot is a powerful tool for consumers. However, it isn't always accurate. For example, when the Joule immersion circulator was released on Amazon (finally!) last month, I plugged the URL into Fakespot and it returned a poor rating. The rating was based on too many reviews clustered around the same date. However, I am familiar with the Joule and know it to be a high-quality product. So in this case, Fakespot came up with the wrong conclusion, even though it was looking at the right stuff. I don't know if these were paid reviews or simply other Joule enthusiasts--but I know the Joule is a great product.
Amazon has added a "verified purchase" status to reviews that it knows are legitimate. This is useful in knowing you're not reading a fake review, but it may not provide a lot of help with the other problematic category of honest-but-unhelpful reviews.
Issue #2: Honest But Unhelpful Amazon Reviews
The other kind of bad review is the "honest but unhelpful" review. This is a much tougher type of review to deal with because people have made an effort to write a review that will help others decide if they want to buy the product. In fact, I think this is where most of us get in trouble because we assume we can trust these reviews. And while we can trust that people are giving an honest opinion, we can't always trust that opinion to be well-informed. We forget that every review is just an opinion--and opinions can be fallible.
A good example is the Secura Duxtop 8100MC portable induction cooker. It has more than 2,700 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars. It's also a best seller on Amazon. And while this is a decent product, its sister product, the 9100MC, has fewer than 500 reviews, also with an average rating of 4.5 stars. The 9100MC costs just a few dollars more than the 8100MC, yet it is head and shoulders a better product. (Here's my review of the Secura Duxtop induction cookers.) It's got a better design, better components, and better heat control. So why are people buying the 8100MC--and giving it fabulous ratings? I'm sure there are a lot of reasons, but here are the ones I've come up with: reflexivity, and lack of experience with the product.
George Soros made a fortune on what he called "reflexivity." This is the theory (this is very simplified) that positive reinforces positive and negative reinforces negative. In other words, people believe what they think other people believe. In the case of Amazon reviews, if a product has a huge number of positive ratings, people are pre-disposed to also have a positive belief about the product. (Sort of the whole rating philosophy, no?)
Does this mean it's not a good product, or that the positive reviews are wrong? No, not in itself. It just means that, like in the case of the 8100MC, people may not have enough knowledge to make a better choice. So they choose by looking at what other people have chosen. If they lack knowledge of and experience with a product, they might decide this is their best option for making a decision, especially if they lack experience about a product and aren't sure how to learn more.
Lack of Experience with a Product
This is most common with technical products. People are unfamiliar with the product and unsure how to go about learning what they need to know in order to make a good decision. When this is the situation, all those 5-star reviews can be a huge influence!
Yet the Duxtop induction cooker is a great example of why you can't always go by the number of good reviews, or even the fact that a product is a best seller on Amazon. In the case of the 8100MC, good technical information is lacking (and not just on Amazon), so it is a difficult product to educate yourself about. Induction is also an unfamiliar technology to most Americans (being about 7% of the cooktop market), so they aren't sure where to begin looking for information, or even what information to look for. And also because it's unfamiliar technology, they don't have a standard in mind to compare it to (except maybe those late-night infomercials, and how far will that get you?). There is no trusted name in induction cookers here in the US. Additionally, the number of portable induction burners on the market is staggering--and they all seem pretty much the same, especially at the low end of the market (less than about $125). So when you're unsure what to buy or why to buy it, those positive reviews start to look pretty good.
You can see how the positive reviews reinforced the positive reviews--and the number of purchases. It's not that the 8100MC is a bad product; but the 9100MC is a much better product for approximately the same cost. And if you're willing to spend more, the quality goes up a lot. But how are people supposed to find that out? How are they supposed to make that decision?
How To Love What You Buy on Amazon
The first rule for any purchase is: educate yourself!
Of course it is. We all know that. That's why we read the reviews, and that's why they're so important to sales on Amazon.
But what do you do when you're unsure whether you can trust the reviews? Or if good information--such as detailed technical specifications--about an unfamiliar product is lacking, both in the reviews and in the information given for the product? (What makes one $60 induction cooker better than another one, if anything? The specs on Amazon do not make that clear. In fact, in the case of portable induction cookers, they don't even make clear what makes a $400 induction cooker better than a $60 one. But believe me, there is a huge difference!)
Enter external review sites: People like me with technical backgrounds who've done hundreds of hours of research to help you buy well. For everyone who clicks through our sites, we make a small percentage at no cost to you. We want to help. And quite often, we have the best information. We've done the testing and the comparisons and we have nothing to gain by giving bad information. So if we also have the background to understand what to look for, what information is important to know and to pass on, well, then we have a lot to offer consumers.
So my best advice on how to buy products you love on Amazon:
- Make sure the reviews you read are legitimate by looking for fakes and using Fakespot as described above.
- If the reviews are legitimate, pay the most attention to the negative ones: good experiences are probably going to tell you what you already like, but bad experiences will raise issues you may not have thought of.
- If this is a technical product or an expensive one, use external review sites to educate and inform yourself. The more you know, the more likely you are to make a good decision.
Finally: Not all review sites are created equally, so be sure you trust the advice you're getting. If articles are well-written and detailed and you learn something from them, then it's probably a good site. Also, check to see if they're just recommending the top sellers on Amazon. If they are, and they're not including a sound analysis of why this is the case, look elsewhere.