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 really help you buy a product you'll love, or at least by happy with? The answer, as with so many things, is "it depends."
About Reviews in General: The Two Types of Unhelpful Reviews
You have to be savvy about product reviews. You have to learn what to pay attention to, what to ignore, and what you can and can't believe--and why.
Since we started The Rational Kitchen, we've immersed ourselves in online reviews and Amazon reviews in particular. We can find ourselves frustrated because reviews just aren't very helpful sometimes. And it often isn't an issue of dishonesty or willful deception. People give mediocre products 5-star reviews for a lot of reasons, and sometimes the reasons have little to do with a product's quality.
Buying products based on overly positive reviews can result in just as much frustration and disappointment as buying products based on reviews written with willful deception.
This is especially true for technical products that you don't understand very well and don't know how to evaluate. If you're not sure what to look for, then most other people are probably in the same boat, including those who've already bought the product and already written a review!
You can learn how to use Amazon reviews, as well as other sources of information, to buy wisely and find products you can truly love. But you have to know how to spot fake reviews, and you have to know how to evaluate honest reviews so you know if you can trust what the person is saying.
Here, we talk about the two main categories of unhelpful reviewers: 1) fake reviews and 2) honest-but-unhelpful reviews. Then we talk about how to analyze Amazon reviews to get the most useful information you can, as well as when and how to use external review sites to help you buy as wisely as possible.
Fake Amazon Reviews
There are two types of fake reviews: the "in exchange for an honest review" review, and the blatantly fake review.
"In Exchange for an Honest Review" Reviews
User reviews are a huge part of why people buy what they buy on Amazon. A lot of positive reviews equates to a lot of sales. This being the case, sellers have learned to game the system.
One way they do this is to give away or greatly discount 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).
These aren't exactly "fake" reviews, but you mostly can't trust them, nevertheless. Research has shown that these "in exchange" reviews are overwhelmingly more positive than reviews freely given. So proceed with caution if there are a lot of these types of reviews, especially if they are mostly positive.
Blatantly Fake Reviews
Another thing sellers do is use review mills to generate reviews--yes, there are actually businesses that will write fake product reviews for profit. Paid reviewers have been used for awhile by marketers and manufacturers to create buzz about their products on Amazon, and probably elsewhere, too.
These may not be a big issue anymore. In 2015, Amazon filed a number of lawsuits against these paid review companies, and a lot of them have shut down. (You can read more about this here.)
But it's quite possible, even probable, that sellers have found new ways to game the system, because where there's money to be made, disreputable sellers can usually find ways to do it. So you should still be careful when deciding which reviews to trust.
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 a sincere effort to write a helpful review that aids others in making a decision. It is not fake in any way.
This is where a lot of us get in trouble because we assume we can trust these reviews.
While we can trust that people are giving an honest opinion, we can't always trust that opinion to be well-informed. In our desire for good product information, we can 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 4,000 reviews with an average rating of 4.0 stars, and is a best seller on Amazon. And while this is a decent product, its sister product, the 9600LS has only around 600 reviews, also with an average rating of 4.5 stars. The 9600LS costs just a few dollars more than the 8100MC, yet it is head and shoulders a better product. It's got a better design, better components, and better heat control. (Here's our review of the Secura Duxtop induction cookers.)
So why are people buying the 8100MC--and giving it fabulous ratings? Here are the reasons we've come up with: reflexivity, lack of experience with the product, and the desire to have made a good purchase.
(Update: These numbers have changed since we first published this article. We're happy to see that Amazon no longer recommends the 8100MC as their top choice. We kept it here as a good example, though.)
George Soros made a fortune in the stock market using what he called "reflexivity." This is the theory (and this is a very simplified explanation) 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, the theory of reflexivity says that if a product has a huge number of positive ratings, people are pre-disposed to have a positive belief about the product. (Sort of the whole rating philosophy, right?)
Does this mean it's not a good product, or that the positive reviews are wrong? No, of course not--not in itself. It just means that, like with the 8100MC, people may not have enough knowledge to make a better choice. So they choose by looking at what other people have chosen, and this reinforces the positive reviews right up to the number one spot on Amazon. Yes, even if the product is, in reality, actually pretty mediocre.
Lack of Product Knowledge
Lack of product knowledge is actually more a cause of reflexivity than a separate issue: when people are unfamiliar with a product and unsure how to go about learning what they need to know to make a good decision, they buy the one with a lot of positive ratings.
In other words, when people lack product knowledge, all those 5-star reviews can be a huge influence!
The Duxtop induction cookers are a great example of why you can't always go by the number of positive reviews, or even by the fact that a product is a best seller on Amazon. In the case of the 8100MC (and portable induction cookers in general), 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 entire cooktop market), so people don't know where to look for information, much less what information to look for.
Also, because induction is unfamiliar technology, people 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--no GE, Whirlpool, or Frigidaire, for example, that people can look to for guidelines.
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 ($100 and under).
When you're unsure what to buy or how to choose it, those positive reviews start to look pretty good. (That's reflexivity, borne out of a lack of product knowledge.)
So, you can see how positive reviews reinforced positive reviews--and the number of purchases. It's not that the 8100MC is a bad product; but the 9600LS is a much superior product for a little higher price. And if you're willing to spend even more, the quality goes up a lot. (For more info, see our article How to Buy a Portable Induction Cooker (And the Best Ones to Buy).
The Desire to Have Made a Good Purchase
Much as we all hate to admit it, emotions can be a large part of our decision-making process. This means that we are predisposed to like a product we bought, even if it's not really all that great.
This, too, is probably another way that reflexivity manifest itself in product reviews: we believe what we want to believe about a product, and don't really see the negatives.
This is especially true for newly purchased products. People will often review a product in the first couple of days after getting it, when they haven't had enough time or experience with it to give a really adequate assessment. It's also likely that when they do find out what they dislike about it, they don't go back to update their highly positive review. (The reverse can happen too--people give an initially negative review they later update--though not as often.)
When reading reviews, pay attention to how long a person has owned the product. The longer, the better. And if a review has an update attached to it, even better. This is a reviewer who's really put some thought into it and wants to share their experience with the product, in as unbiased a way as possible.
How To Love What You Buy on Amazon
This is all probably leaving you very frustrated. If you can't trust reviews, even honest ones, then how the heck are you supposed to make a purchasing decision?
The first rule for any purchase is: educate yourself!
Of course it is. We all know that. That's why we read the reviews in the first place. That's why they're so important to sales on Amazon.
But one of the things you have to educate yourself on is analyzing user reviews. Here are some weapons, directly related to Amazon reviews, that you can put in your arsenal: the "Verified Purchase," negative reviews, review dates, and Fakespot.com.
Another thing you need to learn about is where else to search for product information. External review sites can be immensely helpful, especially for technical products that you don't understand very well. But you have to know how to rate these, too.
Amazon now has a "verified purchase" status so people can see that the review was written by a legitimate buyer of the product:
This can be helpful if a review contains good, detailed information that seems to make sense and is helpful.
However, it isn't foolproof, for two possible reasons. One is because sometimes people buy a product elsewhere and review it on Amazon just to be helpful, which means you can't completely discard non-verified reviews.
The other reason is that sometimes the verified review falls into the other major category: that is, honest, but unhelpful because they're not assessing the right stuff. (More on this below.)
So the "verified purchase" certification is helpful, but not having it is not proof that you should disregard the review. It's only one factor of many that you need to look at.
"Top Reviewer": Related to this are reviewers that have special status with Amazon such as "Top Reviewer." These are great because Amazon only gives these to people who are proven to give honest, unbiased, helpful reviews. If a reviewer has a top reviewer or other title by their name, pay extra attention to what they have to say.
Most negative reviews are honest, so you should always read the one- and two-star reviews carefully to see what people don't like a product. In fact, reading the negative reviews is more important than reading the positive reviews. Not only are they usually more honest, but they also tend to contain a lot of valuable product information, such as how long to expect the product to work and how good (or bad) the customer service is should you need to make a complaint.
Sometimes, negative reviews have nothing to do with product quality and are just silly. One common complaint with vacuum sealer bags, for example, is that they "don't work with my sealer," and these people give out one-star reviews for that. Even though it's their fault entirely for not knowing which type of bags to buy!
It's always possible that negative reviews could also be fake, planted by a product's competitor. While we haven't heard of sellers actually doing that, it is always a possibility.
So again, pay attention to the details and tone to determine whether a negative review is legitimate or not. Just looking at the percentage without reading the actual reviews won't give you the whole picture.
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.
If something seems fishy, look at the review dates. If several positive reviews are clustered around the same date (often the release date of a new product, listed in Product Information somewhere in the middle of the page), then you may have a case of paid-for reviews.
Clusters of reviews aren't always fake. Sometimes a product is so great, people just want to share their enthusiasm about it. This was the case with the Joule immersion circulator, which got a ton of 5 star reviews when it was first released. But that was because there were a lot of people anticipating the product release, and the Joule actually lived up to all the hype.
The Ratings Distribution Chart
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 top of the review section, or, if you hover your mouse over the star rating just below the product name at the top of its Amazon page, it will open in a pop-up window. It looks like this:
What does the ratings distribution tell you? It provides the details about the average rating (which, in the example above, is 4.3). This takes the guesswork out of knowing the actual percentage of people who liked, disliked, and hated the product. It can also help you decide if there's anything fishy about the product reviews.
For example, two products can have an average rating of 4.5 stars. But one could have 79% 5-star reviews (as shown here), and the other could have 90% 5-star reviews.
Ditto the low-end: A product with an average rating of 4.5 stars could have 5% one-star reviews (as shown here), or it could have 15% one-star reviews.
Those are huge differences in ratings distribution, which can indicate a huge difference in quality.
So go beyond the average rating and look at the distribution. If a product has more than, say, 15% one- and two-star reviews, you may want to rethink buying it.
Of course, you have to read the negative reviews and understand the complaints to know for sure.
Fakespot is a site that analyzes Amazon reviews on any product page that you paste into it. Fakespot then 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 or not).
Fakespot is a helpful tool for buyers on Amazon. But it isn't always 100% accurate. For example, if there are too few reviews for an accurate assessment, Fakespot isn't terribly useful. Or if reviews are clustered around a release date and the product is still very new, Fakespot may think the reviews are fake, when actually the product is just that new. This was the case with Joule, discussed above, but now that Joule has been on the market for a few years, Fakespot gives the reviews an "A" rating.
So use Fakespot, but like everything else, use it in conjunction with other factors.
External Review Sites
Enter external review sites: Sites like ours are run by people with technical backgrounds, who've done hundreds of hours of product research. Our sites exist to help you buy well. For everyone who clicks through our sites to buy, we make a small commission at no cost to you. Many of us make our entire living this way, so if you appreciate our product reviews, please be sure to buy through one of our affiliate links.
We want to help. And, we almost always have the best information. We've done the testing and the side-by-side comparisons, we know the issues involved, and we have nothing to gain by giving bad information. In fact, we have everything to lose.
Unfortunately, not all review sites are created equally, so be sure you trust the advice you're getting. Some review sites simply stick to the most popular products, or to products within a certain price range because they're reluctant to recommend something pricier, even if it's better. This can be true whether the site is a big, recognized name or a tiny hole in the wall, although for usually different reasons: big sites tend to focus on the most popular consumer brands and ignore everything else, while small sites want to recommend the most popular products and brand names in order to make sales.
If a site is just recommending top sellers on Amazon or well-known brands, you may not be getting good information. And if they don't back up their recommendations with detailed product knowledge (even if you don't read it all), you may not be getting good information.
In fact, this is why we created The Rational Kitchen. So many review sites don't dig deeply enough. This is especially true of the big sites that review everything. When you don't specialize in anything, how can you know what to look for? Comparing a dozen products at an almost identical quality level isn't going to teach you much. And it probably isn't going to help you make better choices.
We wanted a broader range of options, including higher end, durable products that were going to last more than a couple of years. This can be incredibly hard info to find! So when we couldn't find it, we created it.
If a site doesn't get into the details at least a little, keep looking. There are better options out there.
To summarize, here's our best advice on how to buy products you love on Amazon:
- Make sure the reviews you read are legitimate by looking for fakes as described above. Ignore fake reviews.
- Pay attention to these aspects of reviews: verified purchase, negative reviews, review dates, and ratings distribution. None of these alone are a definite indiction of anything definite, but taken together, they can be incredibly helpful. (You don't have to read every single review. Just enough to feel confident that you've got the info you need.)
- Use external review sites (like this one) to educate yourself, especially on technical products that you don't know very much about. The more you know, the more likely you are to make a good decision. A site should have a lot of detailed information; even if you don't read it all, you can rest assured that the reviewers know what they're talking about.
Research, research, and more research: this is the key. On the other hand, don't overwhelm yourself. If you find a site you like, use it to help you. Ask questions--most reviewers are happy to help. (We certainly are!)
And whatever you do, don't buy the most popular product just because it's popular. It might be fabulous, but then again, there might be a hidden gem waiting for you if you dig just a little bit deeper.
Can you do all this and still get a product you don't love? Sure you can. Or you can get unlucky and get a lemon, because it happens once in awhile. If you buy wisely, you should be covered in any event
But more importantly, if you do the best research you can, and teach yourself about the product you want to buy, you have greatly increased your chances of getting something you can love.
Thanks for reading!