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The problem with reviews - what makes for a good review?

Product review icon. I like writing reviews of things I’ve bought. I’ve written about 200 on Amazon alone and I’ve also written them for other sites, including a few on this blog already. I always try to keep them honest and I hope they help others with their purchasing decisions because that’s something I find hugely rewarding.

There are, however, a few problems with many of the reviews I see around the internet, including some of the ones I’ve written.

One of the biggest problems with reviews is subjectivity. What floats somebody else’s boat may not float mine. I may even agree with another person that the product is physically fine but it may not suit my particular intentions for it in the same way it does for somebody else. The other person may rate it five stars and I may rate it none.

Take the TV series ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’. If I knew nothing about it (which is mostly true, although I know roughly what it is), I could read a glowing review about it from a fan along the lines of:

The series gives us deep insight into the life of the Kardashians and, despite their fame and notoriety, we can all find parallels with our own lives. It conveys a warmth born out of the close-knit family environment the Kardashians inhabit and it imbues their daily lives with exquisite cliffhangers, making us all drool to find out what happens next. 5 stars.

This might encourage me to watch the programme but subsequently my own review is likely to be along the lines of:

It’s shite, dumbed-down telly for the thick and stupid, portraying the lives of people who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no talents whatsoever. 0 stars.

We’ve both watched the same programme and have arrived at a different subjective opinion, although mine is the correct opinion in this example.

So how should we deal with subjectivity in reviews?

I think one thing that would help is if reviewers stated their objectives at the start of the review. Why are they buying something? What are their hopes? What is their budget? A reader will then be able to match the reviewer’s objectives with their own and get more of an idea about the angle of the review they’re reading.

My fictional reviewer above might have stated his objectives as:

  • I was looking for a programme in which the stars are talentless socialites,
  • I wanted a programme where nothing genuinely interesting happens,
  • I wanted something to induce a vegetative state.

These objectives would help me immensely because I would immediately be able to see the angle of the review and I would know the Kardashians were unlikely to tweak my fancy. And that the reviewer was completely mad of course.

On a more practical note, most of us buy things on a budget, so stating one’s budget at the outset could be useful. If, for example, I’m looking to spend £2,000 on some hi-fi kit, I can ignore reviews for stuff that costs £40,000. This helps me filter out what’s useful and what isn’t.

As to the content of the review itself, I don’t think they should be help manuals. A lot of reviews I read tell me how to use or operate the product in question and I don’t think that’s the purpose of a review. The judicious use of tips is probably okay, particularly if they help overcome a problem a buyer might face at the outset or they’re a material reason something is good or bad, but detailed usage instructions are the domain of a ‘How-To’ article rather than a review.

The question we’re really trying to answer in a review is: should I spend my money on this?

There are other things we have to bear in mind when reading and writing reviews too. If you’ve bought a product there tends to be a psychological desire to want to justify that purchase, particularly if the item was expensive. This can often lead to a glut of overly positive reviews, particularly on places like Amazon. Many people can rise above this and write honest reviews regardless but it’s worth remembering that some don’t.

There are some showstoppers too. Be careful of affiliate links and people who get free products in exchange for a review. There is intrinsically nothing wrong with this as long as they write an honest review on the back of it — and many do — but there are also sites you see where the highest rated product is the one that pays the biggest affiliate commission or is from the company that sends out the most freebies.

Just to be clear, I have absolutely no objection to reviewers earning money via affiliate links and advertising or enjoying a few free products unless that somehow influences the content of their review.

One tricky area is the overall rating of a product — its star rating maybe. I like to give star ratings because it’s a good way to encapsulate the whole review for someone with a short attention span (which is a lot of people these days), but I always find it hard to know how to allocate the stars. Does a product start with zero out of five and then earn stars whenever it satisfies and objective or impresses the reviewer? Or does a product start with five stars and then lose stars for areas in which it fails? Or does it start with 2.5 stars and then move up and down as necessary?

That’s hard to answer. I tend to think five star reviews should be reserved for something that absolutely meets all the objectives perhaps barring some very minor imperfections. But even this is difficult. I could buy Product ‘A’ and find it meets my objectives perfectly, so I give it a 5 star review. Some months down the line I buy Product ‘B’, which meets the same objectives as Product ‘A’ but has some enhancements that make it even better than Product ‘A’. How many stars do I give product ‘B’ when I’m only marking out of five?

I think the answer here is to go back and change the rating of Product ‘A’, maybe knocking a star (or half a star) off it. Some people are reluctant to do this because they feel it hints their original review was less than honest, but I say don’t worry about this. It is natural for better products to appear on the market — indeed, we hope markets continue to improve all our products — and there’s no shame in going back and altering a previous review in the light of new information, maybe changing its star rating and adding a paragraph to explain why. That’s the honest thing to do. The reality is that things change.

The final thing I want to address is the length of reviews. A pure review is pre-purchase tool for readers. The main question is: is it worth spending my money on this? And that question is answered in the context of the reviewer’s objectives (which, as mentioned above, should be stated at the outset). In general I like to think articles find their own length and I’m reluctant to write to word counts, but I think a good pre-purchase review should certainly be under 1500 words and maybe even under 1000 words. The reviewer can always add a ‘How-To’, an ‘In Depth Look’ or a ‘Description of Features’ in a subsequent article.

So how will all this change the way I review things?

  • I’ll state my objectives — what I’m hoping this product will do for me — at the outset of my reviews,
  • I’ll state my budget where appropriate,
  • I’ll go back and change my star ratings and add an addendum to reviews that are subsequently superseded,
  • I’ll try to explain how the star rating was arrived at,
  • I’ll try to ensure the review doesn’t turn into a How-To,
  • I’ll try to keep my reviews below 1000 words and certain below 1500 words.

No Kardashians were harmed during the making of this article.