Guest Column: Pros and Cons of User Reviews
With the growth of consumer product information online, user generated content (UGC)—especially user reviews—has become increasingly important and valued in consumer buying decisions. Product user reviews on sites such as Amazon, PriceGrabber, Power Reviews, Walmart, CNET, Google Product Search, and our own site, ConsumerReports.org, are popular tools for helping consumers make purchase decisions. Would-be buyers seek information from peers, and then share their own experiences back through these and other websites after making a purchase. This facilitates a productive dialog between experts, professionals, publishers, and others on consumer products.
UGC empowers consumers in many ways. It provides information about others' experiences with products, offers warnings about dangerous products or poor services, and holds the potential for changing the marketplace when companies take notice. With a simple click of the mouse, consumers can tap into the collective intelligence of a worldwide community.
There is much to be learned from the experiences others have with the products that they have purchased, but using this information requires that consumers understand the context of review experiences and motivations of the reviewer in order to help distinguish good advice from bad or irrelevant counsel. How, for example, do you know that the reviewer really owns the product, and is not a shill for the company? How can you tell whether he knows what he's talking about? And how do you sort through hundreds of reviews and individual experiences to find the ones that will provide the best information for you?
The challenge here is recognizing that there may be a gap between your needs and the information conveyed in the review. The differences may be significant or apply only in certain situations. And what about the experts? Where do they fit in? How do consumers define "expert"? "Mommy bloggers" are often considered a trusted source of information by other moms, but does that make them truly experts—especially since some may be receiving compensation of some sort from the companies they write about? What do experts really know and how does it apply to your needs?