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How to Extract Helpful Info From Online Users' Product Reviews

Look for useful details but be wary of overall ratings

illustration of online product review concept showing more robots than real people offering reviews

Ben Mounsey-Wood

En español | User reviews help us decide what to buy, where to eat and even what doctor to see. In a recent NRC Market Insights study, 92 percent of people said online reviews guided their purchasing, and 83 percent valued them more than personal recommendations.

Unfortunately, many online reviews are fakes. Fakespot, which rates ratings, says at least 1 in 3 reviews at Amazon, TripAdvisor, Sephora and Walmart are unreliable. Others who have studied reviews, including the Washington Post and the Federal Trade Commission (which took action against fakes last year), confirm the problem. All major sites screen for phonies, but many still get through, says Rob Gross, Fakespot's chief operating officer. (TripAdvisor says Fakespot's analysis is unreliable. Sephora says it believes its reviews are unbiased and authentic. Amazon says it's “relentless” in its protection of reviews’ integrity. Walmart didn't respond to an inquiry.)

So how can you find a real gem? Don't look for an overall five-star rating and call it a day. Here are my top tips for using user reviews.

Amazon

To judge the honesty of individual reviews on Amazon (or on any site), give more credence to reviews that address both pluses and minuses, not gushy ones or flat-out pans. Nuance within a review gives you more insight and signals that it was written honestly. You can also use free services like ReviewMeta and Fakespot, which assess the trustworthiness of user reviews and ratings. A Fakespot “A” grade is reassuring; lower marks, of which there are a dishearteningly large number, aren't necessarily deal breakers, but signs that you should check reviews on other sites.

TripAdvisor

Read the most recent reviews on this travel site first, since hotels may be great one month and terrible the next due to, say, a noisy renovation. Because there's no way to verify that reviewers were actual guests (they might be shills or competitors), cross-check hotel reviews at Booking.com and Expedia, where entries are only from travelers who booked at those sites. Cross-check restaurant reviews at OpenTable for the same reason. If you have a specific concern, you can search all reviews on TripAdvisor—say, by entering “handicap” to see what others say about accessibility.


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Yelp

Review the reviewers! On this site, which rates a wide range of businesses, click on reviewers’ names to examine their profiles. Red flags include large numbers of five-star reviews, especially in multiple states, and suspiciously repetitive or vague language. Consumer and personal finance expert Anthony Giorgianni says he looks for “verifiable factual statements and reviews about what's good and what's bad.” For example: “The mechanic successfully fixed my Ford truck's steering issues, but it took a day longer and $100 more than quoted, without explanation.” Use the search function to focus on what's important to you—for example, “wait” in a doctor's office or “loud” in a restaurant.

Best Buy, Sephora, Walmart and other retail websites

First, sort by the most recent reviews, since product formulas and features often change. And never rely solely on overall ratings to make a decision. Again, look for specific pros and cons, then follow up with what experts say at sites like Consumer Reports and Wirecutter. In the beauty area, check sites like TotalBeauty and Good Housekeeping; for ingredient safety, I like to consult the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database at ewg.org.

Angie's List

Use this site for home-service businesses as a starting point, not the final word. Limit yourself to top-rated businesses with at least 25 reviews, advises the Consumer Federation of America, then comb through comments. Live in a metro area covered by Consumers’ Checkbook? Consider subscribing ($28/year, at checkbook.org) to see its customer reviews; to prevent hanky-panky, the nonprofit runs reviews only from people it selects itself. Next, meet with a few pros and ask for references. In-person meetings are essential for getting the right fit on large projects, says Dan DiClerico, home expert at HomeAdvisor, a sister site to Angie's List. I can say from personal experience that it's easy to get burned if you look for a provider solely online.

Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the Hot Shopping Tips podcast, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports and an investigative reporter for The Dr. Oz Show.

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