How to Use Online Reviews to Buy Better Products

Thinking MonkeyThe Internet has provided many tools for consumers to collaborate and inform each other about good and bad products. Knowing how to make use of those tools will save you a lot of time, effort, and money.

Two of the best tools available are user-submitted product reviews and user ratings. By leveraging user reviews and ratings, you can be sure that you are making an informed decision and will not regret your purchase.

Detailed below is the system I use when searching for the best products or services, and I recommend this to anyone looking to be a thorough and exhaustive consumer:

1. Start with the highest rated products

Always start your search with the highest rated products. This may seem obvious, but by limiting your search to products with high ratings (e.g. greater than 4 out of 5 stars), you dramatically cut down the amount of bad products you must wade through to find the good stuff. The majority of online shopping sites will allow you to sort products based on their overall rating — this is an invaluable tool in your search for the best product.

2. Rank by the highest number of reviews

I consider the number of reviews for a product a weighting mechanism for the rating. If you are familiar with statistics, you know that the larger your sample size is the more accurate your results will be. For example, a 5 star rating from 135 reviewers is of much more value than a 5 star ranking from 1 reviewer. The more people a product is exposed to, the more accurate the rating becomes.

Relying on other people’s experiences is related to the marketing phenomenon called social proof, which states that in the absence of knowledge people will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or more informed. In our case, we have no direct experience with the product we are researching, so we need to rely on the knowledge of the people who have already experienced the product.

High numbers of reviewers also increases your chances of identifying common defects that several people discover, which I will discuss later.

3. Look for lots of good reviews, but only read the bad

Glowing reviews or reviews by fanboys are nice, but they shouldn’t affect your decision much. If someone gives a product a high rating, they obviously like the product; why they like the product is just extra information at this point. “OMG this is the best evar! You should buy it!” – thanks, but that doesn’t help much.

In addition, though I hate to think this happens often, some product manufacturers will “plant” good reviews. So if a review is overly detailed and sounds like a marketing brochure for the product, you are better off ignoring it. The real value comes from the people who leave bad reviews. These people feel burned and want to make their issues known so that others don’t suffer the same misfortunes. Find the bad reviews and look for specific problems or issues that the reviewer had with the product — are these just personal preference issues, or are they speaking about a specific product defect that you should be concerned about?

4. Try to identify common patterns in bad reviews

Often you will be able to find common patterns in bad reviews that point to a specific issue with the product you are considering. If you find that several reviewers are complaining about the same issue it should set off a red flag in your head. For example, if multiple people are reporting that a specific part of a product breaks after so much use, there is obviously a design flaw and you will probably want to avoid this product.

I want to illustrate this step with a real world example. I was recently in the market for a new USB flash drive. I went to NewEgg (my trusted source for computer stuff) and followed the first three steps. That brought me to the CORSAIR Voyager 4GB Flash Drive. This had a 4/5 rating with 159 reviews — not bad so far. However, as I started reading through some of the reviews (specifically, the bad ones), I noticed that several people were having problems with the bulky rubber casing. This was causing connection issues because they couldn’t get the drive fully inserted into their USB port. I have a tight USB area to work with on my computer, so I cut this drive from my list of considerations.

5. Keep an eye out for other product recommendations within reviews

Often times, people will mention other products that they liked in comparison to the product they are reviewing. This is helpful because it taps you into the research work that other people have already done — and can save you a lot of time. This will also make you aware of other good products that may not have been a part of your original set.

I hope you are able to apply this system (or some variation of it) to your own shopping practices. It has worked very well for me and I rarely regret any purchase I make after following these steps.


WHATWG’s Web Applications 1.0 (HTML 5) Working Draft

WHATWG Logo2006 brought us the formation of the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG). From Wikipedia:

The WHATWG is a working group for developing new technologies designed to allow authors to write and deploy web applications more easily by extending the existing technologies. In contrast with the vendor-neutral World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) headed by Tim Berners-Lee, the WHATWG is vendor-driven, with the greatest contributors being Mozilla Foundation, Opera Software and Apple Computer.

The WHATWG is currently working on 3 specifications:

  • Web Applications 1.0
    Extensions to HTML and the DOM to make it more suitable for application development, also sometimes called “HTML5″.
  • Web Forms 2.0
    This specification defines Web Forms 2.0, an extension to the forms features found in HTML 4.01’s forms chapter.
  • Web Controls 1.0
    Some DOM and CSS extensions to create new form controls and widgets.

Over at 456 Berea Street, has some comments on some of the new elements and attributes that will be appearing in HTML 5, as provided by Simon Pieters. Some of the new elements that I found interesting include:

  • figure – The figure element represents a paragraph consisting of embedded content and a caption.
  • progress – The progress element represents the completion progress of a task.
  • section – The section element represents a generic document or application section. A section, in this context, is a thematic grouping of content, typically with a header, possibly with a footer.

Are Employees Just Overgrown Children?

I am only 50 pages into Ricardo Semler’sThe Seven Day Weekend” and am already impressed by a point he makes: most companies treat employees like irresponsible, overgrown children.

Grown Up ChildYou need to be in the office (classroom) at 8:00am wearing clothes (uniforms) from some approved list. There is a list of projects (assignments) you need to finish and instructions on exactly how to do them. Lunch (recess) is one hour and can only be taken between 11:00am and 1:00pm. Please do not talk during work (class). You will receive a performance review (report card) twice a year that will point out your areas of improvement (weaknesses). Don’t leave until the bell rings and enjoy the rest of your life.

By a show of hands, how many of you love your job and the way you are treated and would show up at the office even if you weren’t getting a paycheck? You in the back, is your hand up or are you giving me the finger?

Semler makes a great point here:

“Do we really believe that responsible adults, whether interested or not, committed to the company or service or not, would simply fail to show up after promising to do so? … Come on. What a disheartening view of humankind.”

If you hire responsible people and treat them like human beings, they will return the favor and act like adults; they will act accordingly to get their work done. End of story.

Developing for the Web: The Progression

Table-based, Flash-heavy, browser-specific design is at least 5-6 years old and no longer acceptable. If you are still doing this, please stop.

Semantic, standards-based, accessible, table-free design is now the expected standard when developing for the web, and has been for awhile. If you are not already doing this, why not?

Interactive, responsive, no-load, taxonomical (folksonomies), adaptable design is the new expectation and has been around for a couple of years now. If you have not started doing this, better get to work.

The Gift Assistant to be Sued by Ohio Attorney General

Well, it looks like the shady practices of my former employer have finally been noticed by the right people. The Ohio Attorney General, Jim Petro, has filed suit against The Gift Assistant:

The Enquirer – Ohio Attorney General Suing Norwood Company

In a lawsuit filed in Hamilton County last week, Petro’s office is asking a judge to order the company at 1776 Mentor Ave. to cease violating the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act. It says the Gift Assistant used unfair and deceptive methods to take at least $42,000 from at least 250 people. Petro wants the money returned and the company fined $25,000 for each violation of the law.

Hopefully this will get some money back to the hundreds of people who were scammed. The two owners had this coming and I am glad they will finally be answering for the crap that they pulled.

Amazon Showcase WordPress Widget

I’m proud to announce one of my first code releases:
Amazon Showcase WordPress Widget

Amazon Showcase is a WordPress Widget for showcasing items from Amazon. Simply enter the ASIN/ISBN number of any product and optionally enter an Associate ID for earning commissions. The product image will be displayed with a link to the product detail page on

This widget was born out of my own need for a simple way to add Amazon products to my sidebar. As you can see, I am using it to display the book that I am currently reading. Amazon Showcase makes use of Amazon’s Web Services, Representational State Transfer (REST) and a little PHP XML parsing magic to grab products from their catalog dynamically.
So enjoy, and please offer feature requests, I plan on expanding this widget in the near future!

Immigrants Good, Mass Immigration Bad

I don’t like to get into political stuff too much, but this “Immigration by the Numbers” video explaining the effect of immigration in the United States is just outstanding. A must watch for anyone who lives in the U.S.

Roy Beck‘s celebrated demonstration of the population consequences of current U.S. immigration policies has entertained and shocked all audiences across the country. This video is packed with the facts and analysis that make moral and practical sense of a complex and highly contentious issue.

Immigration by the Numbers at Google Video

37 Signals ‘Getting Real’ Book Now Available Free

37 Signals, the superstar web application company responsible for Basecamp and Backpack (among others), has released their fantastic book “Getting Real” in two additional formats, including a free online version. You can now read the book for free online (HTML), purchase a PDF for $19, or purcahse a printed edition of the book for $29 from

Getting Real details the business, design, programming, and marketing principles of 37signals. The book is packed with keep-it-simple insights, contrarian points of view, and unconventional approaches to software design. This is not a technical book or a design tutorial, it’s a book of ideas. Anyone working on a web app — including entrepreneurs, designers, programmers, executives, or marketers — will find value and inspiration in this book. 37signals used the Getting Real process to launch five successful web-based applications (Basecamp, Campfire, Backpack, Writeboard, Ta-da List), and Ruby on Rails, an open-source web application framework, in just two years with no outside funding, no debt, and only 7 people (distributed across 7 time zones). Over 500,000 people around the world use these applications to get things done. Now you can find out how they did it and how you can do it too. It’s not as hard as you think if you Get Real.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book if you are interested in development methodology that breaks the rules of traditional software development.

Essential References and Tutorials for Budding Web Developers

I wish these primers had been around when I was starting up in the web development world. I still plan on devouring every single resource listed in these articles. From A List Apart:

The following websites come from ALA staff recommendations. Many of these are the sites that we’ve used — and still use — to improve our own skills. We hope this list can serve as a starting point for a larger collection of resources for fledgling web designers and developers.

The ALA Primer: A Guide for New Readers 

The ALA Primer Part Two: Resources For Beginners