09 December 2007

#49. Shopping Part 2: The Wisdom of the Masses

Good morning, holiday shoppers, and welcome back to the Tool Bar & Grill for the second installment of our on-line buying guide. Last week we looked at some Web sites that collate professional reviews of consumer goods. But your research need not stop there. Many Web sites also give you the lowdown on actual customers’ experiences with the products you’re thinking of buying, on the assumption that the mass of users must be right.

Your Neighbors Weigh In

Perhaps your peers know best, but I still advise taking their opinions with a grain or two of salt.

Anyone can write a review, and no one vets their qualifications in advance. This might mean that only disgruntled customers with an axe to grind will take the time and trouble to submit reviews; satisfied (gruntled?) users might not be as motivated to send in their happy thoughts. However, the better sites provide at least a rough way to evaluate reviewers’ reliability. And you can get a good sense of a product’s quality if it has been reviewed many times and the reviews are close to unanimous, whether positive or negative.

In this column, I’ll survey my favorite well-known user review services. These sites all are product-oriented, meaning you get all the reviews of a particular product. If you have not narrowed down your search to a few competing products, these sites won’t be much help.

User Review Sites

Number one shopping mall Amazon pioneered user reviews, and appears to have the largest numbers of them. More reviews means a broader, and therefore more reliable, sampling of opinions. When I searched for a particular compact camera, Amazon turned up 46 user reviews.

Each product entry starts by showing the product’s average overall rating on a 1–5 star scale, alongside bars illustrating the number of reviews at each step of the scale. The individual reviews lead off with the single favorable and critical reviews ranked most helpful by other readers. The rest of the reviews can be sorted by “most helpful first” or “newest first.”

There are no ratings for separate product traits, so you have to read each review (which can be quite long) to discover the good and bad points of the product.

Amazon customers rank reviewers according to their reviews’ helpfulness. This doesn’t tell you much about their qualifications for reviewing the product in question, though. You can view the list of top reviewers, and read their other reviews.

Epinions is another established site, and specializes in user reviews. It carried 10 reviews of my camera.

Epinions shows a summary 1–5-star overall average product ranking similar to Amazon, but also separate rankings in five product-relevant characteristics. The full text review starts with summary pros and cons and a “bottom line” recommendation. You can sort the reviews by date or product rating.

You can view basic information about an Epinions reviewer, including the number of reviews written and length of membership. Epinions touts its “Web of Trust,” which shows how many members have chosen to trust the reviewer, and how many others the reviewer trusts. However, my clicking around the site revealed few reviewers with any trust rankings at all, and even fewer trusted by more than one member.

PriceGrabber, a price comparison site, shows the average scores of user reviews and expert reviews at the top of the User Reviews page. Each review carries a 1–5-star overall rating, a concise summary of the product’s strengths and weaknesses, and a brief text explanation. Other customers rank the reviews by usefulness (though this might not reflect the reviewers’ credentials). You can sort the reviews by their usefulness rankings, product ratings, or date.

PriceGrabber has three listings for my sample camera, one for each body color. Strangely, user reviews are shown with the separate listings for each body color; there were 10 in all (four for the silver camera and three each for red and blue).

I mentioned SmartRatings in my preceding post for its expert reviews, but this site publishes user reviews, too. However, there were only four for my camera. SmartRatings give no average score of user ratings, and reviews are ranked simply as “positive” or “negative.” The reviews are short and to the point. You can sort the reviews only by date.

Perhaps the best-known and most established price comparison service, Shopping.com, acquired Epinions before it was itself bought by eBay; so when you drill down to the consumer reviews on Shopping.com, you’ll find the Epinions listings. And if you happen across Ratings.net, don’t bother with it. It merely displays Epinions reviews.

Bottom Line

So what’s my final recommendation? Each of these user review sites has its charms, but I found that Amazon has the broadest sampling and Epinions has the most useful review format. I would consult both of them before making a major purchase.

You might have noticed a pronounced North American focus in this shopping series of columns. In fact, over 60% of my readers are there, but I also have readers in at least 125 other countries. Unfortunately, I am not equipped to cover all the markets in the world. Other countries might have their own product review and comparison sites, and some of the major merchants – for example Amazon – have country-specific sites in many countries outside North America.

I have happened upon two professional product review sites to update my preceding post on expert ratings. Trusted Reviews is a UK site that uses its own reviewers. Choice appears to be the Australian counterpart to Consumer Reports and Which?, and like them, requires a paid subscription.

Mark Lautman is out shopping this week.

Thank you for your attention. I’ll bring you more valuable holiday shopping advice next week. I hope you’ll keep coming back every week for great utility reviews and helpful Web sites, and tell everyone you know about Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill! Please feel free to tell us what you think by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.


  1. Totally unrelated to today's blog:
    GiveawayOfTheDay for 10 December was Titan Backup v1.2
    Jonathan said:“...Is “Vista compatible” not good enough? What functionality is lacking if it does not support the 64-bit OS?”

    Vista has compatibility modes, which allow it to run programs as older versions of Windows. A 64 bit OS can emulate a x32 OS for programs requiring 32 bit support, but not always perfectly. In the case of Titan Backup, it crashes in emulation mode.

  2. Thanks a lot Jonathan!
    Much Informative, Your Blog is Great :)

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    This is Francisco from SmartRatings. After your review we decided to add a quick link to get faster to the reviews.

    Congratulations on your excellent blog!