Why ‘Positive’ Reviews Are More Prevalent than Negative Reviews (Hint: $$$)

If you look at almost any ‘popular’ review blog you will likely notice a lack of outwardly negative product reviews.

“EVERYTHING IS GREAT!”

The reason should be obvious: readers want to learn about great products, not bad products. But there’s more to the story because you’ll notice a lot of side-stepping around anything negative about major products. Phrases like "not the best", "not for me", "could be better", "not great" — are used to side-step the truth which, if stated honestly, would be a negative statement along the lines of "piss-poor" “shitty", "terrible" "who the fuck thought of this?" "this is a joke, right?".

How can any site, when reviewing a new gadget, wax on about its greatness, mention a few highly-downplayed flaws in passing, and then give the device only a 7/10 rating? When the reviewer fails to note anything warranting a 3 point penalty and that’s what the device is rated there should be more outrage — three points shy of perfection with no explanation.

What’s going on here?

The best that I can surmise is the following:

  • The conclusions and ratings are done haphazardly.
  • The reviewer fears losing access to "free" review units if the review is too harsh.
  • The product’s parent company advertises on the site.
  • No one wants the truth.

With the exception of the last item, all of the above are likely in play.

You simply cannot get review units from companies if you constantly say bad things about that company’s product.

Trust me on this.1

If you are big enough, maybe you can slam one or two things a year, but any more and you will be blackballed faster than Gizmodo.

Since most website revenue is driven by traffic (page views / ad-clicks), and traffic is driven by constantly reviewing and talking about the latest new things, you need a constant stream of new things. Very few sites can afford to buy all the products they review so most live off review unit handouts. Thus, it is paramount to maintain relationships with companies, lest your revenue dry up from lack of content (or from buying review units).

You can see this happening everywhere if you look around (not just here). The Verge doesn’t seem to get any Apple review units — likely because of their preachy Android reviewing tendencies. Gizmodo doesn’t get Apple review units either since they bought property Apple believed to be stolen. The next time a major product comes out look around to see who isn’t reviewing it.

As a blogger you need good relationships, so maybe you massage your language a bit. You still point out a flaw but you bend the truth of the impact of that flaw so as to not piss off the people loaning you the device.

A hypothetical example massaged message: The battery life is only 90 minutes on this latest Samsung device, BUT it is a glorious 90 minutes. Just buy a few extra batteries and you are set.

The hypothetical truth: This Samsung device would actually be pretty great if the battery life weren’t a piss-poor 90 minutes. You could buy extra batteries, but having to carry extra batteries around defeats the purpose of life — not to mention the batteries are $40 each and you would need half a dozen to get through a day.

Watch how writers phrase negatives in reviews and you can start to see the fear of losing their monetary lifeline looming over their words.

For example, from The Verge’s review of the Toq smart watch (since I am picking on them already):

In fact, the battery is located in the clasp, which explains why the mechanism is so big and uncomfortable; I invariably took the Toq off when typing.

What percentage of The Verge readers would you guess use a computer as part of their jobs? Has to be over 90%. Yet, that statement above isn’t a deal breaker — I mean doesn’t everyone want to take their watch on and off all fucking day long? I sure do.

That should have been the end of the review, but of course it wasn’t, as the Toq went on to score 6 out of 10.

The web needs more brutal honesty in product reviews. People deserve honesty. Less fluff, fewer videos. Just an honest take on the product. As a reviewer, if you think a product defect is likely to only effect you, then say so and explain why you think it’s not a problem for others.

This isn’t just a scolding of other sites, but of this site too. I need to be cognizant of whether I am being negative in a helpful manner, or massaging language for effect. I often fall on the side of actively pointing out the flaws while downplaying strengths (the reverse of what most people do). That in itself is erring on the side of caution for readers (as you are less likely to spend money on such a product), but the reverse is erring on the side of caution for advertisers, which I think is far worse.

A Note About Strictly Negative Reviews

This post may seem a bit self-serving. In the process of writing what I feel are very candid reviews I have garnered a reputation for negativity in my reviews. I think negative reviews are valuable (where deserved) and play a very important role in the buying decision.

Obviously a negative review can stop people from wasting their hard earned money, but it can also help to make better products in the end. Often after publishing a negative review I get a response from a company telling me of a future update that they think will address issues with their product. My review is usually not the first time they hear a complaint, but the first time it’s made public. So while I’m certainly not the cause for changes to a product — often a negative review about a known issue can shift company priorities to fixing problems instead of adding shit.

Aside from financial pressure there are a number of reasons that negative reviews are rarer.

First: few reviewers seek out bad products to review. Reviewers tend to buy or select things they believe will be good. Even sites like The Wirecutter or The Sweet Setup don’t seek out crappy products to add to their "best of" picks. I would have loved to have checked out every weather app, but there isn’t enough time in my life so I pick the ones I think stand a chance of being good.

So does everyone else.

Reviewers also tend to get better at selecting good products from the outset as they gain more experience evaluating, thinking critically and writing reviews. They develop an “eye” for it. That said, experienced reviewers are unlikely to bother writing a negative review for a bad product because they don’t care to use the product enough to form a strong argument and write a review.

Which can be frustrating.

I completely understand this mindset and fall into this trap myself. I try dozens of apps, and many are so bad I don’t use them for more than a few seconds, so I don’t review them. To use these apps enough to write a review would turn out to be a colossal waste of everyone’s time. Let’s not waste time on that kind of review

There is one type of negative review I advocate: negative reviews of popular, well-liked, products that you don’t like. You don’t review it because you "must be missing something".

Peer pressure is powerful.

You bought it because it had 4.5 stars on Amazon with 400 reviews, but you think it’s a crappy product. Either you don’t bother writing a review or you massage your review into something that could swing either way in case you did miss something.

Negative product reviews of popular products are important because they can help money-strapped potential buyers avoid the product.

If you wonder why I slam some products in my reviews, know that it’s less about controversial writing, or complaining and more about trying to make sure we don’t collectively fall over ourselves, wasting money on things that probably aren’t as great as people say.

The next time you don’t like a product, try writing something — however short — about why you don’t like it. Maybe we can all benefit.


  1. I once got a Samsung Galaxy Tab review unit from Verizon. Remember that thing? I slammed it and the Verizon guy never again returned emails or phone calls. 

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Article Details

Published
by Ben Brooks
7 minutes to read.


tl;dr

If you look at almost any ‘popular’ review blog you will likely notice a lack of outwardly negative product reviews. “EVERYTHING IS GREAT!” The reason should be obvious: readers want to learn about great products, not bad products. But there’s more to the story because you’ll notice a lot of side-stepping around anything negative about […]