The Decline of Real Reviews

What happens when trusted brand names can no longer be trusted, but are still promoted by Google.

Gisele Navarro for House Fresh, writes what is perhaps one of the most disturbing stories on the state of product reviews I have read. Navarro writes:

These Digital Goliaths shouldn’t be able to use product recommendations as their personal piggy bank, simply flying through Google updates off the back of ‘the right signals,’ an old domain, or the echo of a reputable brand that is no longer.

As a team that has dedicated the last few years to testing and reviewing air purifiers, it’s disheartening to see our independent site be outranked by big-name publications that haven’t even bothered to check if a company is bankrupt before telling millions of readers to buy their products.

This editorial is a must read for anyone who reads product reviews (so everyone). It’s irrelevant whether you care about air purifiers or not. Effectively, Navarro highlights how poorly actual review sites are ranked by Google, and what other sites do to get top rankings in search results. And what those sites do is what you expect: they game the ever loving shit out of the system, all the while supplying negative value to the readers through reviews that are no more thorough than looking at things from the outside of a store (shit that store might not even have a window, just a sign).

The ‘bankrupt’ company Navarro is referencing in the quote is the top ranked air purifier many of these companies recommend, and also is facing a class action lawsuit for how shit the product is. In other words: exactly what you would assume a best list would help you avoid, is what those lists is promoting. And sure, maybe you know better and don’t buy off of obviously affiliate money driven lists — but you’d be an outlier for sure.

It’s wild. This entire editorial, I read it twice, very well done.

Some things I learned, which I had no clue about before, from this article:

  1. Google cares a lot about perceived ‘experts’ and ‘tests’ and ‘labs’ being mentioned in reviews. Hence why so many publications make references to these in the article headlines and in the body of the articles. I say mentioned, but Google will claim that it should be actually done by experts in labs — but how do you vet that? You don’t, that’s how.
  2. How many conglomerate type companies have bought out once reputable brands to sell utter shit content — I believe the article references milking the brand value for cash now, while they drive it into the ground. Popular Science, and Travel + Leisure are two I was unaware of — like no clue they were hack publications now. All of these sites are pushing similar content to all the brands the company owns, from a rather obvious shared pool of images and source ‘expert’ quotes, all while people think it is still a trusted (read: known and major) publication/brand.
  3. Google is very aggressively ranking these sites above truly independent sites, or even sites which actually test shit themselves, because those sites are known brands and get ranked higher. It makes sense from a Google standpoint, as you very clearly want known brand names to show up high on the search results, otherwise your users will think your search is broken. But then with those sites not being what they were, and also gaming the system — it’s a really bad cycle.
  4. There seems to be at least one ‘expert’ you can simply pay to include in your articles about a given product. Which — how have I not been contacted to be a backpack expert yet? Regardless, what a wild world that you can just have that be a job of some sort. And then that no one (myself included) seemed to notice this? Baffling.

Obviously, this is very close to my heart, as I review a lot of items. It’s rather maddening to see the state of the industry here, and it’s likely to only get worse. Because the reality is: testing things to review them, is absurdly time consuming and expensive thing to do. And that’s before you start to sort out labs and other criteria for testing, that’s simply just sharing your impressions of an item.

This is why so many sites have you believe that spending a day, or a week doing something is long enough. It’s not because it actually is long enough (it very much is not long enough), it’s because that’s all they can do before they need to move to the next thing, and thus they really need to convince you that it is long enough. But it’s not, never will be. Unless it’s like a really terrible product, then you could know by then. But these sites never write about shitty things, as that doesn’t drive sales of the things.

Anyways…back to the cost.

I once looked at buying certified ping-pong ball like things to fill up backpacks, so I could use them to determine (for myself and reviews) what the actual capacity of the bag was. That seems like a great value add for my readers, and the exact kind of waste of time and money I love. So, I reached out to a bag company CEO I knew at the time who shared the source for the balls that I needed to buy. To buy just those balls and not even what I need for the cylinder to measure how many the bag held (like half the damned problem), it was going to cost me $6,000 for a bunch of ‘to spec’ plastic balls. And that’s just a single test in a series I would need to run to do a lab equivalent type testing. I would also, likely, be buying multiple of the same bag to beat the ever loving shit out of the bag.

Let’s be honest, we all want to see me torture test this gear. I do too. But the cost of all of this is vastly too much money for even someone like myself.

And, I can further tell you: the more infrequent your posts, the lower the readership you have. You need to post a lot. But that’s at odds with how long it takes to test something. A single backpack takes me about 4-6 weeks of use and ownership before I feel comfortable really reviewing it on this site. There are only so many weeks in a year, and while I can test multiple things at a time, it’s not really a case where I can test two backpacks at once. So to test more than a dozen backpacks in a year, is not even feasible for me on my own, in my non-work spare time, after I do all the other things in my life.

So you can start to see why a lot of people will review something after a day, without harming the item, so they can go ahead and return it from where it came and get their money back. They need the money back, it’s expensive, and they need a lot of content to publish on a frequent basis.

So it’s expensive, and hugely time consuming. But what you get in the end, from sites who do take this time and spend the money, is a pretty honest take on what the item is like to live with. What you don’t get is a lab quality test as you need a lot of capital to do that work. I am always impressed with other sites who can afford that. But now I have to wonder: how many sites are left doing this at all? How many are just pretending to do this to keep a high Google search ranking?

I fear there are not many good review sites left, and I suspect I am right.

At least with Kagi Search you can filter out these shit sites and try to find the real reviews.

So all of that to say, be careful what review you trust these days — it’s likely they are full of shit.

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