Shop with confidence: How to be smart about user reviews

Last week the New York Times ran an article about a company named VIP Deals buying favorable Amazon reviews of its product (a case for the Kindle Fire). Every order went out with a letter offering a full rebate in exchange for a review. This in turn to a flurry of blog posts about the story. One in particular that caught my eye was Venturebeat's Sean Ludwig's post titled Why you should stop trusting online user reviews (if you haven’t already).

Distrusting all user reviews based on incidents like VIP Deals's shady practice sounds to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are still plenty of people out there spending time to write reviews just to help out fellow consumers.

So how can you be sure a rating is legit and not a scam? Here're a few things I, as a compulsive online shopper, do to protect myself.

First, don't just look at the rating, actually read some of the reviews. A 5 star review with the text "Best product ever" is worthless. You want to look for reviews that go into some detail about the product.

Don't limit yourself to the positive reviews. Sometimes the 1 and 2 star reviews tell you more about the product than the favorable reviews do. You have to be wary of users with an axe to grind, though. Again, look for details that indicate the user has put some thought into his or her review. The bad reviews are also where you'll learn if something fishy is going on; good Samaritans are apt to report a scam under a 1 star review.

Next, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. In the VIP Deals case (according to the Times – the product has been removed from Amazon since the article was written) there were 335 reviews, 310 of which were 5 stars. That's a pretty skewed response for a $10 case. Also look at numbers of reviews. The Kindle Fire is a hot item so 335 reviews doesn't seem extreme, but if this was a case for, say, the Asus Transformer Prime I'd be really suspicious of the fact there were so many reviews. Check out comparable products and see if they have a comparable number of reviews.

When possible check out the reviewers, too. In the case of Amazon in particular, it's easy to check out all a person's reviews. If they don't have any other reviews, take this one with a grain of salt. Maybe it's a totally legit first review, or maybe it's a shill account.

And last of all, don't buy from any online source with a 'No refunds' policy. That's got nothing to do with user reviews but it's still your safety net in case you do somehow get fooled.

Personally when I'm trying to decide on which product to buy, I start by asking friends. I'll then check 'professional reviews' if I can find them. When buying a TV or a laptop that's generally easy to do. When buying a case for a gadget, it's not always as easy, and then I have to rely on user reviews. By following the guidelines above, I've avoided being misled by user reviews and you can too. Don't write off the whole concept of user reviews based on a few bad situations.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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