The 9 Fallacies of Online Reviews

We live in a society with an enormous variety of products to buy. Even when it comes to the basics like what to wear, where to live, what to eat, and what type of car to drive, there are an overwhelming amount of choices. To help us identify which products offer the best value for our money, we rely on reviews to help us make buying decisions.

Prior to the Internet, people would turn to special interest magazines and periodicals for reviews of big-ticket items such as cars, vacations, sporting goods, and electronics. Thanks to the explosion of online review sites, it is now possible to review nearly any item imaginable. You can look online and find reviews of everything from $5,000 mountain bikes to a box of paper clips.

How many different types of reviews might you encounter in a single day? You might glance at the latest movies in the newspaper over your morning coffee, look up a restaurant near the office using the UrbanSpoon or Yelp app on your smart phone for lunch, check out a book review on Amazon or flip through a Rolling Stone magazine for their verdict on the latest albums after dinner, and talk with a friend or family member about which TV shows critics are raving about this season.

User-generated reviews are becoming an essential part of shopping as the number of buying choices we have increases. But how trustworthy are online reviews? Are we placing too much emphasis on the advice of others?

My observation is that people mainly write reviews to leave 1-star ratings or 5-star ratings. They were either very impressed with their purchase or had a horrible experience and feel the need to warn everyone (sometimes in all capital letters!).

Between these two extremes, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. However, no one feels compelled to write a review of a product that met their expectations satisfactorily. That makes it difficult to judge whether a product or service is truly “good” when all you get are testimonials from the biggest fans and the sworn enemies.

With that in mind, I’d like to present my list 9 fallacies to watch out for when reading online reviews:

1) How knowledgable is the reviewer?
Are they upset because they are a novice user who bought an expert-level product? Did they read the documentation? How much effort did they really put into figuring out a product? One person’s “easy” might be another person’s “impossible.”

2) Did the reviewer have realistic expectations?
Did they expect white glove service at the discount store? Did they expect the most sumptuous food at a bargain buffet? Did they really think those Harbor Freight tools would last a lifetime? Often times, people’s expectations seem to be unrealistic for the price point they chose.

3) Were they using it for its intended purpose?
“This dish soap left streaky marks all over my car after I washed it.” Here’s a hint: try using it for washing dishes instead of washing your car! A bad review that comes from intentional misuse of a product shouldn’t really count.

4) Are they complaining about the actual product, or the service they received?
I am astonished at how many people include irrelevant details in their reviews. A review of the new iPhone might have a paragraph about how long the person waited in line at Best Buy. That has absolutely nothing to do with how the phone functions as a product.

In another example, a review of a hotel might have a long-winded rant about how they felt the front desk clerk was rude or incompetent or the parking was bad, and the person has lost focus that they are supposed to be reviewing the accommodations. If the room smelled like cigarettes or the free breakfast was crappy, that’s worth mentioning. Keep it relevant.

5) What is their frame of reference?
If someone just upgraded from an old television with knobs to the latest HDTV, of course they’re going to rave about how good it looks. Someone experienced in HDTVs might notice the subtle differences in color between an LCD and a plasma display.

That new economy car rides like a dream? Yeah, maybe if your last car was an ’84 Chevy pickup. Often times, reviewers do not compare apples to apples. A new economy car should be compared to other economy cars of similar size and price that a buyer might be considering. Beware of this fallacy.

6) How long have they owned the item?
I’ve seen Amazon reviews from people who have ordered an item and haven’t even received it yet. If you want to write about the feeling of anticipation of receiving a product, start a blog or something.

7) Are they a fanboy or a troll?
Sometimes people make statements just to start an argument. Beware of getting caught up in these.

8) Do you believe the review is genuine or is it paid?
Would someone really sit there and type out an 800+ word review of something as mundane as a camera bag? Maybe a paragraph or two at the most. If it sounds like a phony review, it probably is.

9) Were there any extenuating circumstances?
Did you expect timely service at the sports bar…on Super Bowl Sunday? Did you happen to book a stay at a hotel where there was a loud wedding party? These events should not really be counted against a business, as you may be able to get fine service there the other 364 days of the year. It’s not the restaurant’s fault that you happened to pop in on their busiest day of the year.

Keep a sharp eye out for these 9 fallacies and you too can determine which products are best for your needs while steering clear of bad or misleading reviews on the Internet.

About the author

Trevor Freeman

Trevor Freeman is a writer, photographer, and maker who loves learning new things. His favorite food is pizza. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Business Management from Grand Canyon University. He lives and works in Phoenix.

You can follow Trevor on Twitter @TrevorFreemanAZ, on Instagram at @arizona.dreamin, and on YouTube: TheRealTrevorland.

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