Before Hitting Buy, Search for Customer Reviews

Ben Franklin magnet It will take one one or two extra steps, and it may save you from untold aggravation — when buying online, do your due diligence, don't expect search engines to do all the work for you.

Cristopher Carfi and Jeff Jarvis both posted their respective commentary to a story published by David Segal in the New York Times recently about a bully finding his pulpit on the Web.

As Carfi puts it, the villain in the story flips off customers for fun and profit. Given that the search engine is being used to the bully's advantage in the story, Jarvis asks what should Google do?

It could, as Segal suggests in the New York Times article, become better at incorporating consumer reviews on the main page of its search results, or you could manually search Google Shopper to verify what others have said about the eCommerce site you're looking to buy from.

However, you should take reviews with a grain of salt.

Evaluating complaints in reviews

You could rely on customer reviews, with a caveat — because people often prefer to complain, online and offline, you will need to filter and search for more than a few reviews.

Some people are so bent on not being confrontational with a service provider, for example, that they may take a passive aggressive behavioral route, and lash online when they never gave the hotel, restaurant, or merchant, timely feedback and an opportunity to make things right by them.

There is also the subjective nature of experiences to take into account. Take my recent experience at a restaurant in New England. Part of my meal was good, one dish was terrible. So much so that I was sick all night from indigestion. Other diners in the group loved the experience and would go back.

I didn't call back the next day to inform them about the dish, which would perhaps give them a way to double check the ingredients for freshness and sourcing, if they so choose. I chalked it up as bad luck in my book… yet I would personally not go back to that place. Given that I didn't act, I also feel I should not post a review about the restaurant.

Most people don't give thought to how to complain effectively, which in turn generates some noise when it comes to online reviews.

Do you know someone who knows someone?

At some point in the article, Segal reports that one customer complaint to the authorities led to an actual arrest of the villain in the story. He wrote: “She must have known somebody who knew somebody,” he says, meaning that this is the sort of trouble you encounter only when you cross well-connected people.

It seems to me that the more networked you are, the better off in cases like this one, and many others. There are people whose opinion cannot be bought, for example, and if you get to know and trust them, even when you don't agree with them, you can filter their comments based upon past interactions.

The answer might be to rely once again on individuals vs. institutions — the NYT article details how both other companies the eCommerce seller did business with, and the bank that issued the credit card to the buyer, took a passive approach to the issue.

Will most people do their homework when it comes to vetting if a vendor or merchant is the real deal? I don't think so, which is why the villains of the net have it easy today. Some commenters in the Jarvis post seemd to think more regulation would help. I'd rather rely on my community, thank you very much.

To me the answers is built in transparency and network filters. It's all a work in progress, then again, so is life. I'm reminded of Ben Franklin's maxim once again. Wise words we should keep in mind.


How do you protect yourself from this kind of customer scam? Segal writes if you’re the type of person who reads consumer reviews, Mr. Borker would rather you shop elsewhere. And so you should.

[magnet on Cafe' Press]

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0 responses to “Before Hitting Buy, Search for Customer Reviews”

  1. My last experiences with customer reviews are all focused around Apple’s app store. And boy, that’s an awful one.
    I find that most people really have no technical preparation to write reviews at all, and in the vast majority of the cases their technical inexperience forces them to leave a negative review while the only ones to be blamed it’s them. Worst thing, app developers have no way to answer to a negative review (like it happens for negative feedbacks on eBay).
    Badly implemented reviews systems brings more damage than benefits.

  2. Great article, basically I could not believe what I was reading about this guy’s ways of doing business. We the consumer are responsible to know where you buy from, by reading customers reviews, BBB complains, etc.
    The way he is doing business is not sustainable, hope he ends in jail.

  3. Valeria,
    I think this really affects those who are passive shoppers on the internet.
    All too often in my experience, I have heard many stories about people being stung by fraudsters.
    I then ask what initial research they did on the companies reputation and they nearly always reply with “I just found them on a Google Search for ‘XYZ Product’”
    It’s something we should take time to teach our less savvy internet friends.
    We won’t resolve the situation without consistently educating them.

  4. Its human nature for people to not only talk about negative experiences but actually enjoy reading them and passing them along. I am guilty of not writing reviews when things are good (with the exception of a great book), yet I was out to dinner the other night and my boyfriend and I checked online reviews before we placed our order.
    I would place some importance on sites with a ‘stamp of approval’. Like on ebay for instance, I will only purchase from vendors with this seal. Not necessarily a review, but eBay is standing by them so I have confidence.
    Sometimes, though, you need to just take a chance and see what happens. You may miss out on some great, if not memorable, experiences just by trusting everyone else’s opinions.

  5. I do not buy anything unless I can get a reasonable number of reviews to provide me with an idea whether this purchase will work for me. It is all a matter of probabilities of course, but it worked for me for years now. I am such a believer that I started a company that developed technology to “calculate” product reputation based on customer reviews. Saves a lot of time from “manually” searching for them and reading them, and helps manufacturers to learn how customers experience their products.

  6. @Gabriele – there is a communication issue with reviews (can the reviewer articulate what they want to get across), and a knowledge issue (is the reviewer skilled enough to be able to separate a product problem from a technical issue *they* are experiencing?). That’s why it’s a good idea to cross reference information, including with what *you* know.
    @JM – I’m thinking he’s not so unusual. I’ve come across people who rip off stuff for profit, online and offline. Some of the thugs would not stay in business if people stopped buying from them.
    @Josh – people don’t do their homework for many reasons, including the fact that they are too trusting or naive about what they see online, harried, may mistake one link for another recommended by a friend, and so on. I must be old school, I buy often from local merchants with whom I develop a relationship. The few times I shopped online, with the rare exception for books at Amazon, I was disappointed when I saw the actual item up close.
    @Christina – hence why I was fascinated by Ariely’s chapter on why we seek revenge (reviewed under recommended book). I prefer to trust the opinions of those I met, positive or negative, because I am familiar with their filters and POV. Taking a chance depends on how much effort and resources are required 😉
    @Gregory – that is one way of handling things. You are probably familiar with GetSatisfaction, they help customers discuss service issues, which companies and brands can view and troubleshoot.

  7. very interesting… i’ve been in the search engine optimization field for quite a while and although this doesn’t surprise me it’s still shocking.
    although i read reviews and learn from them there is a little part of me that always wonders if the product owner or store owner isn’t behind some of the raving reviews as well.

  8. I read the story earlier today and was absolutely shocked that anyone would purchase from an “unknown” vendor without Googling their name in combination with “review” or “complaints.” It’s something I do automatically – for products, brands, vendors, anyone I’m not already working with!

  9. @Mark – guess people justify their actions in all kinds of ways, don’t they? In the end, you do what you can as due diligence. No research, however spells trouble. The Web is a serious place for business, which means that all kinds of crooks are now prowling for prey.
    @Tressa – in some cases, the desire to save a few dollars is very compelling. It’s possible that a search didn’t net other vendors or merchants with the item sought… once a decision is made, and someone seems to have what you’re looking for, well, prudence gives way to impulse fairly frequently.

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