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User-generated reviews - blessing or bull?

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The value of expertise

But even a thousand reviews of a complex piece of kit submitted by inexperienced UGC noobs can't match a comprehensive review by a single expert or team of experts who thoroughly test a product and compare its capabilities to similar products they've also used.

Take, for example, the review of the Nikon D90 on Digital Photography Review. This 40,000-word, 37-page review is profusely illustrated and includes a broad range of test photographs and comparisons with competitive cameras. No UGC review could ever come close.

But buying a thousand-dollar camera is clearly a bigger commitment than deciding where to go for fondue.

To advise on such major purchases, some expert-review sites also maintain their own product-testing labs - think Consumer Reports, for example, or computer-review sites such as Macworld or PC World.

Labs enable review teams to not only run a product through a suite of standardized tests, but also compare its performance with their database of results from testing comparable products. UGC reviewers use more of a "trust me on this" model.

Smith told us that Amazon provides both UGC and expert reviews "because there are certain people who are experts... Sometimes you want people who have more experience."

Picking the right reviewer is key. As Jason Snell of Macworld told us, "We try to find reviewers who are experts in that product category, and ideally with that product. We also try to use people who have experience reviewing products, so they know what to look for when evaluating any product.

"It's easy to slag a product because some feature of it doesn't mesh with some personal quirk of yours; it's also easy to praise a product uncritically because it's new and cool and the PR person who told you about it is nice.

"Neither of those, however, will give users a real idea about a product's strengths and weaknesses, and that's the hallmark of a good reviewer."

In other words, an editor - the chooser of the reviewer - is as important as the reviewer.

Editor-less editorial

This lack of up-front human interaction with a reviewer is where UGC reviews fall short.

Both Ichinose and Smith admitted to The Reg that neither of their sites employ humans to vet reviews for accuracy before they're posted. Amazon and Yelp do, however, both have software that reviews the reviews before posting.

As Ichinose put it: "The opinions posted to the site go up immediately with no screening, but we have a software program that runs in the background that identifies patterns of abuse."

Neither Smith nor Ichinose would give any details about the way their sites' software flags false reviews - a reasonable precaution, since publishing those details would make it easier for miscreants to circumvent them.

Both sites also have humans who investigate possibly shady reviews, but only after receiving a complaint from a user. As Smith says, "When we hear complaints about a review we take a look and remove it if it's outside of our guidelines".

Even with these precautions, according to Smith: "From time to time people may try to game the system, but over time, it's a sound system. We believe that customers use it as it's intended."

After all, she argues, "It does us no good if we sell a product that's faulty, because that product will [be returned to Amazon]. It works to our benefit if [customers] have a good experience - they'll stay a loyal customer."

Perhaps, but when asked if there were any way to prevent a determined sleazeball from gaming their systems, both Smith and Ichinose allowed that, yes, it could be done. Still, both were confident that their user communities would discover and unmask such behavior. Eventually.

Despite this vulnerability, even expert-review purveyor Snell, when asked why his site doesn't host UGC reviews, said: "The short answer is, because we haven't gotten around to it."

Snell has no philosophical aversion to UGC reviews. His reasoning is similar to that of Smith and Ichinose. "For user-review systems to work, you need to find ways for the community to police itself and to lift up the very best of the reviewers, so that the community can help stop those who will almost certainly try to game the system."

The fact that Snell's lab-based, expert-driven reviews site is contemplating UGC reviews proves that such reviews have gained credibility since they first appeared well over a decade ago.

As Amazon's Smith said, "We've had customer reviews since we launched the site in 1995... people thought we were nuts." ®

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