Let's say you have a problem or a need or a want, and you're sure there is product somewhere in the marketplace that would help. You Google, and a handful of web sites pop up that offer promising solutions. But obviously you don't believe anything you read from vendors, so you check for online reviews. Then you wonder if the favorable reviews are planted by the vendor, and the bad reviews are planted by his competitors. Can you trust reviews from anonymous strangers?

You ask your coworkers and friends if they have ever used the product that you're interested in, and no one has. What now?

Shopping is broken.

How much more stimulated would the economy be if the people who have money, and are willing to spend it, could be reliably connected with the products that they desire?

What the world really needs is some way to connect you with the people who already use the sorts of products you want, and are willing to answer an e-mail or two about the topic.

About a year ago I had surgery to fix my voice. The information on the Internet about that particular surgery was outdated and didn't address my questions. The only way I could become a consumer of that surgery was by communicating directly with people who already had it, which I did. And since then I have answered questions for dozens of people who have the same questions that I had.

Likewise, as my wife and I make a zillion decisions for the home we are building, we prefer products and solutions used by people that we have spoken to personally. The Internet is virtually useless for any of the hundreds of product decisions we have made so far.

And what about choosing a destination for a vacation? You're much more comfortable if you have spoken to someone who visited the same place.

The obvious problem with connecting past consumers with potential consumers is that while people are generally helpful by nature, no one wants a million e-mails asking how they like their new can opener. So how do you strike the right balance?

Imagine a system that works like this: When you buy a product, you agree in advance to answer up to four e-mails from future potential customers, beginning no sooner than one year from when you make your purchase. It's totally optional, but agreeing gives you access to people who already bought the product you're considering today, to help you make your own decision. It would strike you as a fair deal.

For privacy reasons, this imagined system would disguise your e-mail address. And the system would have to be administered by some third party, not the vendor selling the product, or you wouldn't trust the strangers giving you advice.

Maybe you have a better idea for fixing shopping.
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Jun 29, 2009
I had the best experience ever a few years ago when I wanted to take a trip. I let a friend of mine know who is a travel agent that my wife and I were looking for an inexpensive but enjoyable trip down south. Two months later, she calls me up and tells me that she has the perfect trip for us, and it is such a good deal at a great resort, that she has even booked a trip for herself. She ended up going down 2 weeks before us, and was able to come back and tell us what was great about the resort, what to avoid, where to go, the entertainment, etc. It was the best possible review we could have gotten.

Back to the topic however, I think your idea would work, but it would never be perfect. You would still have the vendors and competitors slipping through the cracks, and in order to get enough reviewers, you would need to offer an incentive. You would need to give the consumer a reason to want to leave a review, good or bad. The best way I can think of is maybe 5% off their purchase after they successfully complete a review, say after 3 months. Further, they could earn another 5% off if they give another review after 12 months. Although, like mail in rebates, most people would probably still never collect.

Amazon is good for products they sell, and review sites like cnet are a little better, but I think you need a format like wikipedia to fully get the scope you want. Post a product, let others review it. The problem is funding to keep the site running, which means ads, probably from product that are being reviewed, and it won't be perfect, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Jun 29, 2009
Very timely post for me Scott...I'm working on a solution to this as we speak: http://BuyersVote.com

Launching a major revision to it in the next few days, and as always, would love to get feedback.

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 29, 2009
Retailers could capitalize on this by having (and marketing) a very lenient return policy. "Come to our store, buy 3 can openers, return the 2 you don't like."
Jun 29, 2009
My brother, in a Kohl's store, once said on Twitter that he couldn't find any pants that fit him in the store, whereupon he quickly got a reply from the Kohl's Twitter feed that he should check out Kohls.com for more options and sizes.

Even with social networking sites, it will be possible to game the system at least slightly by watching for messages with certain key words in them (for example, a company making blenders could watch for their corporate or brand names and, I think, even the word "blender") and replying, though it'll probably be easier to identify them doing so since they'll probably have the company name for the account.

One thing I like is that there is a line of stores that originated in Japan that allow for people to get like 5 things they like in the store for free if they write a review on each product afterward, which to my knowledge only goes back to the company in order to improve the product -- and thus it's not in the company's best interest to game said reviews. The customer gets a product for free which in most cases is usually a winning situation for the customer even if its quality is questionable, and they get first-hand situation with the product eliminating the need for them to read other reviews to determine the quality of the product.

The one issue is that the store of course mainly deals with products that are still in later stages of development and can't really be found on the market aside from that store. Still, it's not too different from how companies send out free preview and review copies of products to sites.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 29, 2009
I always thought the bigger problem was price comparison rather than reviews. I don't have too much trouble finding plenty of information on a product's reception.

Sites like Google Product Search or Travelocity do help and do make things easier, but they're not 100% effective. I frequently find better airline deals on a carrier's site than I do through my Travelocity fare alerts. Maybe this will always be a problem - after all, primary source data is usually better, and any sort of aggregation of data is still technically a secondary source.

My approach to buying something is to research (1) features and (2) drawbacks, but it is this information that is probably the most elusive.

It would be nice to have a more straightforward way of searching for product features, so instead of having to look through a bunch of items and reviews, I could narrow a search down by querying for certain product features. Google can be a bit iffy about this and some products can be frustrating. For example, there's a certain kind of car I want, but one of my must-have criteria is that I want it to come with fold-down rear seats. But even though this is a simple option, available on any model, searching many dealers' inventory can only show me this by hand, looking at the cars one at a time.

So that's my trouble, not so much looking at reviews, but finding something I actually want (I'm quite particular about it, which is probably why, unlike Scott, I don't have 20 things that don't work - I have a year or two of agonizing over the decision and then one thing that works very well, heh).

I agree with all the reasons here why a new review process wouldn't be an improvement. I'm sticking with the idea that being able to query features in a clear way would be a huge plus. I realize that defining equal features is tough, but there are a lot of things that seem simple that don't have a good solution. Potholes are one (by this I mean, the reporting and repairs are not always straightforward and efficient - I have seen Massachusetts dig up a perfectly good, smooth stretch of interstate to repave, while four !$%*! north on the same highway, two lanes are completely covered in craters to the point of almost not being drivable, and it baffles me how things are done this poorly for what should be a relatively simple process, i.e., fix the biggest problems first!).
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 29, 2009
Appropos of nothing, I think a job I would immensely enjoy would be writing negative reviews for my competitor's products on websites.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 29, 2009
I think this gap can be filled by Twitter and Facebook.

Put out a Tweet saying, "Thinking of buying a can opener; looking for ideas." or "Need a good plumber in Santa Clara" or whatever. Those with strong feeling (whom you already know and trust) will respond.

The problem is there's a sweetspot of followers/friends you need to have for this to be effective. Too few and you'll get crickets. Too many (like someone like Scott would likely have) and you'll be flooded.

This loses the anonmity, but gains the trust factor.
Jun 29, 2009
I work for a major travel review website. We attempt to solve exactly the problem you're talking about.

It takes an incredible amount of manpower, though. It's no surprise that we get "reviews" from hotels or their competitors. Apart from some very simple safeguards, actually checking all of these takes a very large amount of work, both automated and to a very large extent by a human being reading and investigating them. This is possible with hotels, restaurants, vacation rentals, etc because (1) they're larger-ticket purchases and (2) the owners can't "cripple a feature and change the model number." Even after switching ownership or remodelling, if your hotel was next to the sewage treatment plant, it probably still is.

As for consumer products, though, you've got lower priced items, many more options, and no real well-established review aggregating companies. Amazon's done well, but their fraud detection in the past has been obviously thwarted (I haven't heard of anything recently, so maybe they've cracked down.) There's also something fishy about reading a review of a product from a company with an interest in selling me that product.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 29, 2009
Without Billy Mays demonstrating, I have no idea what I will do...
Jun 29, 2009
I would recommend checking out Aardvark (vark.com). You designate yourself as knowledgeable in some areas, and invite friends to do the same.

You can pose a question to the service, and it'll find a friend (or friend's friend, etc.) who it thinks might be able to answer your question. The idea is powerful. You can sometimes get good advice on highly particular questions. However, the community is still too small to be as useful as the idea can be.
Jun 29, 2009
What if your premise, and not shopping, is actually broken?

If you see something in the store that you want (above a threshold of say, $100):

1. Go home and Google it. You'll find all kinds of opinions on the product.
2. Include the word "review" in your search to narrow it down.
3. Go to Amazon and read the reviews.
4. Use Google shopping to find a low price from a reliable retailer.
5. Go to a site like retailmenot.com and find a coupon for it to save even more money, perhaps with free shipping.
6. Buy it online and not get charged sales tax.
7. Use a credit card that doubles the warranty and adds price protection.

I use the above "strategy" to buy just about everything. Before Google, what would have taken me weeks to do (e.g, research, read through magazines) now takes minutes. And I find the lowest possible price.

This seems to work for 99% of *every day* purchases, and makes shopping a no-brainer (kind of like buying a last minute funeral suit from Men's Warehouse). Fast, easy and cheap.

Maybe the opportunity here is a niche membership site dedicated to helping upper middle class folk make difficult decisions when planning high-end purchases (e.g., eco-homes) that aren't well-reviewed online. (As a membership site owner, I can tell you something like this may have some potential.)

RE: travel - call an experienced travel agent. There are times when you just need to speak to an expert.

Jun 29, 2009
Your comments are exactly why I've found Facebook so powerful. With a couple of hundred friends, all of whom I know personally (or at least online), I can get qualified feedback that is otherwise so hard to find on the web. Essentially, Facebook is one extended, shared blog that everyone uses.

This doesn't work for everything (for your surgery, for instance), but for travel recommendations, books, computer stuff and the like, I trust the comments I receive through Facebook far more than random searches on Google.

- Peripatetic Entrepreneur
Jun 29, 2009
I still don't think it's enough incentive to get people to participate.

What about the company offering a discount or a credit added to YOUR account (no discount code, they expire and are spread everywhere) for a review of each product that you buy from them? The discount amount could be based off of the cost of the product, which would make the more expensive items more attractive to review.

Note: I hate those third-party vendors who swoop in after an e-sale and say "save 20 percent by filling out this simple survey!" and the survey ends with a requirement that you give them your personal information or else no reward. Everyone feels cheap and disgusting after an encounter like that.
Jun 29, 2009
I think this won't work for two reasons:
One: There are bootstrapping issues. How will the system get seeded with the initial batch of people? Are you depending on a batch of people willing to say "I will answer questions about this product that I bought without similar assistance"?

Two: I generally have three or four competing products I'm looking at when contemplating a purchase, but of course I only ever end up buying one (or none!). If each shopper is approximately like me then even if the total number of shoppers online never goes up (not a valid assumption, it appears), if you constrain the number of queries a purchaser will have to address then the system will quickly become empty again.

Also, companies could send out questions about their competitors' products to empty the pool and make it look like nobody's bought them.

I notice that Amazon provides a mini-forum on many (maybe now all?) of its pages for asking questions. I have used it once, and I got a lot of very helpful responses from previous purchasers. I'm not sure how previous purchasers knew that a question had been asked, but it's pretty fancy. I realize that it's a total crapshoot, though.
Jun 29, 2009
A friend of mine is a VP for one of the major companies that provides out-sourced review software for web retailers. His company hires people to read and moderate the ads and they keep track of individual reviewers to try and prevent "astroturfing." He says that he trusts the ratings and reviews once they receive around 15 or so moderated reviews.
Jun 29, 2009
It's a good idea, with one flaw, and then one point about how it's not much better.

Flaw: a lot of systems already allow for user feedback (see Amazon). The problem is it costs me time, hence money, to take the time to do reviews. I don't do them - so why would I answer personal feedback? A better system would be to give some kind of ridiculously small cash award or discount if you agreed to exchange emails, or give feedback. If I want to buy a laptop for $1000 and newegg says "click here to setup a 'reviewer' account for this product (or use your review.com creds); after you post a successful review, we will refund you %1 of the purchasing price". For $10, I'd spend a few minutes.

Point though: Why couldn't companies still salt the reviews with fake bad ones or fake good ones?
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