Online reviews are everywhere. Whether you want to buy a piece of hiking gear, book a hotel or check out a new restaurant just down the street, chances are there are dozens (if not hundreds) of online voices telling you why that is or isn’t a good idea. Amid all that chatter, how do you know who you can trust?
In a way, the Internet is a great equalizer. Anyone has the ability to share their opinion and let their voice be heard. But that also means that someone with no real knowledge or experience can write a review of a product they know little to nothing about.
It’s also true that a lot of folks get paid to write reviews. That’s not an inherently bad thing, but—as you may already be aware—some are also paid to write positive reviews, regardless of whether or not a product is any good. And that is where things become problematic.
Ultimately, the majority of online review sites are, at the very least, honest and well-intentioned. And a significant portion of them offer truly insightful, well-informed and trustworthy reviews.
Today, let’s take a closer look at how online review sites work, and how you can tell an honest review from a paid promotion.
What Are Affiliate Links?
You’ve probably heard of affiliate links and affiliate marketing. In the world of online reviews, it’s how most of us make enough money to keep our websites up and running. When you browse online reviews, whether it’s on YouTube, Instagram, or a dedicated review website, there’s a good chance that the writer and/or publisher of that review is participating in an affiliate marketing program.
The way it works is, the publisher of a product review will include a link in their review, which takes you to a site where you can buy said product. If you click on that link, it can potentially earn the reviewer a commission.
This is how nearly all review websites work, whether they’re reviewing books, music, EDC gear or kitchen appliances. That applies to big sites owned by major corporations, as well as smaller independent review sites, which are often the work of a very small team of writers.
Can You Trust Affiliate Sites?
It’s important to stress that just because a website includes affiliate links doesn’t mean that site isn’t trustworthy. Good reviewers understand that earning the trust of their readership is of the utmost importance, and most readers can sniff out a fake review from a mile away.
That being the case, it would generally be a huge mistake for a reviewer to write a dishonest review. Even if doing so might generate some extra clicks on affiliate links and earn the reviewer a few extra dollars in the short term, it will ultimately cost them the trust of their readers. That could destroy their reputation and cost them their entire business in the long run.
How to Identify Dishonest Reviews
Even though we consider writing dishonest reviews to be both against our principles and bad for business, there are still plenty of review websites that do just that. The sad truth is, there will always be people out there who just want to make a quick buck. The Internet is full of them.
Fortunately, there are usually several clear signs that can let you know whether or not a review is trustworthy. If you’re reading an online review and are unsure of its authenticity, these are some of the things you should look for:
Who Are the Writers?
Not everyone who positions themself as an “expert” really knows what they’re talking about. When you read a review, it’s important to know that it was actually written by someone with real passion for and experience in the field.
How do you know? One way is to google the author and see if you can find other reviews or articles they’ve written. Another is to check out their social media. Most reputable review sites will also have a “Bio” page where they provide information on the backgrounds of the folks who test and review the products.
Are the Reviews Balanced?
There’s always reason to be suspicious when a review is overly positive. Granted, it could be that the product being reviewed is truly excellent. It does happen! But to really get a sense of whether any given review is fair and balanced, try reading some other reviews from the same website. A really good review site will not hesitate to point out both the pros and cons of the products they’re reviewing.
Any site that publishes nothing but rave reviews is potentially suspicious. Chances are, they’re being paid specifically to keep things positive. Another thing to watch out for is list-style reviews or “listicles” in which only one of the listed products is viewed favorably.
Are the Reviews In-Depth?
Beware of short, surface-level reviews that give no real detail or insight into the product in question. No one, let alone a professional reviewer, should be able to sum up all the pros and cons of any item in just a few short sentences.
A good sign of a trustworthy review site is that the reviews delve deep, and provide the kind of information that can’t be gleaned without real experience. Also watch out for multiple reviews on the same site that use nearly-identical language to describe different products. That’s a red flag.
Is There an Affiliate Disclosure?
Any publisher that participates in affiliate marketing is required to put a disclaimer somewhere on their website that discloses that fact. However, there are no laws governing exactly how or where that disclosure is made, and some reviewers are sneaky and will try to hide it or make it hard to read.
A good, trustworthy review site will be upfront about the inclusion of affiliate links on their website. Not trying to hide that fact is a sign of integrity, and shows that they want their readers to make informed decisions about what they’re reading. Look for a page on the review site called “Affiliate Disclosure” or something similar.
Did They Actually Test the Product?
This is a big one! You might be surprised to learn how many reviews are written by individuals who have never even held the product in their hands, let alone thoroughly put it to the test. It’s little wonder that so many readers find online reviews increasingly hard to trust.
A great way to tell the difference is to carefully look at the photos and/or videos that accompany review. If they look like stock photos—the same photos that are on the product’s website or its Amazon listing—that’s not a good sign. What you want to see are photos or videos that were taken by the reviewer, and that clearly demonstrate that they actually own and have used the product in question.
Do They Get Sent Free Stuff?
To be fair, it’s very common for companies to send tree samples of their products to reviewers. This has been standard practice for as long as reviews have existed, and by no means does it mean that the reviews can’t be trusted. Today, YouTube is full of review videos created by people who have been sent free products to review.
And while some companies might send free stuff in hopes that it will lead to a positive review, they also know that, with a reputable review site, there’s no guarantee that will be the case. Really good review sites usually have a page with info for companies that states that, while they are open to being sent products for review, they will not, under any circumstances, accept money for reviews.
Reviews You Can Trust
We’ve all had the experience of reading a glowing review, buying the product, and then coming to the realization that it’s junk, we’ve been duped, and the review led us astray. That’s a lousy feeling, which is one of the reasons we take the reviews we write—and the trust we’ve built with our readers—very seriously.
There are a lot of ways to tell a genuine review from a phony one. At the end of the day, your gut is usually a pretty good indicator. Most of us have an instinctive ability to detect when we’re being fed a load of hogwash, and if you know what to look for, inauthentic reviews often give themselves away.
Blair Witkowski is an avid watch nut, loves pocket knives and flashlights and when he is not trying to be a good dad to his nine kids, you will find him running or posting pics on Instagram. Besides writing articles for Tech Writer EDC he is also the founder of Lowcountry Style & Living. In addition to writing, he is focused on improving his clients websites for his other passion, Search Engine Optimization. His wife Jennifer and he live in coastal South Carolina.