We’ve all been there. Unsure of whether a new product is worth our hard-earned money, we scour the Internet for honest reviews from everyday consumers just like ourselves. Instead, we’re hit with a cacophony of potentially prejudicial voices—from industry insiders to sales-driven media giants and paid “mommy” bloggers. It’s hard to know who to trust.
“You can come across sites that look like objective reviews but are actually published by product providers and it’s not immediately obvious,” says Gavin Adamson, a digital journalism associate professor at Ryerson University. Even reputable sites get duped by guest contributors who are secretly paid to shill products, as was the case with some Forbes posts earlier this year.
Whether you’re reading an independent blog or a mainstream news outlet, it all comes down to variety and transparency, according to Adamson. “Look for sites that review a variety of products in the same category from a variety of brands.”
While bloggers can and do get paid to write about products, it’s more common for bloggers to receive “swag.” Manufacturers send popular bloggers freebies, including electronics, cosmetics and food in the hopes of receiving a glowing review. In an effort to eliminate bias, some mainstream media have policies that prevent journalists from accepting gifts. In the blogosphere however, it’s unrealistic to expect bloggers to refuse free stuff. That may not mean they’re biased, but it does raise questions, Adamson says. “The traditional media have a fairly clear wall between sales and editorial. In the blogging world, it comes down to the individual conscience of one blogger.”
In the U.S., Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules require bloggers to disclose whether they received compensation or gifts, notes technology blogger and MoneySense contributor Peter Nowak. It’s the manufacturers’ responsibility to ensure disclosure so the practice has trickled its way into Canada, though it’s not mandatory here. “If they don’t disclose, it’s maybe not a site to be trusted,” says Nowak.
There are other telltale signs to look for. An honest review, even a flattering one, is rarely 100% positive. Be wary of bloggers who haven’t written a single negative comment. Engagement is also important. Reputable bloggers will post corrections, updates and encourage comments. “Transparency is key,” concludes Adamson.
Signs of honest bloggers:
✔ Do they review a variety of products from a variety of brands?
✘ Is a single sponsor consistently advertising on their website?
✔ Have they disclosed their relationship with the manufacturer?
✔ Are they willing to engage with readers?
✔ Do they mention or link to competing products?
✔ Do they credit original sources when citing facts?