This Holiday Season, Gift the World Some Product Reviews

Be a good capitalist.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.
Do it for capitalism. And for your fellow consumers.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This year, the National Retail Federation predicts Americans will spend somewhere in the ballpark of $682 billion in November and December alone. That mind-bogglingly big number includes everything from a big turkey dinner for the whole family to that smart fork your mom’s been dropping not-so-subtle hints about. Your holiday purchases will be influenced by a number of factors, including individual taste and that ever-present budget, but personal ethics will likely play a role, too. Many Americans value “voting with their dollar” and boycott everything from Chris Brown to palm oil. While this is one good way to put your money where your mouth is, there’s another way to be a good capitalist: This year, try writing a helpful online product review—or 12.

Sure, you’re probably wary of comment sections, online forums, or really any place on the internet where people can congregate semianonymously. But the review portions of Amazon, store websites, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Airbnb are actually pretty respectful—and insanely influential. Data suggest most consumers read online reviews before making a purchase. At least one study indicates the majority actually give them the same weight as the recommendations of friends or family (I certainly do). And the kickbacks of a good—or bad—review can be profound for business owners: Researchers at the Harvard Business School found that an extra star on Yelp is worth a sales bump of 5 to 9 percent.

Consuming reviews has become a part of our everyday life. In the past month alone, I’ve relied on Airbnb reviewers to steer me away from rentals with unlisted house pets and benefited mightily from Slate’s review of Stranger Things Season 2’s seventh episode, which saved me minutes of my life by encouraging me to watch it in fast forward. They can also be a kind of art form—for example, I regularly return to the Amazon reviews for the Bic Cristal for Her Ball Pen for an easy laugh.

The reviews I consulted and used were good reviews—they reflected the real-life experience I went on to have. It’s true that not all reviews translate so well to reality as these. It’s hard to determine what portion of online reviews are accurate, but it’s clear that vendettas, fake reviews paid for by sneaky proprietors, and overly emotional keyboard clicking definitely take their toll. But that’s just all the more reason to write your own reviews—by adding more good information, you can counteract the bad.

When people read reviews, they often look for consensus—if you find a few people saying the same thing, it’s probably an indication they’re onto something. Of course, this requires there be multiple reviews to triangulate, and even sites like Amazon, which has made a name for itself as a go-to for consumer advice, sometimes has products with limited or no reviews. This is even more prevalent on less-trafficked sites, or with new products. When there are few reviews to pick from, they’re harder to trust, and they can have undue influence—or even put a shopkeeper out of business. It’s understandable that you might only think to write a review about a product you loved or hated, but this distorts the review economy.

So please, write more reviews. Some instructions to get you started: Reviews shouldn’t take up a lot of your time, but they should be crafted to be useful to others. It’s important that if you’re spiteful or otherwise compromised, you don’t just blurt out a review—take that kind of complaint to customer service, which should be better equipped to resolve your problem. Instead, you should seek only to write online when you think it will help other shoppers. This is especially true if no one else has written in to share comments similar to yours, you disagree (respectfully!) with existing reviews, or you think another reviewer’s point needs to be reiterated.

When writing, try to be specific and precise. Saying simply that you hate something or regret buying it, even if true, is much less helpful than explaining how the quality of the pants didn’t match the price, that the color of those gold shoes looked a lot more beige in real life, or that the spiralizer wasn’t as strong as it claimed to be and broke in its first encounter with a zucchini. If you just keep the old adage “show don’t tell” in mind, you’ll be golden.

At the same time, only include information that will be relevant to other shoppers. I’ve noticed, for example, that really good books get bad reviews if people think the Amazon Kindle formatting is off. While that’s important feedback for the e-book producer, I question that such aesthetic details should negatively impact the reviews. This restraint is especially important when it comes to the ways your expectations or personal preferences might have colored your response to an object. If you hated your road bike because you realized you actually should have purchased a mountain bike for those uphill treks, that’s probably an unhelpful detail for the next person who just really wants to buy a good road bike.

Online reviews will never be a perfect medium. But by pitching in with our thoughtful appraisal, we might be able to steer people away from hotels, restaurants, or consumer goods that waste their time and money. At the same time, we may find ourselves persuasive enough to steer people toward the good things in life, to the reputable businesses that try to make the best product or experience and actually succeed. Name a better gift than that.