Sunday, November 22, 2015

1-Star Reviews: The Fun & The Folly


I’ve blogged before about Amateur Product Reviews:  those reviews that your average joe can post on sites like Amazon, Best Buy, Yelp, etc.  These serve a valuable purpose because we can’t always count on magazine reviews, etc. to be unbiased.  Moreover, it’s nice to see people’s opinions in aggregate; if a dozen or two reviewers complain that the lid doesn’t fit right, chances are it doesn’t.

Being a very reluctant consumer in general, I like to go straight to the 1-star reviews.  I want to know what’s wrong with this thing I’m considering, so that maybe I can talk myself out of it.  I also find that 1-star reviews are the most entertaining.  When consumers feel wronged, their talons come out.

Of course, amateur reviews are as flawed as humanity, and the overall level of discourse is less like your college English class and more like traffic school.  It has recently dawned on me that websites could do a lot better to help consumers separate the wheat from the chaff.  In this post I’ll explain how, and just for fun I’ll throw in a contest.  You might win!

How the review-o-sphere governs itself

The amateur review system has evolved, and some mechanisms are now in place to validate user testimonials.  Supposedly, there are safeguards to detect fake reviews from manufacturers.  Some sites validate that the product reviewed was actually purchased.  And now many sites allow readers to comment on a review, which in many cases means crying foul.

Here’s an example.  A reviewer gave a 1-star review, titled “Symplicity,” to a digital camera.  The review (in its entirety) reads as follows:  “Needed something for my wife to use without too many buttons and knobs. All she has to do is aim and push a button.”  A couple of people commented that this guy probably meant to give this camera the highest rating based on its ease of use.  They’re probably right, and I also liked the comment, “So, you’re looking for a camera that’s like you?”

Amazon keeps tabs on the usefulness of reviews by asking the reader, “Was this review helpful to you?”  It uses this feedback to rank its reviews, so readers can sort by the most helpful ones.  This is a good start, but it doesn’t stop useless reviews from cluttering up the page and distorting the weighted average of a product’s rating.

Yelp offers sophisticated feedback widgets.  A reader can flag a review as useful and/or funny and/or cool.  (I’m pleased to say that one of my Yelp reviews got 4 “useful” ratings, 5 “funny” ratings, and 1 “cool.”  I’m less pleased to report that this review, for Cozmic Café,  doesn’t actually show up in Yelp’s review listing for the place, which fills me with lots of sour-grapes-based conspiracy theories.)

These feedback widgets are somewhat helpful, but still don’t prevent pointless 1-star reviews from tarnishing the average rating of a product or business.  But there is a way to fix this.  After careful analysis I’ve determined that most useless 1-star reviews fit within one of just four basic categories.  By giving readers four more simple buttons to click as needed, a website could easily gain valuable insight into improving rating metrics.  If some threshold of readers flagged a review according to one of these categories, the website could exclude that review when calculating the average rating. 

Category #1 – the Hapless review

This category covers one of the biggest problems with these reviews, which is a person giving one star when he meant to give five, and vice-versa.  The “Symplicity” review above probably fits this category.  Consider also this 1-star review for the iPhone 6S:  “Great item i had recent.”  Considering that whoever posted this is barely able to operate an Internet-connected device, his calling the iPhone “great” really does attest to its ease of use.  It’s a shame that this would-be 5-star review, masquerading as a 1-star review, is bringing down the iPhone’s average.  Imagine if you could flag this review as “Hapless” to alert Amazon’s star-crunching engine.  (Of course one vote of “Hapless” shouldn’t change anything, but if 20 out of 21 respondents click Hapless, and 0 out of 21 click “Useful,” that’s a solid basis for ignoring the 1-star rating.)

There’s a subcategory of Hapless I’ve observed:  consumers who are the real problem.  A 1-star reviewer may not realize, for example, that the product he purchased needs its battery charged from time to time, or that dropping a smartphone and breaking it doesn’t indicate a manufacturing defect.  I recently bought a bike light despite a reviewer complaining, “The act of taking it off to charge it caused the strap to snap on one side.”  I suspect that something specific about that act—such as manhandling the light—broke the strap, because this review also says, “barely fit my handlebars.”  The directions for this light clearly state it’s not designed for oversized handlebars.  I’d flag this review(er) as Hapless.

Category #2 – the Irrelevant review

Amazon in particular is plagued by this one.  A reviewer has a bad experience with his shipping, or the partner seller, or  the means by which an entertainment product is delivered, and gives the innocent product a 1-star review.  Consider this iPhone review:  “I ordered an i phone 6s 64 GB unlocked. When I got the box I found out that the I phone 6s box contained brown colored clay and no phone or accessories. Very shocking.”

There’s a mechanism for dealing with this—the reader comment feature—but these comments are not always helpful.  Consider these comments on the “clay and no phone” review:   “Liar go ask for refund liar thief,” and, “Not true, probably a Microsoft fan.”

Another example:  a reviewer of Eminem’s latest album wrote, “I spent $16 on this album and it wont play. I wrote customer service and they never responded. Guess I’m just out the money and worst of all still no eminent!”  (I take this as an Amazon problem, as their new Cloud Player has received lots of complaints.)  This review elicited the comment, “Fools like this should lose all internet privileges.”  Love it.

Another reviewer of this album wrote, “this CD does skip very bad.”  Look, pal, you’re supposed to be reviewing the quality of Eminem’s music.  I don’t think he gets involved in pressing the discs.

It’s sad to see products dragged through the mud by reviewers who haven’t actually gotten to use them.  Again, a simple response button could tell the website to exclude these reviews from the average rating.

Category #3 – the Nonsensical review

Sometimes a reviewer receives his product intact, and understands that one star means worst, not best, and yet posts such an inane review that his basic brain function is highly suspect.  Consider this 1-star review of the Eminem album:  “Water for someone else.”  That’s the entire review.  What the hell happened here?  Was this guy typing on a smartphone and was so sloppy it replaced every word of his review?  Or was he starting to say something complicated and just ran out of steam?  Or does he think people will actually understand what he’s getting at?  I can’t see how this review could possibly contribute to a constructive dialogue.

Then you get the reviews from people who are obviously bat-shit crazy, like this review for the Apple Watch:  “Causes cancer. Radiation on wrist can bring rumors to your body. DO NOT BUY!”  Obviously this isn’t a person who would ever purchase this watch … so what gives him the right to review it?

Needless to say these reviews shouldn’t dilute the average rating.  On top of that, as a consumer I’d like to be able to filter out all nonsensical reviews before I even start skimming.

Category #4 – the Weirdly Autobiographical review

I want to be careful with this one because some of my favorite reviews are weirdly autobiographical.  Excess detail isn’t automatically a problem, but some reviews say more about the reviewer than the product or service being reviewed.  Consider this excerpt from a laptop computer review:  “My Dad is an Engineer in both Computer Sciences and Electronics/Electrical with many years of experience, and as such Toshiba could fair well to take some custructive criticism.”  Wow.  This guy seems to have some Daddy issues.  Were both father and son ignored by Toshiba’s product marketing department, or does the reviewer assume technical acumen is genetic?  And what does any of this have to do with this specific laptop?

I was researching old-fashioned razors (i.e., that use the double-edged “safety” blades) and one review reported, “I would say 1 out of ten hairs would just fold down and go under the blade. So I started using my wifes cheap razor to finish the job. Finally she got after me and I went looking for my old razor. I then found a stainless 43c. Although I liked the wood better this one cut just like my old razor.”  I have no idea what a 43c is, or how old this guy’s wood-handled razor must have been, or why his wife and her razor have entered into the discussion.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this review, but there are 127 other 1-star reviews of this razor and only so much time in the day.

An Apple Watch reviewer wrote, “If you wanna dictate something naughty you can’t do it unless you are alone, in that case use your phone.”  Wow.  Some kind of perv, and I wonder what he thought this watch was supposed to do.

Here’s another jewel:  in a review of the Cozmic Café, one guy wrote, “I was told they don’t have beer to which I said it’s on the menu and can someone go upstairs and get me one and they said they were understaffed.  As I was walking upstairs with the guy to go get my beer he says...see you later.”  WTF?!  I mean, sure it’s lame to run out of beer, but I’d be pretty scared if I worked at this café and some beer-crazed guy tried to follow me upstairs.  I think “See you later” is a pretty reasonable response, especially at a place where (as another 1-star reviewer mentioned) “lately I have heard of multiple fights breaking out there, including ones where thirty year old men beat up teenagers.”

I don’t think reviews flagged as Weirdly Autobiographical should necessarily be removed from the average rating calculation, but it’d be nice to be able to filter them out, or (for bored readers) filter the results to show only these reviews.

And now … the albertnet Fake Review challenge!

What follows is a collection of product reviews.  For each product, there are three reviews:  two real ones plus a fake one I made up.  I challenge you to identify the fictitious review for each product.  Send your submissions to  The first person to guess correctly on every review, or the person with the best score when I arbitrarily decide I have enough responses, will get a prize.  I don’t know what it will be, but it will be similar in value to the First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot given to John Lynch, the winner of the last Fake Review challenge.  Win this contest and you’ll be just as famous as he, when I publish your name and photo (along with the correct answers) in a future post.

Review #1:  The Turn of the Screw (novel)

a)   The Turn of the Screw is quite possibly the stupidest and most pointless story I have ever wasted my time on. Purportedly a ghost story, the “ghosts” are nothing more than occasional appearances by the former governess and valet, both of whom are now dead.

b)   A friend told me “I couldn’t put it down.” Couldn’t put it down? I couldn’t pick it up! So hard to read...took me weeks to get through. If Henry James wrote this today, he would NOT get laid.

c)   The story is lousy, the characters are unbelievable, the protagonist is annoying, the plot development is glacial, and the ending is absurd. But what makes this book really bad is the writing.

Review #2:  Apple Watch 

a)   I had a hard time charging the watch.. The instructions read that that the charger attached magnetically to the back of the watch. When I placed the charger to the phone it seems to repel the watch instead of attaching to it. I tried resetting the watch twice but that did not help. I was finally able to get a charge by physically holding the charger to the phone and strapping it down, but this took 8 hours and I only got a charge 62%. It is our assumption that the magnet was placed backwards in either the watch or the charge.

b)   this is poop

c)   i thought this watch would replace my iphone (or actually I wouldnt have to buy one and watch is actually reasonable compared to phone cost) but it turns out WITHOUT THE PHONE THE WATCH DOES ALMOST NOTHING also battery life sux

Review #3:  toaster

a)    Mostly works well except something is catching on the bread and tears bits off that get “stuck” down in the toaster and hard to get out. So I tried to fish it out with a knife (with the toaster off, by the way) and got this big electric shock! My wide actually laughed at me and said next time just turn it upside down and shake it. So I tried that and burned the crap out of my hand! Toaster is going back for sure.

b)   I was so excited to buy a four slot toaster, morning arguments solved. However, this toaster was highly disappointing. The level that lowers the slots down is thin plastic and wobbly. The right side of the toaster quickly stopped lowing. The left side often burns part of the bread, while the rest of it is still cold. Overall, a shotty machine. Do not buy.

c)   I looked on line and read reviews and decided to get this one, HA! This does not even pop the toast up high enough to grab! It says that you get even toasting on both sides, not! It worked for about a week and after that half the side of toast would cook and then only half of a half, When I use the Bagle button the Bagle is cooked on both sides, not one like it should have been.

Review #4: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge (book)

a)   I would buy this book but not from somebody who was suspended for doping-specifically for using Testosteron-as a Physiciian I know that Testosteron is useful in the recovery and healing of tissues, especially muscles.If his training was as beneficial as he describes why did he need Testosteron-also being as long in the Pro Peleoton as he ,he must must be pretty stupid not to know how easy it is these days to discover Testosteron.Therefore with me he has no credibility and I will not buy the book

b)   It’s a shame how these books get published. The so-called co-author, Allison Westfahl, actually knows a lot about core strength training and theres lots of useful info here. Problem is she’s a nobody and couldn’t publish a book without tying it to a celebrity name so she let TD (aka Total Douche) pretend to co-write this. Almost worked but she should have hitched her wagon to a clean rider, if there are any left.

c)   I noticed the chapter on doping was missing. Can’t trust a doper. Maybe I will wait for the B sample of this book before buying again.

Review #5: cordless drill

a)   never should have bought cordless drill, remember when drills had a cord and you could just go whip it out and use it, now i always have to plan ahead and charge the batteries, this one particularly bad won’t hold a charge and tajkes forever to charge up do not buy!

b)   Only lasted two years and stopped working while my son was assembling soccer goals. Thought it was the battery and installed fresh one from the charger. My son came running to me yelling the drill was on fire. When I got to the drill smoke was pouring from the battery.

c)   came with black marks along handle, tip and back of drill. case had interior scratches, battery had a charge, and scratches, second battery had scratches. im not talking about scratches you could blame on rough shipping, this thing was dropped a few times outside of its case. nobody wants somebody elses tool. *cough* 

Okay, get those contest entries in! Remember,

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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