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There is an art to the online product review, which many people practice well. Unfortunately, many more do not.
If you have ever shopped online, you know that most websites have a section where people who have purchased the product you’re considering buying can write a review.
I always read at least some of the reviews before purchasing anything. Occasionally, I write a review for products that either impress me greatly or disappoint me greatly. I think that’s the habit of most reviewers.
That being said, some negative reviews are quite helpful. If we were purchasing the product in a brick-and-mortar store — an actual physical location — we could examine the product carefully before buying. The best negative reviews help us catch the obvious reasons we might not want something. It may be larger than the website makes it appear, or smaller, or anything like that.
The best negative reviews also indicate how a product might stand up under use, and that’s something we don’t normally get from looking at something in a store.
Most of my online shopping involves book purchases, and that might be where online reviews are most helpful. I get a real sense of whether or not I might be interested in a book from customer reviews on Amazon.com, for example.
Amazon reviews have two major components: a one- to five-star rating and an actual written review. It’s easy to give a “star rating” — just click on it.
The written review is where the reviewer really shines. I ignore all variations on “This book is great!” or “This book is horrible!” I want to know why it gets that number of stars in the reviewer’s opinion.
The best reviews, positive and negative, explain the number of stars given to a book. There’s often a wide variety of opinion, and that’s where it gets tricky. Some reviewers obviously have an axe to grind and review accordingly.
Some reviewers embark on passionate screeds. Some reviews are so long that they’re really not worth the time to read. The best reviews are succinct and honest.
Amazon reviews have become a scholarly resource for me. I may be very familiar with the scholarly consensus on the great books, but reviews on Amazon often get down to the “why” in “Why are these books classics?” question quickly and convincingly.
Here’s an example: One of today’s young actors has a nascent career as a “serious” writer of fiction. The professional reviews of his first novel use words like “brilliant” to describe his work. I jumped on Amazon to see what folks really think.
It ain’t pretty. The positive reviews seem to come mainly and obviously from fans of his movies; the more average and negative reviews seem to come mainly from people who read the book and ignored the fact that the writer is a famous actor, judging him instead on his merits as a writer.
That’s why online book reviews are particularly helpful. If I had picked up the book in a physical bookstore, all I’d have to judge it by would be the glowing blurbs on the back cover from professional reviewers. The democratic impulse of Amazon is to give the often-unheard opinions of people who love books but don’t make their living at it. It’s sort of genius, really.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden (Ala.) State Community College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.