Online reviewers fill a vacuum for the average consumer - and our opinions carry huge weight

At this time of year in particular, we find ourselves relying on customer reviews to help us make tricky consumer decisions online

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The Independent Tech

About 18 months ago I was thinking of buying a new vacuum cleaner. Knowing as little about vacuum cleaners as I do about the Eucharistic traditions of the Byzantine Empire (i.e. not much), I ventured online to find out what other people thought, and stumbled across an Amazon reviewer by the name of "NR2".

He (I think it's a bloke, forgive me if not) has reviewed a number of vacuum cleaners in alarmingly intricate detail, which initially made me suspicious; after all, we're taught to be wary of unusual things on the internet. Anyone devoting that amount of effort towards reviewing vacuum cleaners must surely be receiving kickbacks, right? Carefully playing one brand off against another in some kind of long-term strategy?

But the more I read NR2's reviews, the more I was convinced that he just really likes vacuum cleaners. He reviews other things, too: books, magnifying glasses, aromatherapy oils, nasal hair trimmers, and all in exquisitely rich and informative detail. Vacuum cleaners just seem to be his thing. I figure that he must own at least six (Panasonic, Vax, Hoover, Numatic, Bissell, Miele) and he just enjoys sharing his painstakingly acquired knowledge. I decided that NR2 was a force for good.

At this time of year in particular, we find ourselves relying on people such as NR2 to help us make tricky consumer decisions online – indeed, a survey by Consumer International Research tell us that 88 per cent of us depend on them.

It's not hard to see why. We're bombarded with adverts and promotional messages, our awareness of brands has never been greater, but we have an inherent distrust of the biased views of the companies behind them.

So, presented with a faceful of microwave ovens, the opinions of other people who have already used those ovens – however misguided they may be – is pretty much all we have to go on, given our inability or unwillingness to meaningfully compare attributes such as power output or energy consumption. A five-star rating from a member of the public is easier to work with.

Of course, this terrifies marketing departments, who for years have worked on the basis that consumer decisions are based either on prior experience of that brand or the official marketing material.

These days, our own opinions carry huge weight, and businesses have little control over them. Ultimately, you'd hope this would force them to produce better products, but in the meantime it prompts them either to offer sweeteners to induce us to review products positively, or, in the case of one Blackpool hotel, fining a couple £100 for a bad review (recently refunded after an online outcry).

It's a chaotic world that's hard to take seriously; gushing reviews suddenly look as deranged and untrustworthy as vicious slaggings written in a moment of acute psychological torment.

But, Dr Camilla Vásquez, an American linguist, has just released a scholarly tome entitled The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews in which she compliments what she sees, overall, as a surprisingly high standard of writing. "If you're going to be taken seriously," she notes this week in an interview with The New York Times, "sounding like a literate person is part of what you want to convey."

She's right – and it's the measured, considered and nicely-written reviews of people such as NR2 that will ultimately show us the path to consumer satisfaction.

If you're looking to buy a vacuum cleaner this Christmas, I suggest you avail yourself of his wisdom.

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