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Is the internet now shill-city?

18 June 2019

There was a time when the Net was just about the best place to go if you were looking to see whether a product or service was worth spending money on.

Eager Net users have always been happy to share their thoughts and experiences so chances are that a quick browse would often turn up some first-hand reports on that new stereo, computer, vacuum cleaner or whatever you were thinking of buying.

You'd have to be a bit silly to go out and buy anything these days without doing a bit of due diligence first, and the Net seems like the perfect place to do so.

However, there's now a growing industry in faked or paid reviews and if you're unaware of how this works, you could get a nasty surprise when that "fantastic" new gizmo that everyone's raving about, turns out to be a dud.

Here's a little background and some advice on spotting the shill reviews.

First-up, if you're on a vendor's site and checking out the reviews, make sure there are at least one or two bad ones.

There is no way any product or service can please all the people all the time so any site that only displays 100% positive reviews is likely to be unreliable. Almost certainly the reviews have been "curated" to weed out any which might adversely affect sales.

I have to say that I'm impressed with Mighty Ape here in NZ because they clearly don't curate their reviews... as seen by my review of the DVD player I bought from them recently. In the wake of this, I'd be happy to ascribe a high degree of trust to the reviews published on this site.

Wouldn't it be nice if all online retail sites were as trustworthy?

Another place people often use as a source of allegedly independent advice is YouTube.

Reviews and review channels abound on this video sharing platform -- hell, even I run one!

However, if I had a dollar for every time I was offered much more than a dollar to publish a "positive review" for a product, I could probably have retired to some tax haven and bought a couple of Ferraris already.

Sadly, ethics have gotten in the way of this "get rich quick" option so my reviews are brutally honest and forthright. Whilst that has earned me a large audience and loyal following, it hasn't earned me nearly as much money as those channels which give *everything* a good review and then include an affiliate link from which viewers can purchase that product. The commissions from such shill reviews can be enormous (I know, I've spoken to some of the people running such channels and their commissions are more than ten times what they earn from YouTube advertising alone).

These shills are encouraged by companies who see a great opportunity to increase sales by offering free product and generous commissions to anyone who'll publish a positive review.

Whilst I do get free products, I don't include affiliate links to those products and I always disclose when something has been sent by a supplier for review purposes. What's more, I think I'm doing a good job because I get far fewer offers of "free stuff" these days than I used to. The purveyors of crappy products don't waste their time sending free stuff to objective reviewers like me. Why should they, when there are armies of shills willing to sell their grandmother for a free gizmo and a chance to earn some coin via an affiliate link?

So when it comes to YouTube reviews, watch them by all means but again -- if there are no negatives highlighted or if the imperfections are justified in a rather tenuous fashion, be cautious. Also check the description for one of those affiliate links and if you see one (often disguised by use of a link-shortening service), take everything you've seen with a grain of salt.

These reviews however, are often good for simply getting an idea of what's in the box or perhaps seeing the device in action.

When the DJI Osmo Action camera was released a few weeks ago I spent some time watching reviews to see whether I could justify the expense. It was an incredibly interesting experience because I learned far more about the reviewers and DJI's marketing strategies than I did about the camera itself.

Clearly DJI had sent out an armful of these cameras to popular YouTubers and those folk had all rolled out their own reviews. Those reviews varied from "I'm in love with this camera" to "it's okay but I'm sticking with my GoPro because...".

By watching dozens of these reviews I believe I got a pretty balanced appreciation for the camera and its strengths/weaknesses -- but if I'd relied on just one or two of them I may have gone out and spent $500 only to be disappointed.

So yes, by all means, use the Net to gather opinions and information before making any significant purchase -- but also be very skeptical and critical of the information you find. Check for those affiliate links, make sure the negatives are mentioned and, if you do buy -- why not add your own opinions to the dataset so that others might also be able to make a better-informed purchasing decision.

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