Are Online Reviews Helping Consumers — or Driving Our Indecision?

In the age of e-commerce, we can rank, rate and report on every single thing we buy. Whether all that information is actually making us smarter, savvier shoppers is another story.

online reviews

Are online reviews driving us nuts? / Illustration by James Clapham

Joseph S. doesn’t want me to buy the meat thermometer.

He bought the same one on Amazon a few months ago, and even though he’s calibrated it several times, it’s always wrong, deeming his steaks fully cooked when they’re still raw inside.

“I wish I could give this negative stars. Had it for some time and always have raw meat when it says 160-165. Had to write a review to let people know the weatherman is more accurate!!!!!!!!!!!!” Joseph wrote in the review section, his warning crescendo-ing into what feels like hysteria. Then, his final blow: “A.K.A. This sucks.”

According to the other Amazon reviews he’s written, Joseph was equally unimpressed by an electronic stud finder (“Cannot find the studs in the wall”), a pack of solar-powered deck lights (“very dim”), and a novelty t-shirt (“logo was not centered on the shirt”). He wasn’t happy with the set of 10 tea towels in the color teal, either (“They do not absorb water or spills”), but maybe that’s okay because he was very pleased with the no-spill water bowl he bought for his dog (“We barely have any spills after he drinks!”).

Joseph S. might be a little overzealous. Still, I find myself riveted by his reviews, fully invested in his opinions. And not just Joseph’s, but the many (many) others I find along with his: 3,844 people have also written reviews of his meat thermometer. (Most disagree with him.) The last time I checked, the KULUNER TP-01 Waterproof Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer with 4.6-Inch Folding Probe Backlight and Calibration Function, on sale for $16.95, has 32,685 ratings and 4.7 out of five stars. That’s right: 32,685 ratings for a meat thermometer.

In another life, I would never have known about all these reviews and ratings and stars or about Joseph, because I would have been shopping at Target, and I would have tossed the first meat thermometer I saw in my cart and called it a day. I certainly wouldn’t have gathered other shoppers together and taken a poll. But I wasn’t in Target; I was on Amazon, and so instead — in an epic rejection of time-cost analysis — I spent more than an hour weighing the pros and cons of a $17 kitchen gadget. (Well, the pros and cons according to a bunch of total strangers on the internet.)

It’s not just meat thermometers. My list of Amazon orders is a graveyard of wasted hours of my life spent reading reviews, a topographic map of rabbit holes I’ve fallen into. There’s CrisInCT’s take on the manual fabric and carpet shaver (“If there were a Nobel Prize for cleaning items, this little item would win”), Don’s thoughts on the decorative toilet-paper stand (“exactly what I expected it to be”), and the review of the heatless hair curler left by a girl who declined to give her name but shared six pictures of her tresses (“I looked like freaking Goldilocks”). The steam iron I bought has 1,171 reviews, the pack of dimmable lightbulbs has 202, the Spin Mop has 675, and the pillow shaped like Iron Man has 410. I’m sure I’ve read them all.

All these reviews, though, didn’t spur me to decisive action. They paralyzed me. I often close my laptop, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed, after hours spent scrolling reviews for items as insignificant as kid swim goggles and ice-cream scoops and vacuum cleaners. I’ll figure it out another day, I think. It took me three weeks to buy the meat thermometer. I bought a car with less anguish.

But that’s what shopping is now: information overload, infinite choices, the pressure to make the best decision, to find the Absolute Best Thing. (What if, God forbid, I miss the one review mentioning that the meat thermometer causes cancer, or the dimmable light bulbs explode?)

I suppose we’re lucky to have this wealth of information at our fingertips, to have all these options, to have people like Joseph S. to warn us of raw meat. And yet sometimes — usually when I’m deep down a rabbit hole, filtering reviews by the ones other shoppers have found to be the most helpful (because, of course, we can also review people’s reviews!) — I wonder if perhaps things have gotten a little bit out of hand.

There are exactly 856 options for fake mustaches on Amazon.

I know this because my friend needed one for her nine-year-old son, and she unsuspectingly stumbled into a rabbit hole of her own. She wasn’t immune to these sorts of time-sucks; she’d just spent several weeks scouring reviews of at-home laser hair-removal tools. But that seemed reasonable — she was looking for a device that literally shoots lasers into your skin. Plus, the one she eventually chose (the Braun Pro-5; 1,060 Amazon reviews) cost $300, so it wasn’t a decision to take lightly.

The mustache, however, was something else entirely — a cheap throwaway prop for her kid to wear once. She’d do a quick Amazon search and pick the first one that came up. But then she saw a review that mentioned adhesive quality, and another that called out the fluffiness of the fake hair. Might as well find the best one, she thought. Why not?

“It took me 45 minutes to buy an $8 package of fake mustaches,” she tells me sheepishly.

It took my mom 35 minutes to settle on an $8.95 weed puller (1,489 Amazon reviews), and it took my sister “three weeks of hard-core research” to buy a hairbrush. (Google “Mason Pearson brush reviews,” like she did, and you’ll get more than two million hits.) One friend is finding it impossible to decide between the four different pot-lid organizers in her Amazon cart, and another has been looking at ottomans for six months. The one she’s leaning toward has 1,509 reviews on Wayfair.

I’m sure there’s some deeper psychological stuff at play here — all of us instinctually craving control in a world that seems to be spiraling out of it. There’s no knowing if we’ll have a nuclear war soon, or if the Earth’s oceans will begin to boil in my child’s lifetime, but we can know all there is to know about the meat thermometer in our kitchen drawer. Will my friend be able to afford the cost of college in 10 years? Who knows! But her son’s fake mustache (674 reviews) stayed on for a full six hours, just as Kari45 promised.

There may be something salutary to this, says Barbara Kahn, a Wharton marketing professor who specializes in retail. People might feel more in control of their lives if they feel good about the decisions they’ve made, even simple consumer decisions. But this isn’t anything particularly new — we’ve always had to make these decisions, she reminds me, and we’ve always had to rely on some other source.

“One hundred years ago, you’d go to the butcher and say, ‘What’s good today?’ Or you’d go into the hairdresser down the block, and what the hairdresser said is what you knew. You’d go into the car dealer and trust the car salesman,” says Kahn.

Before YouTube beauty influencers, we had Mary Kay consultants tooling around town in pink Cadillacs; before Google, we had Consumers Union Reports magazine, started in the ’30s to assess stuff like milk, Alka-Seltzer, stockings and credit unions. (It’s now simply Consumer Reports and hidden mostly behind a paywall, though there are still some devoted print subscribers, like my one friend’s father-in-law. He’s 75.) An article ran in the 1974 issue of the New York Times: “Today, You Need a Consumers’ Guide to Consumers’ Guides.” Same time-sucks, different rabbit holes.

“All of this is timeless: Do I optimize, do I satisfy, how do I deal with too much information, do I want to buy from people like me or from an expert? What’s changed is that technology has facilitated access to a larger assortment and more information,” says Kahn.

Exactly! I think. This is the problem! Maybe this internationally renowned scholar has spent 45 minutes researching meat thermometers, too!

“But I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she continues. (Or maybe she hasn’t.) “The issue is, how do you parse it so it’s manageable?”

Kahn spins through ways we can approach this parsing, ways that seem at once highly academic and glaringly obvious: Do we want satisfaction or optimization? Are we looking for advice from an expert or from someone just like us? What do we hope to get out of it? If you want to satisfy, she says, turning to people just like you will give you something you’ll enjoy. If you want to optimize, turning to experts can cut through the noise. Kahn brings up Rotten Tomatoes, the TV and movie review site that presents a critics’ score alongside an audience score, so you can choose whether you want to hear from seasoned film reviewers or Frank in Arizona, whose favorite movie is Nutty Professor II.

“The best thing is when they agree,”  she says.

But they don’t always, of course. For every person who loves something, there’s someone else who wants to light it on fire. In 2019, Society Hill restaurant Zahav won the James Beard award for best restaurant in the entire country. But try telling that to Yelp reviewer Jason G. from Boca, who thinks the place is “gross,” “run bad,” and “also extremely hot.” My son was delighted by a set of Iron Man pajamas I bought him for Christmas, but Barn-Z’s son was traumatized by them.

“Thanks for ruining my son’s birthday,” his online review begins, before rising, as Joseph S.’s had, into wrath. “How are you going to show a picture of Iron Man’s suit with the normal red and yellow but send us one with red and orange??!! My 7-year-old LOVES Iron Man. So what do you think his reaction was when he opened up this piece of crap? First thing he said was, ‘This isn’t Iron Man.’” And then, just like Joseph S., he delivered his final blow: “You guys suck.”

Who’s to say whose review is more valid? Maybe Jason from Boca has loads of culinary experience. Maybe Barn-Z’s son is more discerning than mine. (Turns out he is; a quick rummage through my son’s drawer revealed that the Iron Man pajamas are in fact red and orange.) It’s all up to what you want to believe and whom you choose to trust.

And how much time you want to waste figuring it out.

Three and a half years ago, Barbara Kahn went to China and saw the future: TikTok. The social app, launched there in 2016 as “Douyin,” had already experienced dizzying growth and been successfully leveraged by brands and Key Opinion Leaders (or KOLs, as the Chinese call influencers) for major purchasing power. Now also in the U.S., TikTok has more than a billion subscribers worldwide, and according to a 2022 Insider Intelligence report, it will account for 18.5 percent of all U.S. spending on influencer marketing by 2024, up from 2.3 percent in 2019. TikTokers aren’t just on the app for an infinite loop of mindless dance fad videos; they’re using it as a search engine for products and recommendations. Maybe Joseph S. is somewhere on there, showing off his dog bowl.

“It’s way more social now — people are making decisions based on recommendations rather than filtering through a lot of information,” says Kahn. “And if you ask people why they do it, they’ll say, ‘I trust people like me. And I can see right away if they’re like me when I look at their videos, and so I go deeper in those videos, and then there’s millions of people who comment, so I feel like I’m getting valid information.’”

Or, as my friend with the fake mustache says, “If I’m looking for advice or guidance or leadership, I want someone way better and smarter than me, but when it comes to finding underwear that doesn’t ride up my bum, I’d rather hear from Becky in Pittsburgh who’s built like me.”

This democratization of influence is largely positive, granted. It’s easier than ever to find people who look and live like us to help us make decisions. And if regular people have more say, they also have more sway. To wit: In 2017, a viral online essay tearing apart West Elm’s infamously crappy Peggy sofa — the title: “Why Does This One Couch From West Elm Suck So Much?” — stirred up such a firestorm of equally pissed-off buyers that the company recalled the couch and offered anyone who’d bought one in the prior three years a full refund or replacement. (The essay had to be written; West Elm and its sister companies Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn don’t let customers post reviews on their sites.)

But democracy is messy, too. There’s the looming issue of fake reviews, not to mention recommendations being corrupted by undisclosed sponsorships. In a January story about the “scourge” of fake reviews, the New York Times reported that last year, moderators for the review site Yelp took down more than 700,000 posts that “violated its policies”; in 2020, TripAdvisor removed a million fraudulent reviews from its site. Over on TikTok, a takedown of one of the app’s most popular makeup influencers is in full swing after eagle-eyed users claimed she was secretly wearing fake eyelashes in a mascara review video. And an Amazon customer recently went viral when she outed a seller who tried to bribe her with $20 — then $40 — to take down her negative review of a bottle warmer. (Once again, I’m riveted.)

All this noise is partly why so many of us have drifted back to physical stores after years of online shopping. (In 2021, brick-and-mortar sales actually outpaced e-commerce­ sales, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.) Following a heady blitz of expansion and growth to meet COVID demand, e-commerce companies are now tightening their belts. Last year, Amazon closed or killed plans for dozens of facilities; online used-car dealership Carvana slashed 4,000 jobs; Philly’s start-up unicorn Gopuff, an on-demand product-delivery service, closed 76 warehouses and put IPO plans on hold. In January, online fashion subscription service Stitch Fix eliminated 20 percent of its team.

What we’re all looking for, says Kahn, is a justification for choice, and this is often easier to find in person: fewer options, immediate gratification, one salesperson instead of three million Jasons and Josephs and Beckys and Barn-Zs. It’s quieter without them, and a little disconcerting (how to make a decision without the safety net of their opinions?), but it’s also more enjoyable, and even empowering. I can feel how a mug fits in my hand without Carol in the Crate & Barrel review section telling me she thinks the handle is too thick. I can see for myself if the blanket is too itchy, or if the chair is comfortable enough. I can quickly pick a carpet shaver, because there’s only one option, and it’s a carpet shaver, for God’s sake. And if I end up finding that the blanket shrinks in the wash or the chair gets wobbly or the carpet shaver doesn’t work? Well, I guess that’s the chance you take.

I suppose it’s all about figuring out which rabbit holes are worth falling into and how much time you have to dig yourself out of them. I’m still working on this. I don’t know if my son will one day realize that his Iron Man pajamas are crap, or if I could have found a better heatless hair curler had I just kept looking, or if I’d have been better off buying the first decorative toilet-paper stand I saw at Target.

I also don’t know if Joseph S. was right about the meat thermometer, because five months later, I still haven’t used it. Even with all the proper tools at my disposal, and despite my very best intentions, I still hate to cook. But maybe one day, I’ll give the KULUNER TP-01 Waterproof Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer with 4.6-Inch Folding Probe Backlight and Calibration Function a try.

And maybe I’ll even write a review.


Published as “Up for Review” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.