Why Amazon Reviews of Standing Desks and Ergonomic Products Can’t Be Trusted
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[Editors’ Note: Since we first published this article in 2016 an additional dynamic has surfaced which make Amazon user reviews an even less reliable indicator of product quality than before, and not just in the office fitness category. Many news reports have surfaced since that describe “review factories” in China. There’s even a global network of fake reviewers who get free product in exchange for positive reviews. Amazon sellers can buy artificial reviews from these dark web services to inflate their products’ ratings — and they’re getting away with it. By 2021, reporters started discovering rampant fraud being committed by resellers who were swapping out products that had good reviews with completely different products. By 2022 Amazon admitted that it has a force of over 10,000 employees who do nothing but hunt down fake reviews.
Unfortunately, Amazon’s algorithms have a hard time spotting these deceptive tactics, and more and more users have been complaining on social media about poor experiences with products that had 4.5 or 5 star reviews on Amazon, and of receiving mystery packages of product they’ve never ordered. All this reinforces our own mission as an independent reviews site to conduct expert lab testing of products, and to provide readers with authentic user reviews that are not subject to tampering.]
The Amazon Shopping Experience
For the prospective buyer, product reviews are vital information. When you’re deciding between multiple similar products, usually you turn to the reviews as the deciding factor. Which item has the highest rating? The problem, though, is on the largest global online marketplace, those important, decision-altering reviews are often completely fraudulent. The editor’s note above mentions verified reports of “review factories” fabricating reviews for products all across the spectrum. It’s one major reason why you will be hard pressed to find a product listed on Amazon with a rating beneath 4.0. Good luck.
But, how can that be? With millions of products available for sale, hardly a single product features a rating lower than 4.0? Surely, there’s been enough crap manufactured that has angered the majority of its customers to generate a mediocre to poor rating somewhere in the 1.5-3 range, right?
Of course there have been. The trick is that Amazon sellers enhance their reviews with any number of shady tactics from “buying” user reviews to writing reviews themselves. Meanwhile, the Amazon shopping experience has devolved into a glorified dumpster fire. We found this video on Youtube which perfectly epitomizes that experience.
Focus on the Content rather than Rating
Customer reviews from verified buyers are an essential source of information for our staff when we’re getting a first look at a product. We generally disregard user reviews posted on manufacturers’ own websites, as these tend to be highly curated and never include any seriously negative reviews. A better source of independent reviews are marketplace sites, such as Amazon.
Readers should note, however, that not all reviews found on Amazon are from verified buyers, and sometimes, verified buyers can be the manufacturers’ own employees or their competitors’ employees shilling out positive or negative posts to manipulate consumers. This is particularly true for new products with very few user reviews posted as yet. You might think Amazon enforces against these kinds of manipulations, but in point of fact, they have no such police force. Ideally, we’ll see hundreds of customer reviews on a product, not just a handful, if we are to ferret out consistent themes from verified buyers — whether positive or negative.
Remember, when reading Amazon reviews that context is lacking. These are customers who largely are rating a product based on what they expected it to be, rather than providing an objective rating of said product based on the entirety of the offers within that category on the marketplace.
We have found that the most helpful reviews are 4-star, because these reviews feature at least one thing wrong with the product. We take the same approach with product reviews as analysts do with a data set: Ignore the outliers, focus on the heart. Where are most of the reviews centered? As important as a 1-star or 2-star review is, understand that unless there’s a good proportion in relation to the overall number, these are typically from either unreasonable customers or unlucky ones who received a lemon or had a really bad customer service experience.
In any event, the words Amazon users write are far more telling than the star ratings they give because there’s no published guideline for how many stars to give a product, and people tend to be highly subjective. More importantly, stars don’t give you any information, words do. How does the product perform? What is its durability? Users will give you key information if you read what they wrote, rather than focusing on the star rating.
Rushing to Judgment
A phenomenon that we observe with great regularity in regard to Amazon reviews of office fitness products specifically is that many of them are posted before the merchandise even arrives, or after the first day of using the product, and are highly optimistic about how the product will transform the reviewers’ lives. In part, this is a psychological slap on their own back for doing something positive to improve their health — be it back pain, obesity, foot issues, etc. — because they believe the product will help alleviate those problems.
This is, in part, simply a lack of context. For example, if this is the very first, if not only, standing-desk converter you’ve ever seen, and you really liked the TV commercial that drove you to Amazon to buy it, you might give it a 5-star review because you think it’s a revolutionary solution to your problems. On the other hand, if you’ve seen this very same product side-by-side with its competitors in a test lab, you might give it a 2-star or 3-star review. This happens all too often. In fact, it’s the rule rather than the exception.
These phenomenon are so common that an average 4-star Amazon review in the office fitness category often translates to a 2-star or 3-star review from our expert staff reviewers, and even a 4.5-star Amazon rating could translate to a very mediocre experts’ view of the same product. In contrast, 5-star Amazon reviews tend to be a much better indicator of a product’s quality, but even in this case, we find occasional exceptions, such as the Varidesk. Here is a brand whose massive television and print advertising has bought it the extremely uninformed, subjective infomercial buyer filling their product pages with 5-star reviews. Comparatively, the opinions of our more informed experts, differ. There are already two dozen competitors with products that offer both better features and customer value, just with less consumer visibility.
Most People Were Raised to Be Nice—Perhaps Too Nice?
What we find particularly stunning, is that the average rating given to a product that the user has so disliked that they returned it, is 3 stars. That’s right, a 3-star review can essentially mean “I hated it, but maybe I’m weird and you’d like it. In any event I don’t want to be mean to the manufacturer, maybe I had a lemon, it’s not their fault.” Many people also know from experience that if you give a product on Amazon a one or two star review you may get pestered incessantly by the merchant to beg you to remove it. That’s because it can kill their business, not only by depressing sales of that product, but due to the way Amazon’s machine learning algorithms operate, it can prevent all of that merchant’s products from even being shown in search results, which, frankly, can indeed be devastating to their business.
The bottom line is that we glean tremendously useful information from users’ writings in trying to broaden our observations about a product, but not much value from their star ratings. While we’ve never seen a poorly reviewed product on Amazon turn out to be a great one in our own lab testing, we’ve seen a preponderance of over-rated products on Amazon from customers who simply have never compared the products side-by-side in a test lab, have rushed to post a review before even giving the product a good run, or are just too nice to say what they really think. And that’s why you’re reading our reviews—to get the straight skinny from people who actually test products for a living.
Learn more about how we review products at WorkWhileWalking by reading Anatomy of a Review.