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Why Some Wirecutter Picks Have Bad Amazon Reviews
Photo: Michael Murtaugh

Why Some Wirecutter Picks Have Bad Amazon Reviews

  • We updated information on what Amazon has done to keep customers from purchasing counterfeit products.

Here at Wirecutter, we work hard to recommend the best stuff—things that will make your life easier, more efficient, happier, and better. Our team of 100 journalists spends thousands of hours every year rigorously testing and assessing thousands of items. This process includes analyzing innumerable customer reviews on Amazon and other sites. We routinely scour owner reviews of promising products when we’re starting work on a new guide, and we check on the reviews to see how a particular model has been holding up for people over time. In short: We look at customer reviews a lot.

Generally, positive overall ratings are a good sign, and negative ratings raise a red flag. But just as five-star reviews aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem, bad reviews don’t necessarily tell the full story, either.

For example, currently 8 percent of the reviews for our top-pick external DVD drive give it one star. And 8.5 percent of the people who have reviewed our top-pick ice maker haven’t been impressed at all. And a whopping 10 percent of the reviews for our favorite cheap scanner give it only one star. Readers who notice such trends often ask us why we still recommend things with a track record of less-than-stellar customer reviews.

We know it can be disconcerting to click on one of our recommendations only to be confronted by a slew of negative ratings, or to check Fakespot only to find that one of our recommendations scores poorly. But we have good explanations for this apparent dissonance.

We’re grading on a curve

Sometimes people who leave reviews on sites like Amazon haven’t thoroughly tested all the other options available. But we have. And in categories with a lot of mediocre competitors, our recommendation is simply the best available option.

This is true for printers. We think all printers suck, but our pick sucks the least. We’re not surprised that our pick has negative reviews. Similarly, no mosquito repellent, even our pick, is 100 percent effective; we stand behind our recommendations, but at the same time we expect to see some reports from people who used our top pick and still got devoured by bugs.

Sometimes when we say an item is the best of the bunch, we’ve been forced to grade on a curve. We try to be as transparent as possible about our rationale in all cases, but particularly in cases like these. Our reviews always reflect our honest opinion. We would never intentionally deceive you into buying something subpar. But sometimes subpar is the best you can get.

The reviews are fake

Just as with positive reviews, negative reviews can be fake, so it’s not safe to assume that a review is genuine just because it’s critical. Fakespot is a useful tool to suss out what may be a fake review. Unfortunately, sometimes otherwise-reputable companies buy fake reviews, which is one of the reasons a bad grade on Fakespot doesn’t necessarily mean the product itself is terrible. Alternatively, sometimes companies prompt customers to write reviews through an app or for a promotion, and a high volume of reviews with similar language can be enough to trigger a bad grade from Fakespot. Just take a bad grade on Fakespot as an indication to proceed with caution.

The reviews aren’t about the product itself

Sometimes people post negative reviews when they have bad experiences with shipping, delivery, or customer service—and while those factors definitely matter to us, they don’t reflect the quality of the item. We ran into this issue while analyzing customer reviews of optical drives—many people commented on the clunky software or certain operating system incompatibilities rather than on the drives themselves. And in categories where warranty and customer service issues tend to generate extra frustration—such as refrigerators or washers and dryers—an Amazon listing can become a catch-all place for people to vent about their bad experiences, regardless of which retailer they actually used to make the purchase.

The reviews refer to a different version of the product

Sometimes Amazon groups different versions of a product together on the same page, meaning that not all the reviews apply to the current model. Sometimes we’ve picked that model above the rest for a reason.

The listing has a counterfeit problem

Sometimes when ordering online through Amazon, eBay, or Alibaba, people receive a poorly constructed counterfeit instead of the genuine item they ordered. That can lead to negative reviews based on a phony knockoff rather than on our actual recommendation.

Amazon reports that the company has invested $700 million to protect its stores from fraud, and seized more than 2 million phony products before they reached customers. We’ve covered what to do if you think you may have received a counterfeit, as well as how to avoid buying a counterfeit in the first place: Take a moment before you click to buy, read any seller reviews available—not just the product reviews—and look for items “shipped and sold by Amazon” if you want to avoid third-party sellers.

People have unrealistic expectations

Sometimes people post negative reviews after they use a product incorrectly (such as forgetting to take the plastic wrapping off the filter inside our top air purifier pick) or because they have unrealistic expectations. The best pair of budget headphones can’t avoid being a pair of budget headphones, after all.

The product has changed

We’re always honest about what we think, but sometimes products or services do decline in quality. When we become aware of negative changes, we investigate and often retest to determine whether we need to update our recommendation.

For example, staff writer Sarah Witman looks for patterns: If one review mentions an issue with an item’s handle, for example, she’ll search for other reviews with the keyword “handle” to see if the issue is isolated or if it seems to be part of a trend—a good strategy for reviewers and readers alike. If you’re worried that a product may have changed since we reviewed it, please comment or contact us.

It’s also important to remember that bad experiences are often overrepresented in customer reviews. People who have a legitimate reason to be upset are more likely to leave a review than someone who is completely satisfied.

Parsing through reviews involves a lot of nuance and guesswork, gray areas and judgment calls. When we update our guides, we test additional competitors and look into what people have been saying about an item. We always take note of the feedback we receive from our readers.

We think getting high-quality, unbiased information is an important part of deciding what to buy. Whether you use Wirecutter as one of several sources of information in your own research process or whether you take us at our word without doing additional research, we want you to end up with exactly what you need.