Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Finding the Right Product Review for You

Many people are heading into this year’s holiday season with tighter budgets, prompting them to be even more selective with their gift buying. One way to make sure you’re getting the most for your dollar is to search the Web for product reviews. These reviews, usually consisting of ratings systems and comment sections, might give the finicky shopper a helpful glimpse into a real user’s experience with a product.

According to Buzzillions.com reviews, the Canon (CAJ) G9 Powershot camera is ranked No. 3 in its product category.

But reviews don’t always identify their authors’ true motives. One item might be reviewed by a satisfied customer who bought the product, or it could be from someone who designed the product and wants to see it succeed. A review could even be from a manufacturer’s disgruntled employee who wants to see the product fail. Blogs can perpetuate such biased behavior by inviting people to submit reviews without verifying whether or not the members ever used the product.

This week, I tested Buzzillions.com, a free Web site owned by San Francisco-based PowerReviews Inc. that mainly posts reviews from people who have verifiably purchased the product they are appraising, according to retailers’ records. It also organizes reviews in specific categories, allowing users to search according to how they categorize themselves.

For example, someone shopping for sheets can label herself a budget, midrange or high-end shopper. A guy looking for a videogame console could call himself a gaming novice, casual gamer, frequent player or hard-core gamer. And someone on the hunt for the right shampoo could call herself a minimalist, beauty conscious or a product junkie. Selecting one of these profile labels whittles reviews down to only those best suited for the personality of the person buying the product — or perhaps receiving it as a gift.

The secret sauce behind Buzzillions is generated by surveys that over 300 retailers send to consumers. A few weeks after buying a product, consumers receive an email survey with a link to a Buzzillions questionnaire. These surveys ask consumers what they consider to be a product’s pros, cons and best uses, and its ranking according to the site’s best-out-of-five star rating system. And, following the Buzzillions formula, it asks these verified buyers to categorize themselves. Both verified users and unverified users, alike, can write reviews for the site, though verified users’ reviews are more heavily considered in the “Buzzillions Rank” system.

The “Buzzillions Rank” shows a product’s standing in its particular category, based on an algorithm applied to the survey data. This formulated ranking is based on three things: a product’s star rating; the number of reviews it receives; and the reliability of its reviewers.

Though Buzzillions can’t prevent a person from posting multiple reviews on a product, it does search the site for duplicate content and users can notify the site if they doubt a review’s authenticity. This could trigger an investigation by the site that may involve tracking the Internet address of a reviewer, the times and frequency that a person posted reviews or even calling the person in question.

Buzzillions is particularly helpful when it comes to certain categories of reviews. The Electronics category, for example, is so populous that it must be divided into 17 subcategories with numerous smaller groups in each subcategory. This category can also be searched by brand.

But Buzzillions has its flaws. Not all products can be sorted with personality labels. And I found that some items were miscategorized. A “GPS” category included receivers, car navigation systems and wristwatches, but when I tried to narrow these products by selecting the “Automotive GPS” category, individual GPS data loggers and receivers still appeared instead of car-only devices like those from Garmin (GRMN) and TomTom. Buzzillions said it would correct this error, but products placed in the wrong categories could be highly confusing for someone unfamiliar with a product. Other categories, such as Shoes and Clothing, left me disappointed by the low number of represented brands and subcategories (i.e. shoes didn’t separate heels or flats from the pack).

Nothing is sold on Buzzillions.com itself, though the site does link to partner stores. But some product pages listed only one online store where the item could be bought. Buzzillions plans to fix this problem by listing about five to 10 online retailers per product.

People can use the site in two ways: as members, by signing up with an email and password and entering descriptions to create profiles of themselves and what types of products they like; or as unregistered visitors to the site. I tried both methods and found the member recommendations practical because they pointed out products I may not have found as quickly using searches. As a member, you instantly see a list of suggested products according to your profile as well as receive gift suggestions via email. And even using the site without becoming a member worked well, never making me feel like the best bits were only offered to registered members.

I really liked Buzzillions’ “Review Snapshot,” a small at-a-glance box that lists pros, cons and best uses for a product. This snapshot also shows a product’s Buzzillions Rank, as well as its star ranking compared with the category’s star-ranking average. I saved a lot of time by skimming these concise snapshots rather than opening every review.

Buzzillions recently created a mobile version of its site, mobile.buzzillions.com, which runs on the iPhone’s Web browser and can be used for quick looks at reviews and top-10 lists. The company has plans to release an actual iPhone app that should be available soon via Apple’s (AAPL) App Store.

The more I used Buzzillions, the more I grew to depend on the site’s signature Buzzillions Rank, which is clearly listed on a big, bright-green badge. The top 10 products in each category are distinctly labeled, with the No. 1 item in a category getting a special ribbon. And this ranking held true to its formula and showed a product’s real standing: I often saw an item with a higher star-rating average receive a lower Buzzillions Rank because they had far fewer reviews compared with products with a higher Buzzillions Rank.

Another helpful stat that Buzzillions displays prominently with each review is the date that it was reviewed. I looked at a pair of tennis sneakers with a top-10 Buzzillions Rank, but some of that pair’s reviews were labeled with dates that were too old to be relevant for me. Electronics fans, of course, would care even more about these dates.

All told, Buzzillions does a good job of balancing reviews and culling the most-appropriate reviews for certain people based on personality traits. It currently has more than 3.6 million reviews, but will most likely continue to grow as more people use and rely on it, making it an even more valuable tool for shoppers.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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