And Its One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

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“We’re introducing this great board today. Well, not really. We won’t actually hand you one for a month, and nobody
can buy it for two months, but we want an extra round of free advertising, so you will write
a nice long “preview” if you ever want to see an nForce2, now won’t you?”

No, I don’t have transcripts or wiretaps or smoking gun emails, but based on appearances alone, doesn’t it seem that way?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when a company tries to put you in a situation that really sucks, the manly answer is not to first ask, “How hard?” then bitch about it while you’re doing it (like one unnamed website).

The real answer is to use the magic word, “No” (or maybe in this particular case, “nO“).

The problem with that approach is that it’s universally believed that if you use it, it can lead to you going away, too.

Our View Of The World

During the time I’ve done this, the biggest change I’ve seen is the commericalization of the review process. Manufacturers have taken notice of these sites, and now integrate hardware reviews into their marketing plan.

On the whole, this has greatly warped and distorted the review picture.

There is an inherent conflict-of-interest in the typical review site. The audience wants to hear when something sucks, but the manufacturer won’t give you any more toys to play with if you do.

Today, you basically have three groups.

First, you have the blatant fanboys who can be counted on to give wonderfully positive blurbs about a product, any product, that a manufacturer can put on their website. They got on the gravy train, and they’re looking out for Number One.

However, their role is not limited to just that. Their existence puts pressure on everyone else to be as positive as possible. They load the gun the manufacturer can wave at the other websites, the gun saying silently, “Make it good, or we’ll just send our samples elsewhere.”

Second, you have those sites who generally go along with the game, but feel some lingering obligation to the audience. So they try to play it both ways and play a variant of “Where’s Waldo?” They’ll deliver as positive a conclusion as they can stomach for the manufacturer website blurb, but give some clue (sometimes more subtle, sometimes less) as to what they really think of the product.

Of course, since people often jump first to the conclusion, and often don’t look any further, this is less heroic than one might first suppose.

Finally, you have those (relative few) whose sense of integrity exceed their sense of marketing. This is an endangered species indeed.

How can you tell the difference?

If, according to the website, everything is wonderful, it belongs to the first group.

If, according to the website, not everything is wonderful, but at least some part of the audience should buy anything reviewed, it belongs to the second group.

If the website occasionally says, “This product sucks, nobody should buy this,” in language less opaque than the I Ching, it belongs to the third group.

These folks are getting squeezed out for a number of reasons.

If they write clearly negative reviews, the result is often not getting any more free product in advance. The highlighted words indicate the two big problems with a completely independent approach.

Time: You can’t buy a product before it goes on sale, so anyplace that gets a product a couple days to a couple weeks beforehand is going to have a huge advantage when the audience is impatient, and this audience is.

It’s gotten to the point where for certain products, the amount of time review sites get to “review” a product can be measured in hours. Why? Because someone else will accept those restrictions, and you’ll run to visit them.

Money: If a website were to do a Consumer Reports and just buy everything they tested, you would be looking at a hardware budget approaching $100,000 a year. That all by itself is beyond the conceivable range of all but a few websites.

That’s not even the real cost, though. You can’t expect people to do this all for free, either, at least not for any prolonged length of time. Even just to do barebones just-run-some-benchmarks testing would at a bare minimum increase that budget at least 50%, and probably a lot more.

In the great scheme of things, we’re not talking U.S. defense budget here, but for practical purposes, nobody wants to pay for it. Even for the direct payment projects that have “worked,” the vast majority of participants have taken the “free” option or just gone elsewhere.

People don’t even want to pay indirectly, either. If a site breeds pop-ups, it doesn’t breed revenues, it just breeds pop-up blockers.

(I must say many popups are now disgustingly bad; but essentially, we got them because we ignored everything else (and there’s too many open mouths for too few ad dollars). I think the obnoxious approach is inevitably self-defeating, but the ad money can go elsewhere, too. The failure of advertising that will pay more than a pittance will mean tons of tiny websites, a few big commercial ones, a few niche-occupying paysites, and practically nothing else. The only other plausible alternative for audiences of medium-sized sites to remain ad-supported is to essentially volunteer personal information for targeted advertising. Bet that will go over big. NOT.)

So, to put it bluntly, the average review site can’t afford to be completely honest (and if you think “yours” is, odds are they’re not more honest, just too subtle for you to have caught yet).

Mind you, if we were doing the same review routine, we’d be in the same boat. This is why we’ve never been big on reviewing product; we don’t want to settle into that boat, and we can’t afford to buy and test everything. Either that, or we’d have a ton of one-product stands.

This is why we’re going to primarily focus on the aftermarket in the future (we’ll still do cooling reviews, and we’ll stay up to date equipment-wise so we can judge the aftermarket). It’s a niche area that really needs to be covered, but it’s also monetarily cheap.

All the above is what a “free” review costs you. It can’t afford to be completely honest.

I remember the early PC magazine days. Back then, there were two types of magazines: those that never found a product they didn’t like, and those that did. The first type died off within a couple years, some of the second are still around. I think history is going to repeat itself.

Is It Yours? (Or Does Our Irritation Just Irritate You?)

Our earlier surveying has consistently indicated that this state of affairs seems to bother us a lot more than it bothers you.

It’s indirectly indicated that a fairly tiny percentage think everything is fine, about 15-25% of the audience is pretty much fed up, and the rest pretty much have a “make the best of it” attitude.

What rather irritates us is that those who are a bit more subtle about it tend to get high marks for honesty rather than hypocrisy, and when we occasionally point that out, what we often get is incomprehension or irritation directed at us rather than the irritant.

We even gave some thought to primarily making this site a review site of the review sites to put some pressure on upgrading the quality and integrity of this arena, but we concluded it would be suicidal.

Too many people and sites are just too delicate for such treatment, and all we’d end up with would be gallons of tears, a few frivolous lawsuits, more frivolous fan attacks and PC people who don’t think anybody or anything should be criticized, and even more prevalent incomprehension of the more subtle slants we’d point out.

Well, in the long run, it hardly matters.

Our surveying has indicated that there seems to be a downhill road followed when it comes to how people look at review sites.

First, people find a few places they like. Then they get burned or otherwise disgusted with one or more of them. For a while, they look for more trustworthy sites. Then they come to the conclusion that nobody deserves 100% trust, so they just look at items like features and benchmarks that they don’t think can be screwed up. Finally, they say to hell with them all, and look towards forums and what “real people” think about products.

It’s not an inevitable road, and it’s not one most people want to travel. Most would rather be able to put their trust in some places, but as this article points out, the game is increasingly rigged, and only a few are willing to pay what would likely be a substantial price for a Consumer Reports approach. (P.S.: We’re just suggesting it would be a good idea, we’re not volunteering to do it, or even hinting at it. We think there are better ways for us to be useful.)

Educational Or Irrelevant?

We don’t like getting irritated for no purpose. If what irritates us also irritates you, fine. If our irritation just irritates you, that’s not so fine.

The question we face on this issue is, “Are we being educational when we point these things out, or just irrelevant?” Fighting the good fight is one thing, but sometimes it feels like being an American soldier in Vietnam. You get the feeling the people you’re fighting for don’t give a damn.

We suspect the latter. With few exceptions, the emails get pretty quiet when we do this. To the extent we get reaction, we see an unholy coalition.

Some are against criticism, period. More are against criticism of “their” website (and it never ceases to amaze me how personally some take it).

Supporting this position from the other side are the cynics, “Well, DOH, were you born yesterday? What else could you expect?”

Even those who aren’t against criticism rarely stop or even change their visiting habits as a result, at most, they just take the place with a bit more salt, and maybe take a few more steps down that downward road.

So what do you think? Do the things we’ve talked about bother you? Do you think these are matters that should be brought up? Or is your reaction more like, “What’s the big deal?” or “What’s the use of complaining?”

Ed

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