Shop Smarter: 8 Tips for Getting the Most from Online Product Reviews

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Unlike clothes, furniture, lighting, appliances and tech devices are one-size-fits-all, yet I still sometimes feel like I'd like to "try it out" before purchasing. That's where online reviews come in, allowing prospective shoppers like myself to consider the experiences and feedback of other buyers before pressing "purchase". Here are some tips for filtering out the static to effectively discover the most useful online information from customer reviews...

Here's a list of my favorite strategies for finding and, well, reviewing online reviews, collected from personal experience and all around the web.

Remember: Negatives always outweigh the positives online.
Satisfied shoppers are often too busy enjoying their new toys to return to a retailer and write a favorable review. More often, it's people who've had poor experiences who return to give share their opinions online. Take everything online with a grain of salt.

Look beyond the stars.
Even when the majority of reviewers award a product 5 stars, it's worthwhile to read through the reviews to see how your personal preference matches up with the reviewers' tastes. Apartment Therapy's Eric Chen noticed a mass of negative reviews shopping for a mattress online, but quickly realized they all mentioned how firm it was—a selling point for him. In the same vein, specific positive experiences or features may be less than ideal for you. Sometimes it helps to look past the star or numerical ratings and review the specifics.

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Read the negative reviews first.
If an item has some Achilles heel deal-breaking flaw, the weaker reviews will reveal it quickly. Keep in mind, though...

You can skip one-star reviews.
The most useless ratings are almost exclusively 1-star reviews from buyers who had a poor shipping experiences or a faulty product anomaly. Start reading reviews rated one step up from the worst to find the most honest negative critiques about a product's performance.

But don't skip long reviews.
Brief is better, most of the time. But when it comes to user-submitted product reviews, wordier entries will often offer up more details about product performance. Don't be afraid to read through a wall of text.

Compare reviews across multiple sites.
An exclusive Amazon shopper may still want to venture over to another site's product page to check the reviews from a different set of buyers. For a big purchase, you can also check for unsolicited "reviews" on social networks. Comb Twitter for tweets about the product you're considering, searching for colloquial phrases with the brand, model or type, like "Samsung TV" or "Juice Pack."

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Learn how to spot a fake.
Did a glowing review come from the manufacturer? Could a scathing review been written by a competitor's PR firm? It's possible. Keep your guard up and look for clues that the review is a fake. If the same string of words pops up in multiple reviews, they might have originated from the same source. Also, check the user history of anyone posting reviews pinging your "fake-dar". You might discover the reviewer is the same source of 9 poor reviews for different headphones, and one suspiciously ravingly positive one—a major red flag.

...Or just ignore it all.
A great product experience is totally subjective. Take a cue from Lifehacker's Whitson Gordon and eschew product reviews entirely. Whitson recommends the try-before-you-buy approach: Purchase multiple options from stores with flexible return policies and review them for yourself.

(Images: Geoff's Southern Exposure Studio, Amazon, @DrewMcM/Twitter)