The rise of the recommendation site

Shanée Benjamin/Vox

Say you want to buy a travel mug. You could go to Target, but staring at the display isn’t going to tell you which one is difficult to clean and which is likely to spill coffee down your sweater during your morning commute. So you Google “best travel mugs.” A new problem arises: Multiple product recommendation sites have published articles perfectly tailored to your query. How do you proceed? Do you cross-reference them all and pick the brand that appears most frequently, your brain quietly short-circuiting when you discover that some reviewers support the Contigo “Byron Vacuum-Insulated” mug while others swear by the Contigo “Autoseal West Loop”? Target is starting to seem like a good idea.

Consumer Reports has been subjecting everyday products to rigorous testing since 1936, but the past decade has seen a flurry of growth in the product review space, with the launch of publications like Wirecutter (2011), Best Products (2015), New York magazine’s the Strategist (2016), BuzzFeed Reviews (2018), and the Inventory (2018). Apart from the standalone sites, plenty of properties like The Verge (which, like Vox.com, is owned by Vox Media) have robust reviews programs. That’s not to mention the many, many individuals who review products on blogs and YouTube. As ever more authorities enter the fray, the question is this: When everyone claims to have identified the “best” product in a category, who do you trust?

The question may also be: Why would we ever turn to the internet, the vast sea into which the world dumps its opinions, to find the single superlative anything?

“I think that as human beings, we assume that someone else knows something better than us,” says Diana Blaszkiewicz, a 30-year-old who works at a law firm in Washington, DC, and frequently reads the Strategist. “If you have the smallest amount of doubt about something, you’re like, ‘Someone has to know more than I do.’”

Faced with so many helpful suggestions, it’s easy to start spiraling. The good news is that while many sites do attempt to name exemplary products, their goals and methodologies vary widely. And knowing those differences gives shoppers an opportunity to pick a lane.

Jason Chen, deputy editor at the Strategist, describes the site as “a resource if you’re looking for something in particular, and also a fun read if you’re not.” In keeping with its parent company’s sophisticated sensibility, the Strategist offers a level of taste, not omniscience or product specs. The site publishes voicey, impassioned, charmingly specific recommendations from cultural figures (Lena Dunham on shampoo for her hairless cat; Call Me by Your Name author André Aciman on Costco pistachios and Bluetooth speakers) and useful roundups from experts (“How to Brighten Up Your Sad Kitchen Lighting, According to Interior Designers”).

“We’re not God, and we’re not trying to be,” says Chen. “We’re trying to be your cool friend who has a certain view of the world.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Wirecutter once tried out nine popular meal kit delivery services in its test kitchen — before asking seven people around the country to test the four finalists, a grand total of roughly 190 meals cooked over four months — in order to provide a comprehensive assessment of the space. Not every product category needs to be reviewed by that many people or for that long, says Ganda Suthivarakom, acting editor in chief of the New York Times-owned site. Certain staffers are already experts in categories like televisions or headphones, and sometimes the wisest option is just to interview a bunch of painters about the best wall paints. But getting hands-on is Wirecutter’s thing.

“It starts with research, the same kind of research anyone would do when they’re ready to buy something. We look at reviews, what other experts are saying, and we’re trying to figure out the list of things we should test,” says Suthivarakom. “Then we get hands-on. We come up with a test plan and try to make it work for real-world problems.”

Still another route is asking readers what they like best and highlighting the top responses, which is what Gizmodo’s Co-Op does. If you want to know what the community’s favorite electric toothbrushes and cutting boards are, you can. Co-Op and Kinja Deals fall under the umbrella of the Inventory, which Gizmodo launched in May. There, staff and freelance writers publish first-person product recommendations. Those, too, serve as a jumping-off point for discussions with readers, says Shep McAllister, Gizmodo’s senior director for commerce.

BuzzFeed Reviews, which is based on “research and testing,” offers three options at three price points for each product type (cold brew maker, travel pillow, toilet paper). Best Products, which Hearst launched in 2015, goes for scale with a wide-ranging mix of first-person suggestions and “best of” lists: 50-plus family board games for holiday gifting, an editor-endorsed collagen mist, the best Black Friday deals in “literally every category.”

The words “the best” appear in a lot of headlines on these sites — because Google searches for “best” have been steadily rising for years, making it great SEO juice for media sites that need clicks to live — but their editors’ attitudes toward being able to name a best anything are less rigid than you might expect. As Chen said, they’re not God.

“We don’t tend to say, ‘This is the best X,’” says McAllister. “We can say, ‘Based on five years of sales data from Kinja Deals, this is the X that our readers buy the most,’ or, ‘Based on Co-Op posts, this is the X that readers recommend the most.’ Or we can say, ‘I’ve tried this product and it’s my favorite.’”

“‘Best’ is always going to be subjective. The big thing for us, and for the other sites out there, is that you always show your work,” he adds.

Wirecutter considers its product guides living documents, to be updated if customer reviews suddenly start to drop or if, in continuing to use a product, the writer discovers that it doesn’t hold up over a long period of time. It has a dedicated “Updates” team monitoring pricing and stock changes, as well as recalls and hazard alerts. The best is always a moving target, much as we’d all like to be told exactly what to buy, end of story.

Suthivarakom adds that some products are simply too subjective for her team to identify a best. Home decor is that way. Wirecutter won’t name one universally perfect set of flatware, but it can find eight great options and let its readers choose based on their budget and aesthetic leanings.

The search for the best very much feels like a product of our time. Coming out of the 2008 recession, those who couldn’t afford to shop with impunity could use the internet to make sure that what they did buy was the best possible option. Media companies, grappling with a draining pool of ad money, needed new revenue streams, and launching or acquiring product review sites was one way to accomplish that. By using affiliate links, publications receive a commission when readers click on a link to an e-commerce site and then buy something.

These partnerships are now common in the media world, even on sites that aren’t dedicated to product recommendations. Vox Media uses affiliate links on many of its sites, including Vox.com. But the business of being a moneymaking website can complicate the prospect of building reader trust. Recode reported in March that for the owner of one mattress review site, “the size of the commission he gets from a mattress brand coupled with the sales volume of that item does indeed influence his rankings.” According to Recode, he wasn’t the only one.

“The fundamental principle [of service journalism] has to be transparency and truth in disclosure,” says Raju Narisetti, a professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School and the former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group. Clear labels indicating when a site might receive affiliate revenue are helpful, Narisetti says, as is having a service journalism team that’s entirely separate from the rest of the newsroom.

Chen says that affiliate revenue never affects what products the Strategist recommends, though it can guide which retailer the site links to, depending on which one offers the highest commission. Suthivarakom notes that while Wirecutter receives affiliate revenue, it will occasionally tell readers not to buy a particular product at all if the testing shows that it’s not worth it. (For example: Keurig coffee machines.)

“We may get paid on the back end through affiliate links, but you can’t pay your way onto Kinja Deals,” says McAllister.

Another potential complication is that brands spend a lot of money on sending free, unsolicited product to reporters and editors. (That’s not just true of journalists — with the rise of social media influencers and YouTubers, “gifting,” as it’s called, has grown exponentially.) Every publication has its own rules about accepting and writing about freebies, but it’s not uncommon for, say, a beauty writer to publish a story about a face cream or shampoo that they got for free.

“If a brand sends The Strategist an unsolicited product and we choose to cover it, the piece will disclose it was a gift,” writes a rep for New York magazine in an email. “Sending The Strategist products doesn’t guarantee coverage. When writers are reviewing products, they either buy them and expense them, call in items for review (which the review itself will always disclose), or get loaners from brands. If the loaner is an item that can’t be returned, the post will disclose it was a gift to New York Media.”

McAllister says the Inventory’s staffers will accept product samples if they’re interested in potentially writing about them, but they too make clear that coverage isn’t guaranteed. For some stories, writers request loaner products from brands; other posts are based on personal purchases.

Similarly, Wirecutter’s staffers may buy items they plan to review, or they may borrow it from the manufacturer on the condition that they will return it at the end of the trial period. If the manufacturer doesn’t want it back, it gets donated.

“We don’t accept unsolicited product,” says Suthivarakom. “We have the same DNA as the Times, and we know that reader trust is the most important asset we have. We can never squander that, because without it, we don’t have a business.”

Narisetti echoed that sentiment: “Putting in ‘buy’ buttons just because you have a big audience is a failed idea, but if you think about it as commerce becoming a byproduct of your reader trust — and trust being the main product — then I think you have the ability to succeed.”

E-commerce may be a key way for media businesses to sustain themselves. But that comes with the caveat that engendering reader trust is sometimes about playing the long game. Indeed, review sites don’t always see a direct financial gain from their product suggestions. Blaszkiewicz says that a recommended item may not strike her fancy when she first reads about it, but it becomes increasingly attractive the more she sees it referenced around the internet.

“I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything from those sites, but when I see [featured products] in real life, I gravitate toward them, especially in product categories I know less well,” says Jenny Di, 24, who reads the Strategist and Wirecutter mostly as online window shopping. “The one time I found myself in a Korean beauty store, I bought the products recommended on the Strategist.”

That, in theory, will eventually lead her back to the Strategist.

Trust becomes even more important when you consider that legitimate product recommendations float in the internet’s opinion soup alongside fake Sephora reviews and unmarked Instagram sponcon. As a reader and a shopper, it’s a lot to wade through. And yet we persist, not just because we believe in certain sites but because we want to surrender our doubt to someone, anyone.

“If you’re writing about a product, I assume you know more than I do,” says Blaszkiewicz. “Logically that might not make much sense, but that really is the way I look at it. That’s why I continue to buy stuff based on other people’s recommendations, even though I have purchased stuff through the Strategist that sucked and I ended up throwing it away.”

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