The problems with reviews

Part 1 – Everybody knows how reviews work

What about those bad reviews? Why didn’t the reviewer find the flaws that an experienced user would find in a few minutes?

It’s tempting for the casual observer to assume that everything wrong with product reviews must be to do with advertiser influence. But again, speaking from my own experience, that certainly isn’t the case.

However, the conditions under which reviews are written certainly does have an impact on their quality, so it’s worth looking at them.

Print media is having a bit of a bad time right now, to put it mildly, but aside from a few very well funded magazines, the IT press has never exactly been massively overstaffed. When I worked on Computer Buyer, the editorial team (that’s not counting the guys who do art, or the production desk) was me, a deputy editor, technical and features editors, and an editorial assistant – five people, including the assistant. Most work was done by freelances.

Around the same time, over at Personal Computer World, they had eight or nine, plus some testers in the labs; the by the time PCW was closed, the editorial office was four people, plus a labs team of one.

Meanwhile, on the freelance side of things, the rate that most magazines pay has not changed in years; I can’t remember the last time I chatted with a fellow freelance to be told that they’d had their rate increased. It’s more likely to have been the same for five years or more, and during that time, as the number of staff in magazine offices has decreased, freelances have had to take on more of the work, for the same money.

So, for example, a freelance will often be the person sourcing kit and pitching reviews to magazines. As well as writing the review, you’ll also have to sort out photography – either submitting PR shots with it, or taking your own, and seldom being paid for them. You may be expected to mark up the copy using a specific template, to save time on a smaller production desk. All these things would have been done in house in the past, by production teams and editorial assistants.

Follow the money

But surely, you cry, freelances are rewarded handsomely for their work, aren’t they? Well, not so much, actually. I won’t give exact figures, and they differ anyway from one publication to another. Typically, for a half page review in a print magazine like Personal Computer World, you’d earn less than £80. For a full page review, you might earn a little short of £200.

Sounds reasonable, on the face of it. Until you wonder “why did the reviewer miss that?” And you realise that, when you want to make a living out of this, you have to do a lot of work. For a half page review to make sense, you need to do it in a day – that’s playing with the kit, exploring its quirks, taking screenshots, and writing the copy.

If you’re reviewing something that’s problematic – perhaps there are clashes with drivers on your computer, or some weird issue you’ve discovered – what happens next? If you spend time tinkering, and calling technical support, and it runs to two days, then you’ve made £80 for sixteen hours work. That’s not even minimum wage – and that’s the biggest reason why there are errors with reviews.

You might have 350 words (or 750, for just under £200) to explain a product, to get over the idea of what it does, and why it might or might not be worth a look, and you need to get it done fairly swiftly, if you’re actually going to come out ahead, or you’d be better off flipping burgers.

There are solutions to this, of course. You’ll often see that one person has written a few reviews of a product, for different magazines or websites – it’s a good way to increase the return on the time you’ve spent testing something, and allow yourself more time. Everyone gets a better review as a result, and as a freelance you make more cash. It’s also worth mentioning here that some websites pay a flat fee for reviews that makes the amounts I’ve quoted here look extremely generous.

The other solution is to focus on specific areas, which is what I do. Find something you enjoy, you want to keep abreast of, and consider the time spent tinkering and toying time well spent, because it keeps you up to speed when you have to review a product – you know where to look for the main flaws, or quirks, or what to test for, because you’ve seen this sort of thing before. And, allied to this, write features. If you have in depth knowledge, writing features is, frankly, a better way to make a living than reviews, in my experience.

Part 3 – selection bias

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