Consumer Reports - February 2011


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292 Consumer Reports Consumer Reviews

Why are online shoppers settling for taking the word of unidentified, and potentially biased, reviewers?

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Consumer Reports reached its peak number of subscribers in , when it had nearly 8 million print and digital combined , according to Kelli Halyard, a spokesperson. At present, it has roughly 7 million—3.

This is, by magazine standards, a huge subscription base, but the worrisome news for Consumer Reports is that their demographics skew older: The average print subscriber is 65 years old, and the average digital subscriber is We must right the ship. As for young people, a poll found that Millennials consider online peer reviews to be slightly more trustworthy and memorable than professional ones. This shift in attitude has taken place despite frequent discoveries of fraud in crowdsourced reviews.

The incentive for sellers to cheat is strong.

Top picks in 2011 Consumer Reports car issue: Ford, Kia, and Used

Aware that fraudulent reviews can undermine trust in their platform, companies such as Amazon and Yelp channel resources toward rooting them out. But detection can be difficult, and, at times, Consumer Reports has appeared eager to highlight this weakness.


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More recently, Consumerist , an irreverent blog that Consumers Union the advocacy division of Consumer Reports purchased from Gawker Media in late , posted an article condemning an apparent loophole in Amazon's review policy that allows companies to offer free or discounted products in exchange for reviews. While Amazon requires reviewers to disclose this arrangement, and companies to accept both positive and negative feedback, the vast majority of these agreements, Consumerist found, result in five-star reviews.

Online reviewers, they found, were more likely to give premium brands higher ratings, and rarely compared a variety of similar devices in the same setting, as Consumer Reports does by default. So why, given that Consumer Reports still offers a valuable and rare service, has its subscriber base contracted in recent years?

In some respects, the story is typical of print magazines in general.

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Bolstered by a large, if aging, circulation base, the publication was slow to focus on its online offerings. Unwilling to accept money from advertisers, Consumer Reports placed its reviews behind a paywall—a strategy that may have worked for a while, but also isolated the publication from young readers unfamiliar with the brand. The sister websites The Wirecutter and The Sweethome , for example, publish reviews that mix expert opinion, a fluency in online culture, and creative, if sometimes unorthodox, experiments—like when The Sweethome had bike thieves help evaluate bike locks.

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