COTA: Cutting through clutter of online product reviews

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Jim Cota

I was in a restaurant recently when our waiter offered suggestions regarding his four favorite items on the menu.

The problem is that we had no frame of reference for the waiter’s disposition and no way to compare his general likes and dislikes with our own. To make his recommendations worthwhile, we had to then ask questions about the types of food he likes in general, what he likes to drink, etc. Only then did we have the right context to fully understand what “best” meant to him.

That’s the problem with online product reviews written by consumers. Context can be tough to come by.

Enter Brian Lam and his two awesome sites devoted to helping you make better buying decisions: The Wirecutter (www.thewirecutter.com), focusing on tech gadgets, and The Sweethome (www.thesweethome.com), zeroing in on things you need/want for the house.

Both sites address product reviews in the same, fanatical way: Lam personally digests everything he can find about each product, spends dozens of hours on research and testing, then does something no one else seems to: He chooses the best. Not a list of the top 10—just the one you should buy to meet your needs.

“Best” is an interesting term in this regard. This doesn’t always mean the most expensive or feature-laden (though it could). Lam thinks the top-of-the-line models are unnecessary for most of us and that there are plenty of amazing things at good prices.

“We live in an age where most gadgets are good enough,” Lam explains. “I generally like to find the sweet spot of cost as balanced out by the features we really need.” Perhaps the best thing about his recommendations is the depth of detail provided: He recently wrote 4,000 words on choosing the best razor.

Lam’s background makes him uniquely qualified to be an independent testing lab. The son of an engineer who taught him how to solder at 7, he ran the Gizmodo gadget guide for half a decade and was at Wired magazine before that, writing the “Fetish” section, and helping edit the “Test” section and special issues. He also helped found Gadgetlab, yet another review site.

You won’t find reviews for everything you’re looking for at The Wire Cutter and The Sweethome—which is partly the point. Since each product category is researched and written by Lam, updates are infrequent, with just several reviews added each month. While The Wirecutter applies his deep-dive to the entire technology category (things like TVs, computers, smartphones, Christmas lights, space heaters, etc.), The Sweethome is dedicated to items like towels, kitchen trash bags, knives and corkscrews.

Even if you might not find a review for everything on your wish list, these sites should still be the first places you look before making a decision. In the end, you might decide to choose something different from Lam’s “best,” but at the very least you’ll have the confidence of full knowledge and context when you make that decision.•


Cota is president and co-founder of Rare Bird Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in Internet application development. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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  1. Great article and post scripts by Mike L (Great addition to IBJ BTW). Bobby's stubborn as a mule, and doubt if he ever comes back to IU. But the love he would receive would be enormous. Hope he shows some time, but not counting on it.

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  4. Jim, your "misleading" numbers comment is spot on. This is the spin these posers are putting on it. News flash, fans: these guys lie. They are not publicly traded so no one holds them accountable for anything they say. The TV numbers are so miniscule to begin with any "increase" produces double digit "growth" numbers. It's ridiculous to think that anything these guys have done has awakened the marketplace. What have they done? Consolidate the season so they run more races on consecutive weekends? And this creates "momentum." Is that the same momentum you enjoy when you don't race between August and March? Keep in mind that you are running teams who barely make ends meet ragged over the summer to accomplish this brilliant strategy of avoiding the NFL while you run your season finale at midnight on the East Coast. But I should not obfuscate my own point: any "ratings increase" is exactly what Jim points to - the increased availability of NBC Sports in households. Look fans, I love the sport to but these posers are running it off a cliff. Miles wants to declare victory and then run for Mayor. I could go on and on but bottom line for God's sake don't believe a word they say. Note to Anthony - try doing just a little research instead of reporting what these pretenders say and then offering an "opinion" no more informed than the average fan.

  5. If he's finally planning to do the right thing and resign, why not do it before the election? Waiting until after means what - s special election at tax payer expense? Appointment (by whom?) thus robbing the voters of their chance to choose? Does he accrue some additional financial advantage to waiting, like extra pension payments? What's in it for him? That's the question that needs to be asked.