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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