Most of us are familiar with the five-star product review feature made into an institution by Amazon.com and other websites. Produce reviews have become a staple of almost any online purchase, so much so, that we sometimes look at the reviews before buying an item off the shelf in a store. It is also common to compare the price of an item in a store with the price online. I went shopping with one of my grownup children the other day in a brick and mortar store and every item he was interested in was instantly compared to the price online.
When reading a product review, even as genealogists, there are some important things to remember. Here are some of my thoughts as a consumer, a genealogist and an attorney with many years of experience. The suggestions are in no particular order.
Making a decision to purchase a product, whether it be a genealogy program or online service, or some other product, should be made independent of either reviews or recommendations. In other words, you should decide what you need and what you purchase. For example, let's suppose you attend a class and the instructor recommends a particular program or service unless that service or program is entirely free, you should make up your own mind whether you will ever use the product of service. I have looked at and purchased hundreds of programs over the years. I mostly use the same kinds of programs all of the time. Right now, I probably have about a hundred programs on my computer. I use less than ten percent of them 95% of the time. I have a few programs that are useful when I need them and worth having for that reason alone, but I would guess that over the years, of all the programs I have purchased and installed, I have never really used. Some programs have a "free" version and using the free version might be enough to make a decision as to whether or not to purchase the full program.
Always look for a product review. I have pretty much become review dependent. I don't look for reviews on day-to-day purchases, but anything out of the ordinary groceries and such, I look for a review. You can usually find a review by doing a Google search for the product plus the word "review," But once you find a review, you need to think about my next suggestions.
This is probably the most difficult step in the purchase process: finding an independent reviewer who isn't employed by or related to the product's seller. I always discount reviews on a product website. For example, if I am going to buy a computer program, I do not give any weight to the reviews about how wonderful the program is that are prominently featured on the product website. Some "review" websites are really only thinly veiled promotional websites. This includes most "top ten" of anything websites. As you probably know, there are a lot of websites (formerly magazines) that make money selling their reviews. The fact that a review costs money does not automatically disqualify it as a reliable review, but a paid review is not necessarily reliable.
There will almost always be a few bad reviews. There is always the situation that everyone seems to love the product but one person gives it a one-star review. I usually discount a few bad reviews unless what they are saying makes a lot of sense. Here is an example from Amazon.com for a popular genealogy program.
This program is not at all intuitive to use and I keep making multiple entries without knowing it. I had read lots of reviews before buying it (not just the ones here), and I'm really disappointed. The way the program operates seems ancient. I'm not at all happy that I spent what I did on it.This is not a helpful review. Apparently, the person did not want to learn how to use the program after purchasing it. The review is not specific about the "multiple entries" and seems based on some preconceived notion about how the program should operate, i.e. "ancient."
This type of discussion could go on and on. There always seems to be someone who is unhappy with any product or service. In the case of the program above, I happen to have used the product for years and understand some of the frustrations but would disagree with almost every one of the bad reviews.
Always look at the number of total reviews and the proportions of positive vs. negative reviews. If a product only has one review, it is possible that the person reviewing product was somehow related to the product's developer. If there are a substantial number of reviews for a product or service, you are more likely to get a feel for the relative benefit and value of the product. Here is another example of a genealogically related product.
With this many reviews, you should be taking the negative reviews seriously. But remember, if there was only one review, you would not know what category it fell into.
Look at the competing product's reviews. This may not be as easily done as it is to suggest. In the genealogical community, there may not be a competing product.
Look for alternatives. This doesn't mean that you look for competing products, this means you look for different solutions. For example, maybe you have concerns about using an online program for your genealogy. Maybe you should look at desktop-based programs. In other words, there are often alternatives to one type of program or service.
Do the math. Be careful to avoid any add-on costs. For example, a program may be "free" but only for a limited version. How likely are you to want the upgrade? This is especially true of programs presented in a class or at a conference. The presenters are likely to demo the complete, i.e. paid for, version of the program and not the free version.
Write a review yourself when you find a good or bad deal.