The other day I was chatting with a lovely guy who managed to blow my mind.
He earned a living by running a product review website. Generating affiliate sales commissions by making recommendations to potential customers, who sought guidance and reassurance when deciding which products to buy.
Nothing new or revolutionary about the business model. It is a well-trodden path. Widely used by cashback sites, comparison shopping engines, bloggers, and the mainstream media.
The selection of products he reviewed was driven by those brands offering affiliate commissions.
Not the newest.
Not the best.
Not the most popular.
Only those paying for referrals that led to a sale.
But here is the thing. He had never actually used any of the products he reviewed. Not a single one!
Instead, he would scour the internet for existing advertorials and reviews of a given product. Cherrypick the highlights from each one. Paraphrase them into a consolidated review, written in his own voice.
Over several years his website gradually became authoritative. Starting as just another random person’s opinion on the internet. Evolving into that of a perceived domain expert.
Over time the guy probably absorbed enough of what other people wrote to be able to credibly parrot key features. Things to watch out for. Even how to match particular products to personal tastes.
However, if you put him in front of an actual product he wouldn’t know what to do. The equivalent of a doctor about to perform surgery after reading a few books that contained no diagrams or pictures.
The guy was an expert, just not in the products his website reviewed. His expertise lay in keyword research. Search engine optimisation. Monetising his audience’s need for reassurance.
By the sounds of things, he was very successful at what he did. Eventually selling the product review website as a profitable business, with a proven cash flow profile.
Affiliate commissions were nice, helping to keep the lights on while establishing authority. The real money was in the exit.
We, the sheeple
That got me thinking about how we make product selections.
We have all heard the stories about vendors purchasing positive reviews on the likes of Airbnb, Amazon, Deliveroo, Tripadvisor, and Yelp.
A recent study written up in the Harvard Business Review found that up to 4,500,000 merchants had purchased fake Amazon reviews, resulting in their sales ranks temporarily increasing by an average of 12.5%.
The benefits were usually short-lived, as real consumers get duped by the high ratings and fake reviews, then leave scathing reviews expressing disappointment and buyer’s remorse. After throwing more than half a billion dollars at the problem last year, it still takes Amazon more than 100 days on average to remove a fake review.
Yet despite this knowledge, we still seek to avail ourselves of the wisdom of crowds.
The other night I fancied a Chinese takeaway for dinner. My long time favourite had recently closed down, another reminder that hospitality is a brutal game with an eye-watering attrition rate.
I did what we all now do. Logged into the home delivery aggregator. Filtered for Chinese. Ranked the results by ratings from highest to lowest. Scrolled through the first dozen or so results, if a result didn’t float to near the top of the list then it might as well not exist.
The top two results had a suspicious number of positive reviews, in the high hundreds. Implausibly larger than the mere dozens of reviews the restaurants listed in positions three and below had received.
Both takeaways may be truly amazing. Michelin star quality at McDonald’s prices. Possible, but unlikely.
I mentally triaged those which personal observation around the neighbourhood suggested a high likelihood of a meal delivered with a free serving of e.coli, pubic hair, rat faeces, or salmonella.
The highest-rated remaining restaurant won my custom. A disappointing combination of bland flavours and small portions.
A timely reminder that the “average” person voted for Brexit, fails to wear a COVID mask properly, and believes that reality television is unscripted!
Choosing a bank account
My elder son recently asked if he could move his bank account.
Alarms began sounding in my head.
Had he lost his debit card? Been the victim of identity theft? Shared his account details with a friend?
Perhaps there was some shiny new gamified FinTech app that all the cool kids were using?
The answer turned out to be much simpler. One of his mates had a bespoke debit card featuring a picture of his favourite anime character. My son wanted one too.
I figured this would be a good learning exercise for him. Research competing options. Recognise the independent from the sponsored. Understand the difference between “a selection of recommended products” and the full range on the market.
I asked him to start by making a list of all the features he wanted from a bank account, and to differentiate the “must haves”, “nice to haves”, and “can’t haves”.
Next, to mark off which of those features his current bank account already offered. All change incurs opportunity cost in terms of time and effort, so it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the default option: what you already have.
He rolled his eyes. Exasperated. He already knew what he wanted. The same thing his friend had!
If he was going to change accounts, then his decision should to be a well-informed one.
I must confess to an ulterior motive here. This exercise was a triage device, to determine whether this was something that he really wanted, as opposed to a momentary whim that would soon be forgotten.
He grabbed his iPad and stomped off to his bedroom with a dramatic teenage sigh.
A couple of days later, he brought up the customised debit card again.
His research had turned up ten different comparison websites that covered UK current accounts, but he was confused by the results they returned.
For sites that purported to offer similar services, their content and rankings differed markedly.
Many of the sites contained just 8 products. Unsurprisingly all 8 were linked to affiliate programmes.
The site with the largest number of results, claiming to be “100% complete”, returned 81 products.
Second place had 68.
Third place contained just 45.
Several sites outsourced the product information curation to the same third-party provider. Yet the results returned by each site differed.
A couple of the sites opted for a recommendation based approach. Presenting brief scenarios, then talking up the “best” product for that particular need. Unsurprisingly, the recommendations differed between sites for the same scenarios.
The thing that confused my son most was that his existing banking product didn’t feature on any of the comparison sites. Which was strange, because it was still being actively promoted by his bank.
It wasn’t an exotic account. Offered by an unregulated FinTech unicorn. Or sold by an offshore financial services provider.
No, it was a plain vanilla current account with a major high street bank.
That omission intrigued me.
I quickly scanned through his search results for my own current account products. Two appeared amongst the larger comparison result sets. The third was also absent from them all.
Interesting. I had expected some variability between comparison engines, but not this much!
The financial product comparison engines were functionally similar to the lovely guy’s product review website.
Designed to herd the audience towards taking action that will generate affiliate commissions. Doing what was in the interests of the site operator, rather than the consumer.
A classic case of misaligned commercial interests. Buyer beware!
Always read the small print
Unfortunately, customised debit cards was not a filtering criteria available on any of the comparison sites, but a quick bit of Googling revealed only one bank currently offered the option.
My son enthusiastically validated his requirements list against the product features at that bank.
It ticked all the boxes, but his excitement waned as he realised the new product offered an identical feature set as his existing account. The only difference was a shinier debit card.
His face fell as he skimmed through the bank’s customised debit card image guidelines. Images would be rejected if they featured the name or image of a celebrity, or contained anything that may be subject to copyright or trademark restrictions, such as a cartoon character.
His friend had gotten lucky. Whoever vetted the image they had submitted was apparently not an anime fan!
He mentally weighed up the hassle of change. Visiting a bank branch. Filling out forms. Passing the “know your customer” checks. Updating his bank account details in his Amazon and Xbox accounts.
Versus the uncertain outcome of obtaining a bespoke debit card. Featuring an image that few would ever see. Of an anime character, which he would likely have outgrown within a couple of months.
My son let out another teenage sigh, as he chose the default option: no change.
Later that night I spent some time comparing the banking comparison engines my son had found.
The default sort order usually displayed “featured” or “recommended” products at the top, highlighted prominently.
Meanwhile, the disclaimer that the site may earn referral commissions was usually buried near the bottom of the page, in small and often faintly coloured writing. Designed to be overlooked.
Only one site even hinted that there may be more products on the market than in their selection.
Which gave me pause.
When we search for a property to buy or rent, we turn to Rightmove or Zoopla by default. They too default to having sponsored “featured” listings rise to the top of their search results.
Yet while these portals certainly list many properties, they don’t pretend to contain them all.
Bargain hunters may prefer to hunt for buried treasure amongst the deceased estates and foreclosures auctioned by Allsop. Meanwhile, those seeking trophy homes might head to Sotheby’s or engage a buying agent to source a discrete off-market purchase.
We all enjoy the convenience of having someone else do the work for us. Often forgetting that we receive filtered and potentially biased results as a consequence.
We pay for that convenience. And often keep on paying for it long after our decision is made.
The expensive financial products recommended by our bank’s own financial or mortgage “advisor“.
The high priced “full service” broker offering “complete choice” from a select list of expensive and underperforming actively managed funds.
We trust, but rarely verify, that those convenient results will contain the optimal outcome for our needs. A big assumption.
Was the research done completely? Diligently? First hand? Recently? At all?
Or is it akin to an academic meta-analysis? Passing off the work of others, while losing all the context, limitation, and nuance that may be required to correctly interpret and understand the original body of work.
Is your query being answered? Or is the “informed” recommendation you receive really just a thinly veiled advertisement?
Perhaps written by someone who has never actually used the product or service being recommended.
- Barclays (2020), ‘Personalise your debit card‘
- Keegan, J. (2020), ‘Is This Amazon ReviewBullshit?’, The Markup
- Proserpio, D., Hollenbeck, B., and He, S. (2020), ‘How Fake Customer Reviews Do — and Don’t — Work’, Harvard Business Review
- The Advertising Standards Authority (2020), ‘Online Affiliate Marketing‘