|Computer Hardware Reviews: Industry Insider|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Tuesday, 05 October 2010|
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What You Know Vs. Who You Know
At the top of the online review industry are 'tier one' websites, a luxury status shared by only the most popular sites that receive the highest amounts of visitor traffic. Nearly all tier one sites are owned by a larger syndicated conglomerate, usually operating as the extension to other media outlets such as magazines and television. According to several marketing sources within the computer hardware industry, the majority of these sites charge a premium to have a product reviewed on their website. Marketing departments acknowledge the investment they're making, and offer special attention to such projects.
Advertising plays a role in product reviews, since the biggest brand names in the industry often align themselves with the most popular websites. This really isn't any different than other areas of the advertising industry, where top names receive the best endorsements. Advertising any manufacturer that also sends product for testing creates the opportunity for biased reporting. An advertising agreement may also encourage the website to refrain from testing a competitor's products from within a similar product line. The influence of advertising may cause one brand to be featured and discussed, while another company's brand are ignored despite significant innovations.
Large top-rated websites have access to samples from every manufacturer, so it's easy for readers to detect a situation that exploits one brand over another. I've seen some of the most trusted names in the business attack a new technology, only to observe them recommend and feature one particular brand. An example of this is SSD technology, in which dozens of manufacturers design controllers but a website may only cover one brand of product because of an agreement. This effect can also be amplified when other manufactures refuse samples as a result of an obvious favoritism. Of course, there are a few much less obvious incentives awarded to those elites with close advertising relationships.
Indeed, it's good to be at the top. Confidential technical information is occasionally shared with the partnered website, giving them a significant technical advantage to help in building up the perception that they're the best source of information. You'll see evidence of this on the most technical projects, whenever a special manufacturer-produced diagram makes its way into the article of select websites. This practice creates the mutually beneficial scenario where visitors continually return to the sponsored website for these exclusive details, and the advertiser receives more brand visibility as a result.
Readers must already negotiate the influence of advertising whenever they research a product, but it's important to recognize other aspects that similarly impact the overall tone. There's the influence of limited sample allocations, often to smaller sites, which allows manufacturers to demand a favorable review prior to sending the product. Benchmark Reviews has discovered more than a few manufacturers blatantly holding samples over our head unless we agree to their terms; you'll be keen to notice a few heatsink and video card manufacturers are specifically not represented on Benchmark Reviews because of this. Then there are the samples themselves to contend with.
Golden samples are another potential problem. Preferred media samples are difficult to detect, especially when retail products don't yet exist, and without sizable comparisons to a large segment of retail products it's impractical for the media to know the difference. In my experience, I've never discovered an obvious stand-out sample. This could be because tolerances are so tight that there very little difference between lows and highs, or perhaps this website just isn't big enough to warrant such a practice. Either way, the only way to completely trust a sample is to buy it off the shelf; something that's almost never done.
Payola, or the act of accepting bribe payment in exchange for a positive review, is a very limited factor. This is because companies operating within the United States must all report income and miscellaneous payments, and such bribes would be reported in public records if the organization is traded on a stock market. Financial accountability is much more strict within the Republic of China, where most computer hardware companies operate, since all forms of payment are documented and wire transfers are closely monitored. Other nations lack transparent accounting, and I have learned of at least one event where a manufacturer attempted to bribe a website.
Looking back, readers must be wary of bias from a multitude of factors: advertising influence, sponsor demands, cherry-picked preferred samples, and finally - the writers own personal preference. At the end of the day, all of these media outlets are operating to achieve some level of gain: increase traffic, entertain an audience, receive product samples, and/or financial return. To be fair, even Benchmark Reviews has bills to pay and sponsors to impress with traffic statistics - although I do not personally test products sent from our limited few advertisers. In fact, the last time an advertiser sent me a product for review it failed to impress us, and they refused to acknowledge our exclusive launch article as a result.
In conclusion, use the information I've shared to help weigh your decisions on a future product purchase. Don't simply base a purchase on benchmark results or ratings, because the final conclusion always revolves around someone's personal opinion. There are plenty of hardware review websites out there, many better and even more that are worse than my own, which is why it benefits you to understand how the industry operates from the inside. Good luck.
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