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Written by Olin Coles   
Tuesday, 05 October 2010
Table of Contents: Page Index
Computer Hardware Reviews: Industry Insider
What You Know Vs. Who You Know

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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# RE: Computer Hardware Reviews: Inside the IndustryDoug 2010-10-04 22:39
You don't need to bribe websites in the US because the way the system is set up, the bribe is included in the "marketing" expense getting a website to review yuor product. For instance, tier 1 website gets a marketing offer on how much it will cost to review X product. Website responds with X dollars. Now it's easy to see that if the website gives a #ty review the marketing department will no longer give them money to review their products. That's why no one reads PC mag or CNET anymore for legitimate information, unless your totally ignorant about computers and reviews. That's why we patronize websites like yours. Once a site gets too big, like Tom's did, the tech savvy enthusiasts leave and the site dies. I never read Tom's anymore. My first line of information is very thin: BMR, HardOCP, Johnny Guru, FrostyTech, maybe a couple more. That's it.
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# Anandtech tooDr.Unk 2010-10-04 22:50
Did anyone notice how Anandtech only reviewed Intel SSD drives forever and would rarely mention the other types of drives? They also give Intel processors a lot of coverage, and only mention AMD when they have something bad to say. BenchMarkReviews and Hardocp are good websites, and so is JonnyGuru for power supply reviews.
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# seen the other resultsPsy4computers 2010-10-05 01:02
I used to review hardware and build computer systems that were the leading edge of computer systems,topping benchmarks over other computer systems around the world.
What I found was that magazines would ring up and offer me space to promote my products. These were called advertorials; they look like reviews and real comments but were fabricated giving me control over the content.

I have seen other companies (review sites) slate certain hardware as part of their review, this resulted in them being treated like the plague and direct action taken to supress the site and information.
It also resulted in samples being taken away from them and hardware was never releasede to them again. They pretty much said what you said, but named names and who they 'cheated' causing a big stir in the industry which then lead to the big outing of the websites who we now know and the bias review websites.
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# reviews workyerrd 2010-10-05 02:37
I read the articles and I try to stay away from the comments as there are too many people who just want a forum to make themselves important. As long as what you say is truthful and not biased. That's what counts. I have a preference for Intel and Nvidia. I know they can cost more but I can afford them. If I didn't have much money I would look at AMD and ATI. They are cheaper. Simple enough. They are both excellent products in there own ways. I just want the truthful facts.
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# RE: Computer Hardware Reviews: Inside the IndustryRobert17 2010-10-05 03:49
As Sgt. Joe Friday was fond of saying on the TV show 'Dragnet', "Just the facts, M'am, just the facts".

As mentioned above, it's pretty easy to determine who is trustworthy and who is a schill for a product. But just as reviewing products takes practice, so does reading reviews. I have 50 (counted them) sites that I visit for varying tidbits of info. Some for the reviews, some for "Headline News", and some for how-to's. Each may have strengths and weaknesses but there it some modicum of value even when reading the obviously biased sites (these are the ones that help me put negative values on products from the get-go).

All in all, you guys do a good job technically, your biases are held in check, and you don't "take no *&^* off nobody". That's kinda my style as well which is a factor in trust. Too bad the advertising dollars don't value these attributes more than the sales dollars. Wouldn't life be simple if they did?
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# Advertizing DisclosureJohn Darcy 2010-10-05 04:02
I enjoyed your article on the actual experiences. It is refreshing to see in print what one might have presumed or surmised. I am somewhat naive and probably wouldnt have thought it was as pronounced a practice as apparently it had been, or is, but believe it when told. I probably based some purchases on information that was biased. I like the forum you attach to the articles and how you field certain responses and read both the editorial/reviews and self important replies as well as sometimes there is merit despite motivation.
Also, I do not mind the advertorials when there is disclosure or even biased reporting as long as the funder is identified. I wouldnt even mind payola as long as the reporter said : "i was paid $xx by ..... to write" whatever so i could immediately identify it as a puff piece. as yerrd said about wanting the truthful facts, simple enough.
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# trustRealNeil 2010-10-05 05:37
I have about 6 sites that I trust for reviews. I've been reading here for a while now and I'm slowly getting to know how you guys write. I like most of your reviews. You include a lot of data and don't seem to favor anyone too much. The comments section gets a little dicey at times. I've noticed some responses from staff that were a little on the heavy side at times,...but I realize that some reader's comments are off the wall and downright nasty too.
Overall I like it and that's why I keep reading.
Keep it up, your methods are working.
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# MrAlbert Kolkin 2010-10-05 06:11
Too bad you could not name the sites that you believe are good! Naming them would not detract from our visiting your site, but would just add to our ability to check on the numerous products that are released every month. Every review you make comes to my inbox and yous is the only one that has that luxury(?!)

I rely on your reviews. Thank you for providing them
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# OutstandingK Gregory 2010-10-05 06:56
I actually agree with the post above. I do realize that naming the 'sold out' sites would possibly start a slug-fest but the naming of a couple of other 'solid and true' sites would help some of us continue to support the 'ring' of 'solid and true' sites.

Although I can deduce from the link to the `HardwareSecrets' attempted bribe that may possibly indicate that you believe them to be a 'solid and true' site. I wholeheartedly agree. I visit them routinely.

Nevertheless outstanding and (ahem,somewhat...) bold in addressing the inside (dust?)...dirt. -yeah a slight dig because there aren't a list of names of tier2/3 sites that are 'sold out' and 'on the take'.

Thank very much for this article.
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