|Consumer Reports provides an excellent service, conducting extensive and unbiased testing of big-ticket products, canvassing over 100,000 people each year for their assessments of all major US consumer brands, and providing helpful consumer advice on major services. But there’s only so much that this subscriber-funded union can do. When it comes to local brands, and many services, you’re still on your own. If you’re not an American, CR is not very useful (the Canadian edition has a 4-page Canada insert, but it just contains information on Canadian availability, Canadian prices and contact information for American products, not information about uniquely Canadian brands). In recent months I’ve tried to find a better deal for home and car insurance, get advice on fireplace inserts and home alarm systems, and deal with Dell’s atrocious service. I searched in vain for useful information to help me with any of these challenges.
There are lots of online ‘consumer’ sites, but their objectivity is suspect. Amazon and its clones have a feature that allows you to rate and review books, music and other goods, but they tend to attract only positive reviews, and taste plays such a big role in preferences for books and music that the predictive value of these reviews is marginal. Private organizations like CNet include both ‘expert’ ratings of hardware and software, and ‘average user’ ratings of consumers, including comments. But these lack rigour (how do we know people didn’t vote twice, and that they aren’t affiliated with the product they’re boosting?) and high enough numbers of ratings to be meaningful. They also are generally just “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” ratings, and don’t differentiate between ratings of product quality, features, performance, value for money and repair service.
What we need is an independent Consumer Information Exchange that will allow anyone to rate any product or service, on quality, features, performance and reliability,value for money, after-sales service, and overall rating, or to post useful FAQs or caveats on any product or service. This exchange needs a facility to register and verify consumers providing ratings (to ensure they are independent of the product they’re rating, and only vote once). It also needs space for comments to provide context for the ratings, and an ability to computer median ratings and warn readers if the number of ratings is too small to be reliable. Ideally, the exchange should be self-managed, with an ability for any registered user to enter new brands of products and services as well as add a rating to one already in the database. It should also allow the user to indicate price paid and where they bought it.
This exchange should not be that difficult to set up and maintain. Its main requirement is a lot of space to accommodate millions of brands and ratings, and a simple but powerful search tool.
What do you think? What other functionality is needed (I think it should be as simple as possible)? How might we launch it and fund it?
This is yet another way we could tap into the Wisdom of Crowds, and give us all another tool in the endless struggle against rapacious and irresponsible corporatism.