CRConsumer 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.

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  1. As a consumer that almost always looks for online reviews before I make and significant purchases, I would find such a site would extremely beneficial. For the most part I have been able to find reviews for most products I have looked for, but some products require a lot of digging (i.e. 8th page on a google search to get an independent review written on some obscure website) but even then, reliability and objectivity of the information must be questioned. But there are sites like you propose already in existance. See consumerreview.com and its many sub-review sites (i.e. audioreview.com or computingreview.com) as examples.If I recall correctly, a while back you wrote about how to index/organize/access all the information in the blogosphere. There are definitely valuable product reviews contained throughout the blogosphere. I know I have posted the odd criticism of various companies I have had to deal with from banks to auto repair shops. This sort of information would be immensely valuable for someone looking for a good auto repair shop in Ottawa. All we need are the tools to mine this information from the blogosphere. How do we google only Ottawa area blogs for ‘auto repair’? There are currently a number of blog news/story mining/searching services in existance but they don’t search based on blog location (at least not down to local levels). This would be useful and probably not that difficult if you could get all the blogging software packages on board to develop some standard protocols for identifying the exact location of the author of the blog.Getting back to your idea, I would assume that funding such a project might not be that difficult once the project got going. This sort of website is screaming ‘sponsored ads’ were each section is sponsored by related companies who get to place their ads down the side of the page, much like we see in google.The more difficult challenge, I think, is how to manage the millions of possible products and services. Do users enter new products and if so who, if anyone, authenticates the product? Does the product actually exist? Is it a local, national or global product? Does it already exist in the database under a different name? That would be a challenge considering the huge number of products such a system would contain.

  2. Doug Alder says:

    No one in their right mind is going to touch this Dave. The reason is simple if you have been involved in online business before. There really is no surefire way to guarantee the identity of a person whose presence is digital. Even if you demand a phone nmumber to call htemat and they respond to that call it can still all be fake (here’s a few quick ways (1) disposable cell phone bought with a stolen credit card (2) with VOIP it’s possible to not only fake Caller ID but also the number to be called (3) use a “proxy server” i.e. someone’s desktop computer with a trojan backdoor on it to access your site)- I know about this because I deal wit it daily in my job and still fraud artists do get by me occassionaly. All you would need is one personb with a gripe against one company to get past you and to then libel the company with false information and you would be sued into oblivion, and it would be your site that gets sued not the person posting it because you won’t be able to prove that person even exists.

  3. Cyndy says:

    I’ve started something that might just work. hereEach link can only be rated once and the person who submitted it can’t vote. There is also a space for comments. However, for the link to be reported as rated it has to have at least 5 votes. So far the participation hasn’t been there.

  4. Rayne says:

    I confess I already use Amazon’s and CNET’s customer reviews for this purpose. They can be gamed, but a thorough review of customer feedback can generally weed out what’s authentic and what’s bullhockey.Do we really need an entirely independent source if a company that offers no single product or product line might offer this service (Amazon and CNET as examples)? Can’t a site that’s independent be gamed, too, perhaps more so since there’s no additional information available about sales? (Amazon furnishes information about the popularity of some products; this also provides feedback that can be used to authenticate customer feedback.)

  5. Bucket Head says:

    This already exists, it’s called epinions.com

  6. “Do we really need an entirely independent source if a company that offers no single product or product line might offer this service (Amazon and CNET as examples)?”You are gullible if you think that just because they don’t offer a single product or product line that they will be unbiased. What if Microsoft offered some large sum of money for a favourable review of a Microsoft product. What if Microsoft was CNet’s biggest paying advertiser? Could that introduce bias?I am not saying it happens, but it could and if it was happening it wouldn’t surprise me.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for your comments and suggestions, everyone. I’ve found epinions very unsatisfactory — not enough ratings to constitute a reliable consensus, and scope is limited to products only (not services) and to those brands in the epinions database (which is “not accepting suggestions for addition at this time”). All in all, far short of what I think is needed, and nowhere near the calibre of Consumer Reports which largely covers the same territory. And I’m aware of the challenges of minimizing bias and gaming the system, but I still think it should be doable.

  8. lukerazzell@yahoo.co.uk says:

    What you are proposing is one of the things that the social semantic web bookmarking product we are developing at i-together would facilitate. When we talk about the dangers of system gaming, the presence of granular and multidimensional community structures with strong feedback mechanisms will, I feel, act to strongly mitigate against this sort of thing.

  9. Rayne says:

    Johnson, I’m not stupid. I generally use CNET and Amazon against each other, and not as my only sources for vetting products. And like anybody else that uses the internet extensively, I’ve developed a pretty finely tuned sniffer. Pick a product — particularly a product of a manufacturer you don’t particularly care for. Check the feedback on both sites and see if it doesn’t resonate. If they could game it with money alone, they’d already be doing it because it’s simple enough to do. But it doesn’t work that way so long as 1) companies like Amazon and CNET do not put all their eggs into one market basket, and 2) people on the net have become accustomed to blurting out the truth, along with anything else they think without much restraint. Use Google and Yahoo as secondary checks — again, they can be gamed, but if enough money was all it took to pull it off, wouldn’t it already be happening? Wouldn’t the overwhelming amount of customer feedback across existing mechanism be shouting, “Buy MS!!!”? It’s not happening. Being as skeptical as I am, I’m not certain that independent structures for rating can remain that way. What’s the business model? How will it sustain itself? Maybe when this is answered I’ll be less skeptical.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne et al: I think the business model is essentially the same as Consumer Reports’, except with a peer-to-peer wrap-around added to it. The problem is that CR really doesn’t get what’s happening online (even if you’re online you have to pay extra for their online content), so although they’re the logical host for all this, I don’t think they’re up to the task.

  11. JC says:

    Amen!I’ve thought about this for so many other things other than simply products. One of the things that Dave Pollard has been working with here, for example, is productivity management. In addition to writing books, a lot of authors take their “show on the raod” so to speak, and give workshops. Wouldn’t it be great to able able to rate the “product” of a weekend workshop?Or take something else like various self-improvement programs, such as various eating programs (Body For Life, Beach Diet, whatever…)What if there could be the combination of a Scoop style site, such as what Slashdot and DailyKos have, with the review functionality of Yahoo Movies – just with pretty much ANY service?Then you would have a great functioning online community, great ratings for feedback on best practices, then if combined with some event calendaring, you have a best practices community, in the subject of interest of choice.

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