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Write Reviews that Add Value and Solve Readers’ Problems

Today Dustin M. Wax writes about how to write Review Post on your blog.

Reviews are one of the mainstays of blogs. By now, everyone in the world is familiar with Problogger’s own Darren Rowse’s accidental transformation into a professional blogger following the success of his camera reviews. (Been off-world for the last two months and don’t know the story? Read the book!)

Bloggers write reviews for a number of reasons. First of all, and most importantly, reviews of products you love (or hate) are one of the ways we provide value to our readers. By sharing our experiences with our audience, we save them the time, expense, and hassle of trying out products that might well not meet their needs.

Second, reviews are a form of “evergreen” content that stay relevant long after their initial post date. I don’t know how many times I’ve Googled “[Product name] review” before making a purchase. Amazon knows this; their “tipping point” came when they started adding user reviews to their product listings. As a general rule, I say “Do what Amazon does”.

Finally, some bloggers make money by writing reviews. Companies know the value of good reviews for generating PR buzz, arousing interest, and ultimately driving traffic and sales. And so a number of services have emerged to solicit paid reviews, which have become a major profit center for bloggers like John Chow.

How to write a valuable review

A good review ultimately answers one crucial question: should I, the reader, use this product? Of course, that’s not a simple question. On the way to answering that Big Question a good review has to answer a bunch of little questions:

  1. Who is this product for? Except for the very worst products, every product offers some value to someone. The question is, is that someone a reader of your blog? For example, ProTools is a great audio editing program for professional sound engineers, but I’d hardly recommend it as a tool for beginning podcasters. If your readers are more likely to be beginning podcasters than professional sound engineers, then, your readers should probably not use ProTools, which means you need to give a negative review to a great product.
  2. What are the features and benefits of using this product? I can’t tell you how sick I am of reviews that simply parrot a product’s specifications, as if that mattered. I don’t need to know what the manufacturer or publisher says the product should do, I need to know what it does do and, more importantly, how well it does it. And I need to know what I’ll get out of using it, what problem it solves. Consider cameras: we’ve all learned that knowing how many megapixels a camera can produce tells us very little about how well the pictures I take with it will come out. Your readers need to know the equivalent of how good the pictures are, not how many megapixels the product offers.
  3. How do you use it? A review doesn’t need to offer a full-blown tutorial, but it should offer some basic indication of how a product is used (or, in the case of books, how the information within might be applied). Do you turn it on and let it do it’s thing? Does it require a lot of attention from the user? Knowing how a product is used helps readers determine whether the product under review is, in fact, the product that might solve their own specific problems.
  4. What are the pros and cons of this product? A great product might well be too expensive, too difficult to learn, too poorly documented, too resource-hungry, or too buggy to recommend, depending on your audience. Most products are a mixed bag of plusses and minuses — they work great but are too expensive, they have a great idea but need a bit of polishing to be ready for casual users, they are well-written but ultimately offer poor advice, and so on. Since you can’t predict the needs of every person who might read your review, you need to be clear about the criteria you’re using and the positive and negative aspects of the product; there’s every chance that somebody will come across your review for whom your cons are irrelevant (for example, it’s too expensive for your college-student audience, but not for the IT manager of a big corporation who comes across your review via Google).
  5. How does it compare to similar products? Most of your readers already have some way to deal with the situation the product you’re reviewing promises to solve — they use another product, they have cobbled together a bunch of ill-equipped tools to form their own system, or maybe they have decided just to live with it. In many cases, there’s already a standard solution, like using MS Word for the creation of documents. Your review needs to tell people why they should (or shouldn’t) keep on doing whatever they’re doing, and why they should use this product rather than some other –which generally means comparing and contrasting the product with the other solutions already available. If you were reviewing a new word processor, for example, you’d want to explain why it should (or shouldn’t) replace MS Word — is it cheaper, easier to use, better at certain kinds of tasks?

If your review answers all these questions, then it’s easy for your readers to answer the Big Question: Should I use this product? Instead of a flat “yes’ or “no” (or “3 1/2 stars” or “two thumbs up” or whatever), you’ve given your readers enough information to determine whether or not it meets their needs. You can then give your qualified, personal, subjective take on the product knowing you’re not leading your readers astray.

And that is an incredibly valuable review.

Dustin M. Wax is the project manager and contributing editor at Lifehack and also writes The Writer’s Technology Companion. To find out more or to contact him, please visit his website.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Mark Dykeman says:

    Nicely done. I’m glad that you acknowledged the fact that reviews can be a source of income. However, it would be helpful to have discussed the topic of disclosure (am I being paid to do this review? do I have any relationship with the vendor? did I buy the product myself, borrow it, or was I given a review copy?) The reviewer should publicly disclose these relationships so the reader can be aware of any potential for bias.

  2. Farfield says:

    Thanks for the tips. I just recently wrote my first review on a book I just read (The War of Art). I didn’t do it just because I wanted to write a review or practice it (although that’s great too), but I found the book particularly interesting and suitable for my blog Streamlined Mind.

  3. Dustin says:

    Mark: I agree that’s an important topic. To be honest, my own thinking on disclosure goes back and forth — while I agree that it’s nice to have that level of transparency, I feel many people accurately believe that they will be seen as unobjective if they disclose sponsorship, no matter what the content of the review. It’s a lose-lose situation. Incidentally, I forgot that some people do reviews for products tehy are promoting as affiliates, too, where the same problem comes up.

    Farfield: That’s the best reason to review anything!

  4. FYI Dustin – the link to your website at the bottom of the post doesn’t work.

  5. Dustin says:

    Thanks Expert WItness Marketer. I asked Darren to fix it — in the meantime, my personal site is at dwax.org, and I’m developing my portfolio at dustinwax.com (nothing to see there yet…).

  6. Andre Kibbe says:

    The “How do you use it?” question really hit home for me. I’ve been stuck on a couple of book reviews where I felt the books were uneven on the whole, but had some content that was applicable enough to more than justify their existence. You made me realize that the useful part of the product is enough of an angle to frame a review around.

  7. Nate says:

    Also, don’t forget to suggest why your opinion might also add value to your review. . . For example if you engineered cameras for Nikon you might be more technically inclined and savvy to review a new Canon camera than, say, a guy that builds jet engines.

    This is a broad example, but the point remains.

    At any rate, nice article.

  8. Reginald says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the contents of this post. Once again, the information it presents embraces what should be obvious but is overlooked all too often.

    I often times come upon a review that appears carefully crafted to avoid giving either a negative or positive impression. These reviews often cause me concern.

    This is because, after reading such a review, I am still not sure if the actual author used the product at all.

    In my opinion, the best reviews are those from individuals with plenty of hand-on experience.

    Thanks for the post.

  9. Great work, Dustin. Writing a review of products is an interesting art, really – I definitely agree that it’s a great way to add value to our readers, especially if done well and done in the interest of educating the reader about the product rather than just trying to get them to buy something.

    The disclosure bit is a tricky one. Despite how much we say we’re objective, our readers will naturally be on guard. I think if you’ve established yourself as trustworthy and you write good reviews, they’ll generally be receptive.

  10. When writing a review, honesty and integrity are two of the most important characteristics necessary to add value. If you are recommending the product try to avoid the hype, instead outline its advantages without polarizing too much to the plus side. The same is true for the product that fall out of your favor, always telling your readers valid reasons in either case.

  11. Dustin says:

    Darren fixed the link in my bio; thanks to Expert Witness for pointing out the error.

    And thanks to everyone for making my first guest post here a pleasant experience. I think I’ll be back with more — anything anyone particularly wants to see?

  12. Kirk Warren says:

    Another thing to touch on would be the archiving of reviews. I run a comic book and graphic novel review blog and, up until just recently, my archives consisted of Blogger’s default settings, which was practically nil. It basically spat out the several 100 reviews by date with a couple per page. Completely useless is not the word.

    On top of that, the default search for something like my topic is useless as sequential book titles will come up despite you looking for an older, earlier issue number or volume.

    So, you can write the best review possible, but if no one can find it outside random Google search hits, it’s a waste of time. Proper archiving should go hand in hand with writing reviews. And no, default archives from free platforms is not proper archiving.

  13. Ryan McLean says:

    Wow,
    This is one of the best posts you have written for me. I only say that because it struck something in me and I was like “Ah ha, here is an opportunity”
    I write a financial blog on how to become wealthy…there are so many books and other blogs and things out there that I have tried…but I have never written a review on anything.
    I am definately going to write reviews on my blog now. It is a great way to get content, get traffic, sell products and mainly to provide my readers with some great information on products before they buy them
    Thanks Darren, this will make my financial blog way way better

  14. Angelo says:

    Great work, nice tips. But you should properly disclose so your readers will know if you are working, you are paid, you bought the product or something like that.

  15. Good tips, and I am writing reviews with the same type of structures. I also provide ratings out of 10, because often I find people want a quick recommendation or not. You can also rate it out of 5 stars or however u want I guess.

    I also disclose to my readers if its a paid review to maintain editorial integrity.

  16. Ulla says:

    I’m just thinking what your post could mean for me – having a photoblog which is not focussed on the technical aspect. I am definitely not a techie myself, so I don’t think about reviews on cameras. Could “product” also mean other photoblogs? Something like “my photoblog of the month”? You’re giving me something to think about – definitely!

  17. Ask John about reviews :) , he probably did reviews on any world topic :)

  18. Thanks Dustin — My site is about figure skating so I’ve reached out to publishers to let them know that if they’d like any skating books reviewed/mentioned, to send me a review copy. So far, I’ve gotten two (a children’s book and the book about Tonya Harding that just came out). I suspect when the season starts back up again in the fall, I’ll be busy reading and reviewing.

  19. witsandnuts says:

    Timely post. I am about to do review of books that I read the past two months and of the i-phone after a quarter of using it.

  20. Dustin says:

    Kirk: I’m going to think about the subject of creating better archive pages. One of the issues, of course, is that there are so many blogging platforms out there, and what works on WordPress (the platform I know best) may not work on Blogger, or Movable Type, or Drupal, or…

    But there should be some general principles that could apply cross-platform.

    Ulla: Reviews of other blogs are certainly a possibility, and something people rarely do well. I did a post a couple of months ago recommending blogs for writers with very short, 1- and 2-line capsule reviews of each site, and even with such short snippets of information, I got several emails asking me how I’d managed to find out so much! So there’s definitely room for someone to start producing really useful blog reviews.

    Although it’s not exactly the same kind of review as I talk about above, you might also think about doing photography reviews, whetehr of a single piece or a representative sample of a photographer’s body of work, with an eye towards what the work you’re reviewing can teach about becoming a better photographer. I think that kind of review, which would straddle the line between what I wrote about above and traditional art criticism, would be really useful.

  21. Nicely done, Dustin. This is extremely valuable information that I will refer to again and again.

    Ryan

  22. Thanks for the fantastic post, Dustin. It just so happens that I was looking for suggestions on what to include in a product review. I was just solicited for the first time to review a companies products, and wanted to ensure that I was providing my readers with the information they want to see in a product review.

  23. I find that reviews are especially valuable if two conditions are met:

    1) The reviewer describes their personal experience with the product.

    When I’m looking for a product review, I most likely already know some of the features of the product. But at this point I want to know what happened when YOU used the product. Did it fulfill it’s purpose?

    2) My relationship to the reviewer matters. How much do I know about the writer, can I relate to him?

    In “real life” we know a whole lot about people from our circle of friends, so we know whom to ask when we’re looking for a computer, magazine or part for our car. In an online world, this is a level of a trust that is harder to reach and takes more time to create. If the reader is a subscriber to your blog, they might however already have a feel for your personality and your areas of expertise.

    /FM

  24. Thanks Dustin and Darren for the great info. Coincidently, I’ve just won a contest yesterday by doing a blog review and get paid $50. :)

    http://work-at-home-wealth.com/blog/index.php/reviews/blog-review-fresh-revision/

    IMHO that review was worth tenfold as it was more a consultation than a review but I’m not whinning because $50 was what the blog’s owner was disposed to pay and same as on real estate it all depends on where the property (the review) is. I mean, without changing a single point that same review is worth much more in your blog than in mine’s.

    I’ve also taken doing it as a challenge and an opportunity to develop a template to follow in future blog reviews and to get some work done to show in my portfolio to prospective customers.

  25. Felix says:

    Excellent post! One question; what do you title your review posts? I get stuck using “Product Review” – its to the point, but that’s not very sexy.

    Also, do you give away the ending in the title? Example: “Widget is amazing / terrible – find out why”

  26. MJ Ray says:

    Nice summary. I’d add the sixth “big W” to the above list – tell people somewhere to find the product, which also makes you check whether the product is still available.

    By the way, the lifehack link in the bio goes to lifgehack.org and not lifehack.org

  27. Dustin says:

    Felix: Headlines are a problem — my reviews tend to get really long headlines. My general strategy is to put a benefit in the headline, but I also want people to know it’s a review. So I might use something like “Become a better (and better paid!) blogger! A review of “ProBlogger” by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett”. A negative review is even harder, though I don’t think you give too much away with a title like “Avoid this book! A review of…”I think that’s tantalizing enough to draw people into the post. OF course, you could always do a “13.2 Reasons NOT to buy Product X” dealie…

    MJ: I wrote my bio at the last minute, just as I was about to send Darren my guest post. So far people have found two typos, both in links. Moral of the story: always PROOFREAD< even if it’s just 40 or so words you dash off in a hurry. ESPECIALLY if it’s just 40 words or so you dash off in a hurry!

    Anthony: Congratulations. The template idea is a good one. You know who has a great reviewing template? Trent at The Simple Dollar — his book reviews are simply amazing, and almost always follow the same pattern, so you know exactly what to expect.

  28. Hi Dustin,

    Thanks for your words and for the tip. I’m already diggin’ The simple Dollar (Very interesting site BTW) finding that book review template.

  29. Nuno Silva says:

    Very nice post Dustin. I just bookmarked it for future reference

  30. Reginald says:

    When it comes to creating archive pages, is there a problem with using wordpress?

  31. Dheeraj says:

    Well what percentage of people do write reviews.

  32. Daniel Poon says:

    How about lifehacking sites like mine http://www.danielpoon.com/lifehacking that seeks to add value and solve reader’s problem. I find this a better way than just doing review of something I bought. You have to be experienced to hack.