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Whether you’re spending $10, $100, or $10,000, you should be confident you’re going to get a quality product or service that meets your needs. Being confident and informed is key to smarter spending. One tool in your smart-spending arsenal is online reviews.

You can find online reviews of most products and services—everything from vacuum cleaners, to hair stylists, to restaurants—and reading them can verify the quality or legitimacy of the item, help you better understand if it’s the right purchase for you, and reduce the risk of dissatisfaction.

The next step is determining how to use the information in reviews to find the best deals and not be tricked by fake reviews or swayed by vengeful ones (hint: a dose of healthy skepticism goes a long way).

Decide where to look for reviews

Of the many places to find online reviews, these four (used together, if possible) give a balance of review types, depth, and policing to weed out fake reviews.

E-commerce sites: Probably the most obvious, large retail sites (Amazon, eBay, Target, etc.) have built-in rating systems for product listings that allow you to compare vendors and competitor products. Reviews with pictures are especially helpful when buying clothing or cosmetics. However, not all retailers and reviews are truthful: unscrupulous vendors may delete negative reviews or pay for fake reviews. Watch out for reviews from reviewers with short posting histories, reviews without a lot of specific detail, and reviews with awkward wording to repeat keywords—they’re most likely fake.

Review sites: Websites like Epinions, Angie’s List, and Yelp are forums for customer reviews and sometimes responses from companies. Because these sites aren’t directly connected to the sale of products (like ecommerce sites are) and because they work to attract new visitors and moderate reviews, they can be a more balanced source of opinions and experiences.

Social media: Social media platforms are another source of company and product reviews. However, more consumers post complaints and concerns to social media than good experiences, so keep this mind. If a company’s reviews seem suspiciously too-good-to-be-true elsewhere, see what people are saying on Twitter or Facebook.

Blogs: Blogs are a source of in-depth reviews with lots of detail and usually pictures. Because bloggers tend to write and review about a niche subject—cooking, lifestyle, tech gadgets, childcare, etc.—they will have more informed insights. You should still research a blogger’s review policies to make sure they aren’t operating under a positive bias because they got the product for free or receive a commission if you click on the link in the review.

Think critically when reading reviews

Fake reviews from bots, paid writers, and people influenced by the seller exist. In order to spot and ignore the fakes, be sure to have your critical thinking cap on when reading reviews: remain objective, don’t be swayed by the emotion of reviews, and watch out for red flags.

Things to look for:

  • Number of reviews. The more reviews there are, the more likely the genuine ones will outweigh and balance out the false ones. It will also give you a sense of the average consumer experience.
  • Posting dates. Older reviews may not reflect how the business is currently run or updates to products.
  • Patterns. Patterns in complaints and compliments will give you a better idea of what to expect, and they’ll most likely come from real customers. Patterns in grammar, syntax, misspelled words, and repeated phrases can point to paid or fake reviews.
  • The source. If you’re unsure if a reviewer is a real person, or if you want to know if they are similar in likes and dislikes to you, look at their profile to see what else they’ve reviewed. If they have a long or varied history of comments, it’s more likely to be a real person. If they write thoughtful, balanced reviews, and/or they seem to have similar tastes to you, then they are a more credible reviewer.
  • Personal or vengeful attacks. When a reviewer criticizes things irrelevant to the product or service, he or she may be bullying the company or an individual employee. Also be wary of people who use profanity in their review or who don’t seem to have tried to resolve the issue with the company first.
  • Three-star reviews. Reviews closer to the median—three on a five-star scale—tend to be more moderate, detailed, and honest.
  • Ignore stars all together. Another approach is to ignore the review scale altogether and look for contextual details and specific facts. This will help eliminate the variation in peoples’ rating standards and balance emotional, generalized impressions.

Other steps

If you feel overwhelmed or conflicted by online reviews, you can always contact the company directly. This allows you to ask about specific situations (return policies, how a bad experience detailed online was handled, etc.). And of course, you can always go the old-fashioned route and ask family, friends, and acquaintances about their recommendations.