A reader left a snide remark about one of my recommendations, but it actually raised an important point about recommendations you might find online – there are many opportunities for abuse.
From: Billy Bob Macrium
Mr. Leo, your check is in the mail
I recently got that as a comment to my article How do I restore a backup to a smaller hard drive?. Presumably, the commenter believes that my reasons for recommending Macrium Reflect are somehow financially motivated and is trying to make some kind of snide remark to make his point.
(For the record, there are two completely separate reasons why the implication is wrong – more on that in a moment.)
I’ll admit that it irritated me. No one likes having their ethics questioned.
But as I cooled down just a little, I realized that while the comment’s delivery is quite immature, the concept hidden in the sarcasm is one worth understanding.
There are reasons you shouldn’t blindly accept recommendations that you find online.
Perhaps even those you find on Ask Leo!.
If I were to re-word the comment to be clearer and more respectful, I’d say this:
Leo, you must be getting some kind of kick-back or monetary incentive to promote Macrium Reflect as much as you do.
It’s a valid concern as there are indeed formal programs known as “affiliate programs” where individuals – almost anyone in fact – can receive a percentage of the purchase price if someone purchases a product after clicking on a link provided by the affiliate program member.
For example, when I link to a product on Amazon – say a Kindle Fire, as I have here – I use what’s called an affiliate link. If you click on that link, Amazon knows that it was my site that sent you to them. Should you buy the device (or, in Amazon’s case, almost anything else), I’ll get an affiliate commission or “finder’s fee” of something around 5%.
None of that affects the price you pay. If no affiliate link is used, then Amazon keeps the 5% for themselves.
Some, but not all, producers of digital goods often have affiliate programs of their own. Commissions run the range from the 5% range offered by stores like Amazon, to 20%, 40%, 50% or sometimes even more.
And it’s nothing new. Affiliate programs and affiliate marketing have been around for years and are considered a respectable approach to getting a product promoted by others. Chances are you’ve already purchased things via an affiliate link and never even known it.
Affiliate relationships can be abused
This is the internet – anyone can put up anything for any reason.
The problem, of course, is that with a monetary incentive to promote a product, now all of a sudden the motives of those doing the promoting becomes suspect.
Let’s use a real world example: let’s say product “Z” offers a 25% affiliate commission on each sale, whereas product “Y” doesn’t have an affiliate program at all. Both products perform the same function.
Everything else being equal, it might make sense to promote product Z over Y. I mean, if there’s honestly no difference, why not get an affiliate commission on every sale?
The problem, of course, is that there’s always a difference. Product Z might have a bad reputation. Product Y might honestly be the better product for a variety of reasons.
This is where affiliate relationships get abused. Inferior products may get promoted simply because they have an affiliate revenue opportunity.
This is the first of the two reasons my commenter’s inference about my situation is simply wrong. Macrium Reflect is product Y – they have no affiliate program that I could find, and I make no money when people purchase it.
It’s just, in my opinion, a better product and worthy of your consideration.
Comments and reviews can be faked
Besides snarky questioning of my ethics (thankfully, very infrequent), a more common scenario are comments which clearly are left to promote a particular product themselves. Sometimes, they’re completely unrelated to the topic at hand; in which case, they’re simply treated as spam. However, sometimes they’re seemingly on-topic, but self-promotional.
As a reader of my site, you might not know the difference, and thus, might consider it to be a legitimate opinion based on someone’s experience, whereas it’s really someone working on the software vendor’s behalf to promote sales of their product – good or bad. (Often bad, since good products rarely need to resort to this technique.)
But there are also totally legitimate comments from other readers (just like you) sharing experiences that add significant value to the discussion.
It’s difficult to know the difference sometimes. Here on Ask Leo!, my staff and I try to weed out the spam, but we’re not always successful. Other sites that accept comments or product reviews make no such effort at all – it’s something that Amazon, for example, is often criticized for since product reviews have often been known to be faked.
The author might have an agenda
Within moments of receiving the comment implying my Macrium Reflect recommendation was less than objective, I received a comment on a different article, lambasting me for recommending Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender Offline – nearly accusing me of being nothing more than a shill for Microsoft. (Sadly, that inference is one of the perils I still face, having worked there for 18 years, even though I left over 10 years ago.)
My guess is that the commenter has a strong anti-Microsoft agenda – something I definitely see from time to time.
That agenda can’t help but bias his comments and reviews.
They’re likely to be less than objective.
His visceral reaction to Microsoft Security Essentials is not born out by my own experience, and perhaps most importantly, the experiences of many other reviewer and tech support personnel around the internet. Of course, it’s not 100% positive – no product gets that – but it’s significantly better than he would have us believe.
He’s most certainly entitled to his opinion, but it makes evaluating comments and reviews that much more difficult for the casual reader.
The author might not be qualified
I like to believe I know what I’m doing. I like to believe that when it comes to computing in general, the 35+ years I’ve put into it plus my background, plus hands-on experience with the various technologies I talk about here make me at least somewhat qualified to do what I do.
I know that there are areas where I’m not well-suited – for example, I rarely take on Mac-related questions simply because that’s not my strength. There are better resources out there.
But being qualified is most certainly not a requirement to publish on the internet, or make comments on blogs, or even set up entire websites on some subject matter.
And let’s face it, we all run the risk – myself most definitely included – of thinking we know more than we do, or that we are better than we are.1
But that doesn’t stop us from posting.
How I come to my recommendations
I can’t speak to other sites and other reviewers, but I can tell you how I most often come to recommend products on Ask Leo!.
- Almost all are products I use personally and more often than not, quite heavily. When the time came to drop my recommendation of a previous product, I researched a little and discovered that Macrium Reflect met my requirements – not just for myself, but as something that I might recommend to others. So I bought it and started using it. I liked what I saw. 2
- The product has to be “significant enough” to warrant a recommendation. This is a little fuzzier, but I don’t make actual recommendations lightly, so the product needs to solve a real problem, and do so in a way that I believe is significantly useful to the average user or someone attempting to solve the specific problem the program addresses.
- Only after I decide to recommend or link to a product and only if that product is not free3 do I go looking for an affiliate program. This is the second way that the commenter’s inference is wrong: revenue potential doesn’t drive what I recommend. While I’ll certainly take advantage of affiliate programs if they exist – it helps defray the costs of running Ask Leo! – it’s certainly not a requirement.
At least, that’s what I say I do. You really have no way of knowing for certain.
And you and I have no way of knowing with certainty how others do it as well. This is the internet – anyone can put up anything for any reason.
(This is also covered in my 2009 article: Product Reviews, Recommendations and Affiliate Links Disclosure. That’s a statement that the FTC looks for on content websites that recommend or promote products for sale. There’s a link to it on the bottom of every page on Ask Leo!)
Find someone or a venue you trust
So what’s a person to do?
My recommendation is that you invest a little time in finding someone you feel you can trust. Naturally, I hope that’s me, but that’s not as important as your simply finding a resource that you feel comfortable with before you need a recommendation.
- Sign up for a few tech newsletters and see which feels best to you.
- Join, watch, and participate in a few online tech discussion forums.
- Visit a few support and news sites regularly.
In all cases, watch for specific people making recommendations. Don’t trust everything you see on a discussion site for example, but look at the specific people who are making comments and recommendations. Judge their reputation and form your own opinion about their trustworthiness.
Even then, as I said, remember that this is the internet; take every recommendation with a grain of salt. But starting with a site or individual whose opinion you feel some affinity for will give you a leg up as you make your own decisions.
It’s all about trust
It really is all about trust.
Approach the internet with a healthy dose of skepticism.
If you don’t trust a site or recommendation, then don’t follow the recommendation, it’s as simple as that. If you think that there’s an ulterior motive, walk away.
Leaving snide comments rarely helps anyone, but asking questions absolutely can. Simply expressing reservations or respectfully disagreeing can provide food for thought for site visitors who follow – particularly if the author responds. This is exactly the reason I regularly leave the comments of those who disagree with me: to get future visitors to think.
On the other hand, finding and sticking with a site or individual whose reputation, opinions, and recommendations you trust can make finding the right tool or solving that problem a safer, and hopefully quicker experience.
You don’t even need to always agree – but what you do need to trust is the intent, integrity, and ethics of whatever source you use.
As I said, I hope that’s me, but if it isn’t I strongly encourage to go out and find a source that you can trust to get the advice and the support you’re looking for.