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How Do I Tell If a Source is Reputable?

In technology, as in life, reputation is everything.

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We are often advised to trust only "reputable" sites. How do you tell if a site or service has a good reputation?

One of the common statements folks in my position make is to recommend you purchase or download software only from reputable sources.

That often leads to a follow-up question: how do you know whether or not a source is “reputable”?

There are no hard-and-fast rules, but I can offer some guidelines.

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TL;DR:

Your own experience is the most valuable, but we can’t assume you have that experience. Look for the opinions of trusted friends, acquaintances, and even sites like Ask Leo!. Stick to brands you know, or at have least heard of, if you can. Use Amazon and other sites with buyer feedback and ratings as sources of information. Visit product support sites to see how the company deals with issues and how happy users are. Use your best judgment with all of what you find. ✔

Prior experience

It’s human nature to trust those with whom we’ve had good experiences.

That’s how reputations are built: one customer at a time. The more happy customers a service has, the better their reputation.

If you’re one of those happy customers, it’s natural to trust them with your next purchase. Your personal experience is perhaps the single biggest indicator your trust might be warranted.

This assumes you’ve already had some experience. If you’re starting from scratch, you need to look elsewhere.

Trusted recommendations

Chances are you have other sources you already trust.

Your friends and acquaintances, for example. Based on your comfort with their expertise, savvy, and opinions in general, they can be great sources of information. They may be able to tell you about resources they trust or offer an opinion about a source you’re considering.

Similarly, online information sites that you already trust — for example, Ask Leo! — are also good to consult. Often these sites have explicit recommendations and opinions of their own, in addition to comments left by site visitors. Blind trust is never warranted, but trusted websites can be useful resources.

Reputable brands

I often advise folk to stick to name brands. In other words, a company you’ve heard of is possibly more reputable than one you haven’t.

Indeed, some name brands have very strong reputations.1 Knowing they’ve been around for many years tells you they’re not some fly-by-night operation that’ll disappear as soon as you have a problem.

If you’ve never heard of the source, trusting them is a little riskier. It’s not a reason to avoid them completely — everyone has to start somewhere — but it does mean you’ll want to approach them with a more skeptical eye.

Online reputation

Another common approach to determining whether a company, service, product, or even individual is worthy of trust is to fire up your favorite search engine and see what the internet has to say. Searching for the name of the source or service you’re evaluating is a start. Adding specific words like support, horror, or even sucks can lead to interesting information.

I often visit product support forums, if available. I look for a few things:

  • What are people complaining about? (Support forums are where you bring problems and complaints, after all, so don’t be concerned if complaints are all you find.)
  • Are company representatives present, or does the forum offer only peer-to-peer support?
  • Are the problems raised eventually addressed by the company?
  • How quickly does the company respond, if they respond at all?
  • What is the overall “feel” of the community? Has the vendor made the majority of customers angry, or is there a sense that people walk away happy?

Not every product has a support forum, but when they do, it’s a valuable resource for evaluation. I’ve suspended recommendations based on what I’ve found in support forums.

Another source is to check ratings on sites like Amazon, if the product is listed there. You don’t have to buy from Amazon,2 but browsing the feedback and Q&A left by others can be enlightening.

Perfection doesn’t exist

Perhaps the single hardest aspect of evaluating reputation information, be it from trusted friends or random internet searches, is the wide variety of opinions you’ll find. For any given company, service, or product, you’ll find people who absolutely love it, people who absolutely hate it, and all flavors in between.

Two things to remember when evaluating reputation online:

When you find complaints, see if the issue is real or not and consider whether it would apply to you. Then see how the company handles it. There will always be people who will never, ever, be happy — people for whom only perfection will do — so you need to use your own judgment as to how thoroughly to accept their feedback.

Price isn’t everything

Please don’t make price your only criteria.

Price is a very important factor in many purchasing decisions, but “you get what you pay for” is truer than most people realize. Lower cost often comes at the expense of after-sale service, or, even worse, at the expense of including a few PUPs, or occasionally malware, with your downloads.

Be price-conscious, of course, but consider it one of many factors that go into deciding whether or not to trust or use a software or service vendor.

When in doubt, ask

You have great tools hand. Friends, acquaintances, online communities, user groups, technical support sites — all of these can be places to ask your questions as you decide where to place your trust.

Asking around is one of the best ways to judge reputation.

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Footnotes & References

1: Sometimes negative reputations, which is also valuable information.

2: Though, for a variety of reasons, I almost always do. They have, in my opinion, a very good reputation as a seller, reseller, and source of good information.

3: One advanced technique I use is to look up domain information for the company in question. If it’s been registered only recently, that can be a flag, as can being registered in a country that you wouldn’t expect. One such service is whois.domaintools.com.

19 comments on “How Do I Tell If a Source is Reputable?”

  1. As for checking out a product on the internet, I’ve found that sometimes that search leads me to a website set up by the maker of that product to shill for their product and/or disparage the competition. So I try to make sure I trust the reputation of the website making the recommendation. For example, when it comes to software, I generally trust websites like Ask Leo!, PCMag, PC World, Ask Bob Rankin, TechSupportAlert, CNet (but watch out for their downloads which often contain PUPs). There are more that I trust, but can’t think of offhand, but maybe some readers can add a few to that list.

    As for physical products, I generally trust Amazon reviews. They only allow people who’ve bought the product from them to review a product, although, there may also be a small number of fake recommendations from the makers of the products.

    Reply
  2. CNET claims they have cleaned up their act ..but can you really trust them once a company has lost its honor?
    Also I once trusted the venerable https:// security web log in .
    Just this morning I received a Paypal email update request.
    I Sandboxed my browser and went through all their update questions.
    What was disappointing is that I logged in on a https:// web page including green padlock symbol using a fake email and fake password which the real Paypal would reject immediately.

    Reply
  3. Your pointing at one of the major weaknesses of the Windows operating system, without mentioning it: Windows does not have an app store with trusted applications like operating systems like Apple, Linux and Android have. An trusted app store, that is something that Microsoft should create. The Windows user is now out in the wilderness without much protection against all sorts of wild animals.

    Reply
  4. Leo, you wrote:

    “Download sites are just too risky these days, unless there is no way to avoid them.”

    I’m not sure I agree with you here, Leo; certain DL sites — e.g., TuCows — are reputable in their own right, and will only offer up files that they have virus-scanned, and/or have reviewed, or have vetted in some other way. Many also provide reviews, Amazon-style, from previous downloaders. Indeed, all other things being equal, I’d actually trust a file obtained via a well-known & regarded DL site, sooner than I would from some unknown, unfamiliar vendor site.

    Reply
    • I have experienced, and heard of experiences, with too many formerly reputable download sites. The advice to ALWAYS go to the original vendor of the software remains the safest way to get software. If you can do that WHY risk a download site at all, ever?

      Reply
      • I do that also. I may read about things in the app stores, then I find the creators website, and download from there. i find that the Windows store, for some reason, dumbs down a lot of the apps, Netflix for instance, and they just do not perform the same as using the website, or downloading from the original website.

        Reply
      • These days, I use download sites mainly as sources of information, since the good ones will have a description of the software, and user reviews thereof.

        Excellent download sites will list either the homepage or the download page, of the program’s creator.

        And really excellent download sites will have that URL hyperlinked to take you to the site in question (as opposed to merely an “information page” on the download site itself).

        Reply
  5. As I got an offer for the “absolute fastest” unlimited Internet, from a very large company (Bell), I agreed. What I found was that software controlling their operations is far, very far, from being perfect or even close.
    1. Although they do not carry my long distance service and have been like that for many years, they were charging me for it, with their exorbitant rates. When I complained, their response to pay “now” and have it refunded later!! Unsatisfied again, they referred it to a “higher up” who after THREE MONTHS was able to have the billing system REVISED to eliminate it. By the way, their offer, for the given rates was for a limited time and jumped up afterwards.
    2. As I have “Call Display” and clicking on a number, re-connects me with the last caller, it took many long months to have their software revised to correct this problem.
    My point is: Big names do not necessarily mean” Reliable Service”. Checking their reputation ratings is meaningless and not reliable!!!

    Reply
  6. Leo, you wrote:

    “…as can being registered in a country that you wouldn’t expect. One such service is whois.domaintools.com…”

    Ahem: “Whois” is registered in a country that you wouldn’t expect??? 😮

    LOL!!! 🙂

    Reply
  7. One thing I believe is important to mention is that people tend to post negative reviews more often than positive ones.

    Reply

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