One of the very common statements folks in my position make is to recommend that you only purchase or download software from reputable sources.
Naturally, we also get the follow-up question: how do you know whether or not a source has a good reputation and is “reputable”?
While there are no hard-and-fast rules, I can offer some guidelines on who to trust.
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It’s human nature to trust those with whom we’ve had good experiences. In fact, that’s how reputations are built: one customer at a time. The more happy customers a service has, the better their overall reputation, and the more “reputable” they are. If you’re one of those happy customers, it’s quite natural and appropriate to trust them with your next purchase. If you’ve had personal experience with a source and been happy with the results, that’s perhaps the single biggest personal indicator that your trust might be warranted.
As I said, though, it does assume you’ve already had some experience. If you’re starting from scratch, you need to look elsewhere for information.
Chances are you have other sources you already trust.
Your friends and acquaintances, for example, may have relevant experience. Based on your comfort with their expertise, savvy, and opinions in general, they can be reasonable sources of information. They may be able to tell you resources they like and trust, or they can offer their opinion about a source you’re considering.
Similarly, online information sites that you already trust – perhaps Ask Leo!, for example – are also good sources to consult. Often these sites have explicit recommendations and opinions of their own, in addition to commentary left by site visitors. Naturally, blind trust is never warranted, but as an additional source of data, websites can be useful in determining a source’s overall reputation.
Reputable name brands
While it’s a weaker sense of reputation, one of the common pieces of advice I give is to stick to “name brands”. In other words, a company you’ve heard of is probably more reputable than one you haven’t.
Indeed, some “name brands” have very strong reputations. 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.
Conversely, if you’ve never heard of the source, choosing to trust them is a little riskier. It’s not a reason to avoid them completely – all brands have to start somewhere – but it does mean you’ll want to approach them with a more skeptical eye.
One of the most common approaches 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. For example, searching for “<company>”, where “<company>” is the name of the source or service you’re evaluating, is a start. Refining the search to look for specific topics, like “<company> support”, “<company> horror”, or even “<company> sucks” can lead to interesting information.
One of the things I like to do when evaluating a software vendor is to visit their support forums. I look for a few specific things:
- What are people complaining about? (Support forums are where you bring problems and complaints, after all, so don’t be too concerned if complaints are all you find.)
- Are there company representatives present, or does the forum offer only peer support?
- Are problems addressed by the company?
- How quickly does the company respond to issues?
- What is the overall “feel” of the community? Has the vendor made the majority of customers angry, or is there a sense that many people walk away happy?
Not every product or service has a support forum to look into, but when they do, it’s a valuable resource for product evaluation. I’ve even suspended recommendations based on what I’ve found in support forums.
Another source for valuable information is to check ratings on sites like Amazon, if the product is listed there. You don’t have to buy from Amazon1, 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 find. For any given company, service, or product, you’ll find people who absolutely love it, people who absolutely hate it, and all flavors inbetween.
Two things to remember when evaluating reputation online:
- People go online to complain. Those who have a good experiences rarely post about it. That can lead to a false sense of negativity surrounding whatever it is you’re looking into.
- Every product or service has flaws or bugs. While the number and severity of those issues is important, how they’re handled is even more so. Be it product and service updates, or just good customer service, how a company deals with issues is perhaps the single most important characteristic of what it means to be “reputable”.
When you find complaints, see if the issue is real or not, consider whether the issue would even apply to your situation, and then see if and how the company handles it. There will always be people who will simply never, ever, be happy – people for whom only perfection will do – so you need to use your own judgment as to how seriously to consider 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 realize that “you get what you pay for” is more true 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 make a purchase and ultimately trust a software or service vendor.
When in doubt, ask
One of the best tools you have at hand is a set of trusted resources you can ask when you’re not sure.
Friends, acquaintances, online communities, user groups, technical support sites – all of these can be places to ask your questions prior to deciding where to place your trust.
“Reputable” is all about “reputation”, and asking around is one of the best ways to find out exactly what that reputation is.
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