Beyond the “Best of” list: searching for better product reviews

Erin Kernohan-Berning

3/20/20243 min read

turned on Best neon sign
turned on Best neon sign

This is the second of a two-part series about finding reliable product reviews online.

In the previous installment of Humans and Technology, we looked at how large media companies are flooding the internet with “Best of” product review lists through search engine optimization (SEO) and magazine brand recognition, and how that can drown out higher quality review sites.

As the business model for magazines has shifted online, and as advertisers have more granular insight into how their ads are performing, we’ve seen large media companies such as Dotdash, Hearst, and others, produce similar “Best of” product review lists across their magazine branded websites including Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, Country Living, and many others. Consequently, search results for product reviews have become dominated by very cookie-cutter, superficial review lists that aren’t always useful or trustworthy.

So how do you, the consumer, wade through all the content clamouring for your attention to find reliable product reviews? The first and easiest strategy is to not frame your search as “Best [thing] of 2024”. SEO practitioners look for very common search terms like this and optimize their websites to be served up when this kind of search occurs. This is largely what’s happening when the brands from large media companies post “Best of” lists.

One tactic to try when looking for reviews on products is to search the topic rather than the products. For instance, if you’re looking for camera equipment to photograph wildlife, instead of searching for “Best camera lens for wildlife” try searching for “wildlife photography getting started.” That way your search results will be more weighted toward enthusiasts and professionals willing to share their knowledge, and inevitably the equipment they use, rather than just lists of affiliate links.

You can also look for review sites that specialize in one type of product. HouseFresh, which focuses on home air quality, was the one that initially raised the alarm about large media companies drowning out independent review sites in Google’s search results. Here are a few more specialty review sites that you might not think of: Best Binoculars & Binocular Reviews, Apple Rankings (“the definitive list of good and bad apples”), and Sleep Like the Dead (which reviews bedding and mattresses).

You can also look specifically for review sites that are either not-for-profit (like Consumer Reports), or that clearly publish their testing methodology (like The Wirecutter, owned by the New York Times or Montreal-based A good review site will also retest products as new ones come on the market, update product listings as availability changes, and clearly date those updates so that consumers know when they occurred.

Because large media companies own many home and lifestyle brands, and are targeting keywords related to those things, your search results may still be littered with these “Best of” lists for certain products. However, lists don’t need to be useless. Rather than relying on them to make a final decision, you can use them as a jumping off point for further searching. This is called pearl growing.

Pearl growing is when you search for something, click on a website, and then use information on that website to form another search. So, if you search for “Laundry detergent reviews”, you might still find a lot of “Best of” lists in your search results. You can then look at those product reviews, open another tab, and search for those products independently. You can repeat this process as often as you want until you feel like you have enough information to make a good purchasing decision. The term pearl growing refers to how molluscs use bits of sand to create beautiful pearls. In this case, your bits of sand are bits of information that you’re picking up all over the internet.

Another option to find product reviews is through online forums. Many hobbyists are active on forums that specialize in their particular pursuit. There are dozens of woodworking forums, for instance, as well as a subreddit dedicated to the topic. These forums provide access to other people, just like you, who have experience, interest, and product recommendations. In the internet world, this is basically the equivalent of in-person word-of-mouth.

Enabling consumers to make good purchasing decisions is important on many levels. Economically it ensures that we don’t waste our money. Environmentally it ensures that we don’t make unnecessary purchases that ultimately wind up in the landfill. Google shifting their search algorithm away from favouring these big media companies and their superficial “Best of” lists, thereby letting more voices float to the top, can help consumers make better choices. But until that happens, we need to know how to navigate the world of product reviews so we can find the best information possible.

Learn more

How Google is killing independent sites like ours. 2024. Gisele Navarro and Danny Ashton. (HouseFresh) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

Google reneged on the monopolistic bargain. 2024. Cory Doctorow. (Pluralistic) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

Magazine. 2023. Jeff Jarvis. (Bloomsbury)

How 16 Companies are Dominating the World's Google Search Results. 2023. Glen Allsopp. (Detailed) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

How We Pick Products and Services. The Spruce. (Dotdash Meredith) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

Sports Illustrated Published Articles by Fake, AI-Generated Writers. 2023. Maggie Harrison Dupré. (Futurism) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

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