How big media companies are making it harder to find product reviews

Erin Kernohan-Berning

3/9/20244 min read

photo of the Google Search page
photo of the Google Search page

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

As modern consumers we are overwhelmed by variety. Looking for a jar of tomato sauce in the grocery store? Do you want chunky? Thick? Thin? Do you want one flavoured with garlic and herbs? Spicy or sweet? Or both?

This curse of variety exists in pretty much every product category we can think of – can you think of an item that there exists only one type of? Even something as rudimentary as toilet paper comes in a staggering variety of options.

When faced with this level of variety, we can become preoccupied with purchasing the “best” thing. Afterall, if we are spending our time and money to make a purchase, we want to be sure that out of the dizzying array of choices that we get something that fulfills our needs. Online reviews can be helpful in this regard. Or rather, up until recently they were helpful in this regard.

In February, Gisele Navarro[1], managing editor at HouseFresh, raised the alarm that traffic to their in-depth home air purifier product reviews had steeply dropped. Analysing keywords that had previously brought them traffic, they found that the top search results were all from large media brands, many had never reviewed air purifiers before, and some wouldn’t be expected to review air purifiers at all (for example, Rolling Stone, Popular Science, and Forbes magazines). Furthermore, many of these “Best of” lists seemed very similar, including featuring a product that was no longer available, quotes from the same expert, and photos from the same photographer.

So why would these magazines suddenly start getting into the online product review business? And why do their reviews look so… samey? A combination of Google’s search algorithm, search engine optimization practices, and the evolution of the magazine is creating the perfect storm for reliable product reviews to get lost in.

According to Jeff Jarvis in his book titled Magazine, it is not unusual for magazines to review products – for example, Good Housekeeping started product testing in 1901 and would only feature ads for products they approved. Providing consumer information has been a core part of what magazines do. What has changed is the seismic shift that the business model of the magazine underwent with the advent of the internet.

It helps to understand how magazines have historically made money. Jarvis states that since the 20th century the magazine has been supported by advertisers as much as it has been by readers purchasing and subscribing. Before the internet, magazines charged advertisers on the assumption that when a company purchased ad space on page 4, every reader would see that ad even if they didn’t read that page. Ads on the internet work far differently – through analytics, companies can see how many times their ads are viewed, how many of those views result in clicks, and if that click turned into a purchase.

So, the goal for profitability becomes getting as many eyes on a website ad as possible, and that means climbing higher in Google’s search rankings. This is where search engine optimization comes in.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of ensuring that your website meets the ranking criteria of a particular search engine. The better you meet the criteria, the higher up in the search results your website will appear. According to Glen Allsopp at, a website that focuses on search engine optimization, 16 media companies are consistently rising to the top of Google’s search results.

In Allsopp’s 2023 rundown of SEO practices among these large media companies, he highlights the practice of using affiliate links (through which a site can earn commission for an online sale) featured across a few websites owned by a single media company. Hearst, for example, ran the same article featuring the same lamp with the same affiliate link on its sites for Popular Mechanics, Country Living, and House Beautiful.

Another example is Dotdash, which has more than one product testing facility in the United States. This product testing appears to be re-used by writers as source material for “Best of” product reviews across several Dotdash brands including Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, and The Spruce.

There are also examples of companies using third party product reviews, such as Arena Group, owner of Sports Illustrated, to provide content on their websites. Futurism, a technology news site, recently investigated the possibility that some of those third-party reviews featured on Sports Illustrated were AI-generated.[2]

The difficulty for consumers is that if one of these media companies puts out poor quality information, bolstered by magazine brand recognition, it easily drowns out more in-depth product reviews [3]. In the next installment of Humans and Technology, we’ll learn how we can find better product reviews so we can make better purchasing decisions.

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.

Correction log

[1] When this article was originally printed in The Minden Times, got the authors of the HouseFresh article wrong. It was Gisele Navarro and Danny Ashton.

[2] An unfortunate related story: Sports Illustrated layoffs were announced in January 2024. (Associated Press) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

[3] An opportunity to inject some nuance: After writing this article, I listened to an episode of Decoder, a podcast by The Verge (VoxMedia) where guest host Hank Green interviews The Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel. (The Verge) Last accessed 2024/03/08.

In the episode, Patel shares some interesting thoughts on the for-profit magazine model in our online world, and how they handle product reviews. It's worth a listen for this, and Green and Patel's discussion about the web in general.