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“TMI,” the popular acronym meaning “too much information,” is typically reserved for when someone overshares details about something such as their romantic endeavors, or their bathroom habits. But I never thought I’d be using it when it came to reading online customer reviews while trying to book a vacation.

Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve struggled with online customer reviews. A few months back I blogged about the “paralysis by analysis” I encountered while sifting through countless Amazon customer reviews for iPad Mini cases. The sheer volume of reviews became overwhelming, but luckily my time spent reading them paid off, as I ended up with a great iPad Mini case from Devicewear. Still, it was a tedious process considering the item was relatively inexpensive ($27) to begin with.

If my Amazon experience was the minor leagues of reading online customer reviews, then I was called up to the majors last month while planning a Caribbean vacation with my fiancee. We headed over to TripAdvisor to see which hotels had the best reviews based on the handful of islands we were interested in.

Knowing that there would be more reviews on TripAdvisor than I could possibly read, my strategy for reading reviews was to read only those in which the reviewer graded the hotel a “3” on a 5-point scale. I’ve found these reviews to be the most honest and useful ones. Too often, a 1 out of 5 review overstates the negative aspects of a customer experience, e.g. an indifferent hotel staff becomes “rude,” or a mediocre meal becomes “inedible”; while a 5 out of 5 is too glowingly positive to the point that there’s nothing to learn from it, and it often lacks any detail, e.g. an “amazing” dinner. (The 2’s and 4’s are usually not much better than the 1’s and 5’s as far as exaggeration.)

Luckily, TripAdvisor’s reviews do allow readers to filter by “Couples,” “Solo,” “Families,” and “Business.” Traveling with my fiancée, I selected Couples to see only reviews written by those people who had been on couples-style vacations. Using this filter we got a few good tips, such as asking for a free room upgrade upon check-in.

But despite my 3-rating strategy and the Couples filter, after a few days of reading reviews my head was spinning. Where one reviewer would laud a hotel’s staff for friendly and helpful service, another would trash them. Some people loved the beach at a hotel, where others found it too crowded or noisy.

Just as I was reaching the brink of complete frustration, I had an epiphany.

Because my TripAdvisor account is connected to my Facebook account, I could see that one of my friends had previously visited one of the hotels we were looking at with his wife back in 2006. His wife wrote a glowing review about a particular hotel and about the island in general. Though a lot about a hotel could change in seven years, I reached out to them anyway in the hopes that they could give me the inside scoop. They explained that their trip to Curacao was a great vacation for them at the time, in their mid-twenties, especially since it was their first Caribbean vacation together. However, they said, Curacao was not necessarily a place they would go back to after having been to other islands such as Turks & Caicos, where they were married and have been to several times since.

My epiphany was that I wanted to read more reviews written by people I know–friends and family are typically a more trusted source of information and recommendations than strangers. However, going off of only personal recommendations would be a little impractical unless I planned to solicit reviews about specific destinations or hotels from my social network via Facebook.

The next best thing, I realized, was to read reviews by people like me, even if I didn’t know them personally. By people like me I mean people who are around my age; have a similar travel budget; who live in New York City like I do or at least another major city (preferably on the East Coast); and who have comparable previous travel experience. (That last one, travel experience, is important because someone who rarely travels might not notice or care about the same things I do when they travel.)

I began to re-scan the reviews (already filtered on Couples) for people from the New York area, since this was the only real demographic information available on TripAdvisor. I knew I was on the right track when I found one NYC-based reviewer who said that a hotel bar had “New York prices.” To further filter for travelers like myself and my fiancee, I skipped over reviews from people who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as they were obviously in a different lifestage than we were. (Note: This is not to say older travelers’ opinions aren’t valid, just that they don’t resonate with me as much as the opinions of travelers closer to my own age. Again, it comes back to travel experience.) I also read the reviews more carefully for language that might suggest these people were frequent travelers.

Ideally, I’d like to be able to filter reviews by the factors I mentioned above to give me a reasonable chance to make sense of all the reviews. (This might require TripAdvisor asking a few innocuous demographics questions to its reviewers before they can post a review, but it’s worth it!) I’d also like to see a search box like they have on Yelp so I can search within the reviews for terms like “renovations” (is the hotel under construction?) or “palapas” (do I have to get up at 5 am to reserve a little tent on the beach?). TripAdvisor’s current set up shows frequently used words in its reviews, but they’re not useful for anything more specific than “restaurants” or “happy hour.”

I love that TripAdvisor allows me access to so much information, but sometimes it’s just TMI and goes past the point of usefulness.

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When I received the generous gift of an iPad Mini for my birthday last month, I thought a lot about how owning the state-of-the-art tablet would enhance my day-to-day life. I was excited to set up the device, personalize it, and start using it for all it’s various, well, uses. But at the thought of taking it out of its sleek packaging and then out of my apartment and into the world, I was struck with a sense of panic.

I had no iPad Mini case to protect this gorgeous piece of machinery from the various perils of New York City!

So off I went to Amazon.com. I knew Amazon would have a variety of cases at every price point. And more than that, it would have reviews, thousands and thousands of wonderfully helpful reviews! (If you’re one of six avid readers of this blog, you know that I love to review things. And when I’m not reviewing things, I’m reading reviews of things.)

I budgeted about 15 minutes on a Sunday afternoon for the task of finding the perfect iPad Mini case that would be protective, decent-looking, and not too bulky. I didn’t need anything fancy or expensive, so I started off my search with a price point of $30 and under and I only viewed products with an average customer rating of at least a four stars (out of five). I had no idea what I was in for. I did my best below to paraphrase the deal-breaking features of each case I found, primarily based on each product’s negative (one- and two-star) reviews:

Bear Motion ($16) doesn’t protect the iPad Mini’s edges; Moko Slim Fit ($18) is shoddy; Belkin Quilted ($26) and i-Blason Leather ($20) are bulky; Snugg Leather ($25) is actually polyurethane leather (which is not “real” leather, as advertised); Photive Smart Cover ($18) has an ugly “Photive” logo on the cover; Acase Folio ($13) is hard to prop up to watch video; Finite Degrees ($10) and Poetic Slimline ($11) are flimsy; SupCase Leather ($14) has a chemical-y odor to it; Belkin Striped ($31) doesn’t close properly because its magnets are weak; Speck iGuy ($23) just looks ridiculous (that’s not actually in the review…just see below).

Right?

Right?

Jeez! Feeling like I’d read one too many Goldilocks-style reviews–each one was too this or too that, without finding my “juuuuust right” case–I invoked my 15 months of market researcher work experience and chose a new strategy for evaluating the reviews. Rather than only reading the 1’s and 2’s, which were overly negative (or the 4’s and 5’s, which were overly positive), I read the three-star reviews, which tended to list pros and cons rather than only the deal-sealers, i.e. what they loved, or deal-breakers, i.e. what they hated. (I imagined each three-star review was being read to me by an even-keeled imaginary friend who never really gets too negative about anything, but who also never really gets super excited about anything. Is that weird?)

After two separate research sessions, I finally found a winner from a company called Devicewear ($27). Of its 260 reviews, 242 were five stars, with just two one- or two-star reviews. If it had a drawback, per the reviews, it was that it was not going to protect the iPad Mini from a serious drop (but then, how many cases would?). Other than that, it fit my price point and seemed OK looking. (If it turns out to be uglier than in its pictures, I’ll just cover it with Garbage Pail Kids stickers or something.) Once I receive it and use it for a week or two, I’ll report back on Amazon with a review of my own.

Because everyone loves blog posts with an appendix at the end, here are a few other notes from my review-seeking process:

  • Thinking now about having to sift through so many reviews to find one common theme for each product (e.g. “shoddy” or “doesn’t protect the edges”), perhaps Amazon would consider showing suggested keywords or phrases that appear most often in each product’s reviews. Mr. Bezos: Call me.
  • I realize I could have expanded my search to cases well over my $30 cut-off, but I’m simply not willing to pay that much for a case. My assumption, correct or not, was that spending another $10 or $20 on a case wouldn’t offer more protection or practical functionality, only more bells and whistles or a sleeker look, which I didn’t care about.
  • The case that Apple makes got surprisingly poor reviews and was almost $40, so I ruled it out.
  • I bought a great Amazon Kindle case for just over $30 from M-Edge. I even reread the reviews of that case to see if I was making too much of the iPad Mini cover reviews. It was rated as well as I remembered it with the only drawback being bulkiness, which I didn’t mind after breaking my first Kindle’s screen a week after receiving it. However M-Edge’s selection of iPad Mini cases was expensive and not particularly well-reviewed, so I moved on.
  • I clicked on some of the reviewers profiles to make sure they’d reviewed other things. I know sometimes companies are sneaky and place “false positive” reviews on their product page. This didn’t seem to be the case on any of the reviewers I investigated.
  • I also factored the number of reviews into my evaluation process. From a statistical standpoint, I realize that someone might rather a product with a slightly lower score across  1,000 reviews than a much higher score across, say 25 reviews. But I found that most products I viewed had a robust enough sample size of reviews (at least 200) to make it a non-issue. The Snugg Leather (the “fake leather” one) had a four-star average rating, like the others, across over 3,100 reviews–far more than any of the other products I looked at. I considered letting the higher number of reviews be my tiebreaker, but that’s like choosing to eat at a restaurant simply because it’s full of diners (or not choosing a restaurant because it’s empty). Sales volume is not necessarily the best indicator of quality. If you don’t believe me, watch any highly-rated reality TV show.

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