I am an over-researcher of even the most mundane purchases. Whether it’s a travel coffee mug that costs less than $30 or a pair of audiophile-grade speakers that cost more than most people make in a month, I spend more time pouring over online reviews, product manuals, photos, and price comparisons than most spend picking a name for a child.
I am also the type of person who, once I do all this research and eventually make my purchase, will tell everyone who is (un)fortunate enough to mention that they too are in the market for an [insert product here] everything I learned in my weeks or months of research, god bless them. I will often follow up with an unsolicited email of links and information, because, well, I did all the research not just for me but so I could pass it along to others.
This makes me what author and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell would call a “maven.” Someone who “people … rely upon to connect us with new information,” is “almost pathologically helpful,” and as a helpful Wikipedia author put it, “start ‘word-of-mouth epidemics’ due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate.”
At one point, years ago, this proclivity manifested itself into a website that I edited and wrote with two friends called, “Degeeked: Simple answers to tech questions.”
Tired of product advice and review sites giving multiple choice answers to simple questions like, “I have $200, what camera should I buy?” or giving explanations of how the entire Internet works in response to “how do I setup my wi-fi router?,” our answers were aimed squarely at, well, the types of people who ask questions like this. These people are looking for answers, not an associates degree.
Degeeked never fulfilled its destiny as the end-all be-all product advice site on the internet. That designation, at this point, has to go to The Wirecutter and its sister site The Sweethome. The only proof you need is that The New York Times bought them for more than $30 Million in 2016.
As a compulsive visitor to the site (if I enter “t” into my browser, guess what website is at the top of the autocomplete list), I wanted to explore what about The Wirecutter makes it so great.
The cornerstone of The Wirecutter’s success is that you trust its recommendations. Without authority, nothing else matters.
The fact that the site is owned by The New York times and was started by a former editor at Wired and Gizmodo offers credibility, but that’s not quite authority. They know this and put a “Why you should trust us” section at the top of every review.
Let’s check out a couple of these to demonstrate the lengths to which they go in order to provide authoritative information. Here’s the “Why you should trust us” section for “The Best Exercise Ball,” a $40 product:
In addition to surveying the peer-reviewed literature on the effects of exercise ball use on muscle activation, posture, and pain, we consulted several experts with more than 50 years of collective hands-on experience. We spoke with Marilyn Moffat, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at New York University and former president of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy; personal trainer Grace DeSimone, editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Resources for the Group Exercise Instructor; kinesiologist Danielle Fournier, co-founder of the Ballon Forme exercise program and author of Ballon Forme Couples Method: Guide to using the birthing ball during labor and delivery; and Brian Lowe, PhD, a research industrial engineer in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Applied Research and Technology division.
This one is by far my favorite, found in a review for banana plugs. Banana plugs.
I’ve reviewed audio gear professionally since 1990, and I’ve been doing laboratory measurements of audio gear since 1996. I have thousands of hours of experience at the test bench, and I keep a full suite of audio-test gear in my home. Just as important, I’ve been building audio gear since about 1975. For decades, I’ve been making my own speaker cables, usually with pro-grade cable and banana plugs I put on myself. I’ve also held two jobs in electronics-assembly factories, where I often spent hours a day terminating cables. As an audio reviewer, I’ve tried innumerable brands and types of banana-plug–tipped speaker cables in innumerable speakers and amplifiers, so I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.
And here’s where it gets weird: I’m a longtime connoisseur of banana plugs, having sought out cool new designs in markets around the world, including Tokyo’s Akihabara district, Seoul’s Yongsan district, and New York City’s Chinatown, as well as on numerous websites. Even before I undertook this project, you could probably have found at least a dozen types of banana plugs if you dug through my lab.
See what I mean? This dude has spent more time learning about banana plugs than you or I have spent eating food, and you didn’t even know what banana plugs were 30 seconds ago!
The Wirecutter is just plain useful. And for everyone.
Unlike most sites of this ilk, they aren’t category-specific or geared toward one type of audience. There aren’t just techie gadgets, or just home theater products, or solely things for red-headed mothers of twins who practice yoga.
A quick sampling of the items highlighted on their home page: wireless earbuds, dishwashers, hiking first-aid kits, cheap laptops, baby bottle warmers, dog nail clippers, cell phone plans, and DNA testing kits.
All that variety—there are over 156 items listed on their home page, not counting stuff in the sidebar—could be overwhelming, but for the site’s excellent categorization scheme. Those 156+ items are neatly organized into 25 well-chosen categories and sub-categories. Here’s a sample:
Their on-site search functionality is a let down most of the time, but like most people, I use Google to search their site. Just like I do when I’m trying to find something on Wikipedia, my default search pattern when searching for product recommendations is now, “[product type] wirecutter.”
And because of their authority, Google rewards The Wirecutter by reliably returning their pages in search results:
As you can see, The Wirecutter’s on-site search doesn’t fare as well:
We all need something to strive for to make us better.
How often have you read a product review and wondered if there’s a quid pro quo going on between the site and the product manufacturer? Sure, site’s are required to disclose these payola arrangements, but they often do so in barely visible ways.
At the top of every single page on The Wirecutter, is an explanation of how they make their money:
Transparency = trust.
The Wirecutter makes money when you click on the links they provide and buy the products they recommend, which seems only fair and completely reasonable. At this point in the commercial internet’s history we know that no one would actually pay for a service like this no matter how useful or valuable, which is shameful and insane but the reality, so this seems as close as we’re going to get to direct payment for services provided.
Yes, The Wirecutter does have ads, but you have to look for them, and they don’t do anything shady to trick you into clicking them or increasing their impression counts.
Then there are the lengths to which these crazy people go during their own first-hand testing.
For the banana plugs (it’s fun to type, what can I say) they started off with 18 different kinds. The aforementioned exercise ball experts started off with a list of 80 products! A separate set of compulsives spent 150 hours testing cutting boards, which… what?!
Each recommendation is accompanied by a few sections that ratchet up the transparency even more. In addition to the “why you should trust us” section, there are: how we picked, how we tested, the competition.
Just like in math class, sometimes how you got the answer is just as important as the answer itself.
The above are all an extension of The Wirecutter’s respect for its audience. Respect for me, the visitor, is what keeps me coming back almost daily.
This respect is palpable as soon as you land on their home page.
Almost every single product review site makes you click into the article to find out what their recommended product is, and because of The Wirecutters authority and utility, no one would fault them for doing this. But I wouldn’t be talking about them in such glowing terms if they did.
Right on their home page, for the main featured item as well as every one of the other 156+ “best” products listed, they tell you which product they recommend. If that’s all you need to know, no further clicking required.
Once you dive into a review detail page, the magical synergy between their business model and their respect for the visitor aligns comes into full view.
Most places bury their recommendation at the bottom of the page, that way they can serve you more ads. But The Wirecutter makes money when you click on links to their recommended products and buy the products they recommend.* So, it behooves them to put those links, and the supporting information, in front of you as quickly as possible.
Burying the lede may work for their parent company, but it’s not The Wirecutter’s style.
At the top of every page on The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, is their simple mission:
The Wirecutter and The Sweethome … are lists of the best gadgets and gear for people who quickly want to know what to get.
Through the synergy of authority, utility, transparency and respect, mission accomplished.
Note: While this post was being written, The Wirecutter announced that they would be combining their two sites into one under a single name: Wirecutter. In the announcement, they include their differentiator:
What differentiates Wirecutter from other review sites is the rigor of our review process, the transparency we provide to our readers about that process, and our reader-centric, useful approach to recommendations.
Sharp-eyed readers will see that these values line up nicely with my points above, just in a different order: authority, transparency, respect, and utility.
You’ll have to trust me that I wrote the outline for this post months ago. For my part, it tickles me pink that this post so directly aligns with their editorial team’s thoughts.
* The Wirecutter actually makes money on anything you buy at an affiliate’s site for a certain amount of time. In the case of Amazon, I think it’s the next 24 hours.
Images are screenshots of TheWirecutter and The Sweethome.