Product Recommendation Websites And The Endless Search For The “Best”

“What’s the best mattress I can buy?” It’s a question Sleep Retailer editors hear from non-industry folks all the time. It’s a trick question, of course. When it comes to mattresses, the “best” is subjective. What works for one person may not work for the next; it all depends on body shape, aches and pains, sleep habits and personal preference. And yet the question comes up time and time again. But this quest for the “best” goes beyond the mattress industry. Across all product categories, today’s consumers are more preoccupied than ever about finding the best possible option. This phenomenon has been driven, in part, thanks to the growing influence of product review websites. We’ve explored the behind-the-scenes world of mattress-specific review sites before, but the prevalence of category-agnostic recommendations has flourished in recent years. How have these platforms affected the bedding industry—and what does their popularity reveal about consumer habits and needs? 

In a recent article for Vox’s The Goods, Eliza Brooke took an in-depth look at the “rise of the recommendation website.” As she explained in the article, this concept is hardly new. Consumer Reports has been publishing its product testing and tips since 1936. But today, consumers are referring to a number of different product review websites like the New York Times’ Wirecutter, New York Magazine’s the Strategist, Buzzfeed Reviews, to name a few. That doesn’t include the multitude of “gift guides” that pop up every year around the holidays.

And according to Brooke, these websites pose an interesting conundrum: “As ever more authorities enter the fray, the question is this: When everyone claims to have identified the “best” product in a category, who do you trust?”

First, it’s important to understand that, despite what the headlines state, these sites are rarely claiming to know what the “best” is. In fact, each platform has its own particular way of avoiding making truly objective or omniscient claims.

“We’re not God, and we’re not trying to be,” Jason Chen, deputy editor at the Strategist, explained in the article. “We’re trying to be your cool friend who has a certain view of the world.” As such, The Strategist regularly compiles “best of” lists based on Amazon customer reviews or spotlights the picks of notable tastemakers.

The Wirecutter takes a different approach. It invests much more time and effort in comprehensive testing, much like Consumer Reports. But it also “considers its product guides living documents, to be updated if customer reviews suddenly start to drop or if, in continuing to use a product, the writer discovers that it doesn’t hold up over a long period of time.”

So why label these lists as “the best of” if they’re not trying to make such claims? Like most things online, it all comes down to SEO. These websites need visitor traffic to survive—and people include “best” in Google searches at a staggering rate. Putting that word into the headline of an article will help direct more consumers to view it.

But what’s driving this obsession with buying only the best of the best? Economic uncertainty definitely plays a role. If you are hard-strapped for cash, you want to make sure you’re really getting your money’s worth. But purchasing anxiety can also be the unintended result of simply having too many options to pick from.

Studies have shown that “an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest.” You can point to similar psychological reasoning for why so many online brands have limited their product offerings to one or two choices.

There’s no question that there’s too much choice in the bedding category. Consumers have a seemingly infinite number of mattresses, pillows, sheet sets, etc, to choose from. Product review sites can help them whittle down that number to a much more manageable selection—much like merchandizers and RSAs have always done.

When you look at it that way, has the growth of recommendation websites really done much to change the bedding industry at all? It has when you think about which platforms, products and retailers are getting all the attention.

Because mattress and bedding products are purchased infrequently, it’s more difficult for category specific review sites to build a level of familiarity and trust with consumers.

These more general websites are able to engage consumers on a more regular basis, slowly creating a rapport—and that means, when they do dip their toe into the bedding sphere, consumers feel more confident that they won’t lead them astray.

But just like the mattress specific websites, general recommendation websites also make money from embedding affiliate links into their guides. According to Brooke’s article, most of these sites claim that these partnerships do not influence their decision on which products to highlight. Though Chen did admit that affiliate revenue “can guide which retailer the [Strategist] links to, depending on which one offers the highest commission.”

Of course, a placement on one of these lists can offer valuable brand visibility, which can in turn drive in-store sales down the line. But since these sites focus almost exclusively on products sold on major online retailers, they are likely ignoring products that are not featured on these platforms. And, for a consumer who is already prioritizing convenience, why spend the time to go find the product at a local retailer if they can easily purchase the product right then and there with just one click?

As we get ready to head into the new year, it’s important for sleep retailers to have a full understanding of how consumers are shopping. While these product recommendation websites may only affect the purchasing decisions of certain consumer demographics (people who are already primed to buy online), their growing popularity reveals a more universal truth: consumers are really searching for guidance. They want someone to help them navigate the endless number of product options—and reassure them that they’re going to get their money’s worth.

Read more here and here.

This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on December 13, 2018

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