By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
I wrote my first equipment review in 1977.
I was 15, typed it on an Underwood for a paper newsletter mailed by Schuman’s Schwinn Cyclery in Detroit. I reviewed a skateboard- said it was “lame”.
It was probably my last honest review.
Since then I’ve written hundreds of equipment reviews for magazines like Outside, Velo-News, Triathlete and many others.
Bicycle and outdoor equipment reviews are increasingly shady business. They’re assumed to be impartial- expert opinions on what is good and bad about a bike gadget- based on experience. Consumers use them as “research” to help make a buying decision.
It is one of the great lies of the bicycle industry.
Bike and gear reviews are increasingly influenced by the sales motive. Bike brands and retailers often can’t say anything bad about a product. Their primary motive is selling it. Since few people are being objective- writers or readers, anyone attempting objectivity is punished for their honesty. Customers are scared away from a product if a review contains criticism, even when it is valid. We end up with canned press-release product descriptions that are not critical “reviews” at all.
That’s not right. So, as far as my keyboard can reach, I’m changing that.
There are some reviewers who have established credibility in addition to a paycheck by being objective. I spoke to three of them before writing this; James Huang of CyclingTips.com (formerly at BikeRadar.com); Dan Empfield, founder of Slowtwitch.com and Charles Manantan, of Pez Cycling News.
James Huang is among the most read and respected product reviewers in the bike industry. He began as an independent reviewer with his own blog and earned a reputation for being critical and objective. His candor won him increasingly greater readership- and credibility. From 2007-2015 Huang was the U.S. Tech Editor for BikeRadar.com. He recently went to CyclingTips.com.
Unlike many product reviewers, James Huang is both a pragmatist and a very good writer. This excerpt from his article The Unattainable Quest for Perfection summarizes the craft of the best writers in this industry:
“More than a decade at this beat — writing about bicycles and bicycle technology — has taught me that there’s no such thing as a perfect product. But I like to think that I have a decent handle on when something contributes meaningfully to the enjoyment and beauty of riding.”
Huang has had the courage to comment with balance in his reviews, and his editors have backed him up.
“I’ve certainly had companies pull advertising campaigns or raise hell with the commercial side of the business but nope, I have never had any editorial modified for commercial reasons. I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense; from what I understand not everyone in my position has been so fortunate. “
When I asked James about how objective he feels other media outlets are with their equipment reviews he told me, “I always like to believe that it’s easy to distinguish between thinly veiled pay-to-play editorial and the good stuff but the cynic in me says otherwise.”
James Huang is right. The fault lies partially with the “pay-to-play” editorial, as Huang suggests, and also with consumers reading reviews.
Here’s why: As a reviewer part of my job is writing about the equipment we use- and sell. The reason I write reviews is for people to buy something. I also write for good rankings in SEO, “Search Engine Optimization”. In many cases I am actually not reviewing, I am selling. That motive makes me one of the bad guys- at least until now.
Search engines like Google and Yahoo serve content to consumers from key word searches like “triathlon bike reviews” using complex, secret algorithms that change daily. No one outside the secretive search engine code writing industry knows how to “cheat” them. Hucksters who sell “How to Improve Your SEO” webinars are guessing. I’ve sat through a ton of them. The only proven way to rise to the top of the results is to serve a ton of original content. So I’ve had to work fast. And sometimes loose.
If you count SEO frequency as the high bar of review success, and bike brands often do, I’m pretty good at it: Do a Google search on the key words “triathlon bike reviews” and hit the “images” tab. You get 14 of my photos served to you on the first page. Most are my original content; some are copied and pasted from something I wrote and then used by another writer- an even shadier practice. I don’t care though, because more is more. In the Internet search engine world the person who shouts the loudest and the most gets heard. That’s been me. And judging by my SEO results, I’ve been doing something right- because readers like to read good things about the products they aspire to and my SEO is strong.
Chris Gustafson is a salesman, and a pragmatist. He gave me the key to writing equipment reviews in one sentence, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll tell you why it’s the best.” His doctrine was “knock ’em where they lean”. And Chris sold a ton of bikes. Because it is human nature that we want our thoughts reinforced, not challenged.
If I were completely honest with my opinions in gear reviews I would write things like, “Even after repeated adjustments we couldn’t get the rear brakes to work very well” or “The bike feels oddly heavy because, when we weighed it, it was.” But then consumers would simply click to the next review that says the crap like, “Light and aero, but stiff and comfortable too!”
Here is my challenge to consumers: You can’t handle the truth.
Consumers search for the single best-reviewed bike using some golden BB metric or measure of “best-ness”. This “research” has fed numerous marketing lies like wind-tunnel white papers, ride review payola and ad dollar ransom.
Bike buyers: look for reviewers with the courage to be critical. Consider balance and understand how you will really use something you are researching. Know that there are no perfect products and look for glaring omissions in sugar-sweet product reviews that gush without reservation. There is nothing wrong with a great sales pitch until it is veiled as a critical review.
I have seen the power of candor in equipment reviews.
In 2002 I did a review of the Litespeed Blade where I wrote, “It is an expensive bike that does not return a high degree of performance for most riders.” That was the good part. It got worse from there.
The (then) President of Litespeed phoned me and asked, point blank, “What will it take for you to take that review down?” My answer was simple, “Fix the bike”.
Three years later in 2005 the company had completely redesigned the bike and the new version was greatly improved. Whether my criticisms played a role I do not know. The shortcomings I wrote about weren’t subtle; any triathlete would notice them. But there was still pressure on me to shut up about the bike’s many problems. It was a rare case where I didn’t cave.
The moment any second party has editorial control over review content, it changes. Most times not for the better. A key ingredient in good, credible reviews is commensurate authority for the reviewer to say what they really think- good and bad. The reviewer needs an editor who will back them up, not shut them down to protect advertising and sales motives. That is nearly non-existent in the cycling industry. A key ingredient in delivering meaningful content is to grant commensurate authority for the writer to express an opinion independent from the sales motive.
You can sometimes tell the best reviewers by the ones who have been fired. Dan Empfield has been fired from glossy triathlon publications for speaking his mind. It’s ironic since Empfield is a Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee who invented the triathlon wetsuit, the triathlon bike and a host of other innovations in the industry. He is also the founder of Slowtwitch.com, a website that does publish objective reviews and editorial.
“You have to have balance,” Empfield told me. “A few good things, some bad things. Just tell the truth.” Empfield’s simplistic editorial doctrine is refreshing- and useful to consumers using his reviews as an evaluative tool for buying decisions.
Charles Manantan is a tech writer for Pez Cycling News, a credible, dynamic cycling website packed with fresh content. He also practices an objective editorial policy in equipment reviews.
“I’ve had companies tell me that they had more direct feedback and customers from a review on our site than from sites with many times more eyeballs [on them]. I do think [objective] reviews have an influence on buying decisions.”
Manantan summarized the industry of writing gear reviews succinctly and offered an insightful recommendation for a better doctrine.
“Look at an Editor like John Bradley at Velo-News who held his ground rather than kill a story in the face of Shimano pulling ads. You see another popular bike publication get exposed for straight-up “Pay for Play” advertorial reviews being part of a paid advertising package sold to a large manufacturer. I think the biggest negative impact on public perception of bike reviews comes from publications that work on the ‘more content is better’ theory, especially when they don’t want to pay [writers] for the content. Worse yet, they don’t seem to value the quality of the content as much as the quantity.”
So here is my recommendation, and my promise: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Not every bike can test “most aero”. Every bike isn’t “stiff, but comfortable”. If a review doesn’t contain at least some balanced criticism you likely just got a sales pitch instead of an honest opinion.
And, I promise in the stuff I write going forward to not pull punches for payola or gush garbage to go viral on Google.
Author Tom Demerly has written a bunch of crap, some of it you just finished.
Now he’s telling the truth. It’s his new thing.