On May 23, 2017, Neely Woodson Powell’s business changed forever. It was only 9 a.m. when she arrived at her office in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, and her staff was aflutter. Charleston Shoe Co. usually pulled in about $3,000 worth of online sales per day, $5,000 on a good one. That morning, her website had already logged more than $20,000.
Curiously, the sales were all of the “Monterey Sandal.” Though these were the first shoes Powell had sold when she launched her business about 25 years ago, their popularity had waned in recent years compared to others in her now 60-item collection of sensible summer footwear. The Monterey Sandal had none of the cutting-edge comfort technology that attracted her bunyon-prone clientele, it had no mainstream stylistic appeal, and it had just one pitiful three-star review on Amazon. It was as if a fairy godmother had swooped in and chosen her inventory’s ugly duckling to go viral.
“I just went, ‘What?’” Powell said. “Everyone was like, ‘What happened overnight?’”
Powell found the answer in a short blog post. The Strategist, a recommendation site run by New York magazine, had published a first-person essay for its “Feet Week” titled “These $100 Grandma Sandals Are More Comfortable Than Birkenstocks.” It praised the virtues of ugly-cute arch-supporting footwear, and cited said footwear’s popularity among stylish Brooklynites. But most important, it included a link to the purchase page on Charleston Shoe Co.’s website. In four months, Powell made about $100,000 via that single online pathway. Though that was just a small percentage of her business’s total revenue in 2017, she credits the post for opening up opportunities in coastal markets she never imagined might be interested in her shoes. She has since launched multiple brick-and-mortar stores in California and New York.
“That shoe was dying for us,” Powell said. “It was on the bottom rung of my line. New York magazine made it hip, just like the people of Brooklyn made Hush Puppies hip.”
That The Strategist was able to establish an overnight cult following for a little-known business speaks to the site’s influence on a certain type of metropolitan shopper, and more generally, to the growing power of the modern-day recommendation website. Thanks to the ever-expanding inventories of monolithic online retailers like Amazon, the internet is jam-packed with more stuff to buy than ever before. Between 2007 and 2017, the global manufacturing industry grew by 75 percent, and is now worth more than $35 trillion. This has inevitably changed the way we buy things and the types of things we buy. Ten years ago, someone looking to purchase a reusable water bottle might simply spend $10 on whatever was offered at their local camping store and never give it a second thought. Today, they might consult multiple online reviews of the various models carried by major on-demand retailers before spending anywhere between $20 and $98 on an ultra-capable, overdesigned model, and then, whenever they saw a different model in the wild, wonder whether they made the right choice. The same goes for brooms, or bike seats, or cat scratchers. No matter how insignificant the product, the hypercompetitive on-demand shoppingscape has supercharged the options available to consumers.
But anyone who has ever impulse-ordered something from Amazon knows that such an expansive market yields unpredictable results. Major e-commerce sites like Amazon, eBay, Newegg, and Walmart.com have all been accused of selling knockoff merchandise. In 2016, Apple sued a company for selling copies of its electronics on Amazon, claiming that 90 percent of so-called “genuine” chargers on the site were counterfeit. Despite the “substantial” resources Amazon claims to invest in preventing counterfeit goods on its platform, a 2018 Guardian investigation found it was easy to purchase everything from fake Kylie Jenner lip gloss to imitation AirPods on the site. And if third-party retailers aren’t straight-up copying major brands, they may still be misrepresenting their products. Two years ago, a home goods distributor named Joyfay went viral for selling a disturbingly leggy teddy bear that looked nothing like the one pictured on its online storefront. Recently my colleague ordered a sea sponge, and it turned out to be the size of a thimble. I am still trying to get rid of the lifetime supply of moth-repelling cedar blocks that I mistakenly bought a few years ago. (I needed only two or three!)
The overwhelming prospect of choice has even penetrated millennial-friendly direct-to-consumer startups. A company like Casper was once attractive precisely because it offered a small, straightforward selection of reasonably priced mattress models compared to brick-and-mortar competitors. But where there was once Casper, there is now Casper, Tuft & Needle, Leesa, Yogabed, Purple, and Ghostbed. Even the sleek web-only storefronts that were founded to rise above the noise of the typical consumer landscape have grown far too numerous, and far too aggressive in their affiliate program dealings, to forgo a typical vetting process.
As is the case in any flooded space, a few life rafts have floated to the surface: Amazon reviews, SEO-heavy personal blogs littered with affiliate links, YouTube review pages, the occasional app, Gwyneth Paltrow and all the influencers who followed. But the most reputable of them all—at least for those who value comprehensive research—is the editorial-minded recommendation site. Inspired by the rigorous testing of Consumer Reports and infused with the conversational tone of the internet, destinations like Wirecutter, Strategist, and Reviewed have come to define a new era of editorial-minded shopping companions. When flustered customers come looking for the most durable umbrella or the least terrible router, recommendation sites are there to calm them, guide them, and link them to an answer.
The growing need for experts to wade through a Hades of online merchandise has transformed the way outlets approach the idea of consumer-focused journalism. Ten years ago, whether a magazine was highlighting a new sweater, or a major newspaper was reviewing the latest iPod, publications took great pains to distance themselves from the product in question. The implication—though not always true, especially in the case of glossy magazines—was that the companies that sold these items held no influence over the outlets that covered them, and therefore those outlets could be trusted to deliver an objective endorsement. (It was left to readers to draw any connection from advertising pages to featured products.) The modern recommendation vehicle is less precious. Though outlets still claim an air of editorial distance, they profit from their advocacy via an affiliate link, ensuring a small commission for every purchase made through their site. This model has proved to be a welcome boon in a digital media landscape that is still struggling to support independent journalism. It has also become a valuable tool for major retailers like Amazon, who can incentivize coverage of new product categories by shifting commission fee percentages, and for small business owners like Powell, who occasionally catch some free publicity in the crosswinds.
But the internet economy slows for no one. And in the past few years, affiliate-powered recommendation verticals have grown so numerous that they’ve become as hard to parse as the vast shopping expanse they were meant to simplify. Publications that feature a form of this business include, but are not limited to, The New York Times, USA Today, BuzzFeed, Gizmodo Media Group, The Verge, Popular Science, CNN, New York magazine, Business Insider, CNET, Digital Trends, and the conservative news site The Daily Caller. On top of that, a handful of SEO-friendly outposts have materialized: Tom’s Guide, BestProducts.com, BestReviews.com, Reviews.com, OutdoorGearLab.com, and TechGearLab.com, to name a few. These sites all have their own set of testing standards and style, meaning that they rarely share a consensus of the superior version of any appliance, gadget, or doohickey. Googling “best air fryer” is not a path to enlightenment, but into a spiral of comparison between publications. Observers of this phenomenon have even begun sarcastically recommending recommendation sites. There is now yet another layer of noise to dig through: which review sites are honorable, and which are not.
“Regardless of where you’re searching, you’re starting to get the same answers, and at the end of all your research, you’re kind of no better off than where you started,” Michael Zhao, a former editor at Wirecutter, told me. “It’s total decision fatigue.”
The inability to parse these shopping resources, paired with the growing power of platforms like Google and Amazon to simply recommend merchandise themselves, has left consumers more helpless than ever. All the while, influencer marketing has capitalized on consumer disillusionment, encouraging purchases based on personal connections rather than systematic evaluation. As these two marketing strategies come to a head, the consumer’s interests hang in the balance. How can a website—or a shopper—ever really know what the best product is? And are we better off if we just don’t ask that question at all?
The structure of the recommendation site is rooted in the ancient internet practice of mixing content and marketing until the two are indistinguishable. But when Brian Lam launched The Wirecutter in 2011, he was simply looking for a better way to run a digital media company. Lam had just left the EIC post at Gizmodo, where he had made a name for himself by publicly feuding with Steve Jobs over a leaked iPhone prototype. (And where I briefly interned under his supervision.) In his new venture, Lam aimed to end the empty-calorie gadget blogging that defined most consumer tech coverage at the time. “I was tired of doing posts that were obsolete three hours after I wrote them,” Lam told The New York Times in 2012. “I wanted evergreen content that didn’t have to be updated constantly in order to hunt traffic. I wanted to publish things that were useful.” He concluded that the best way to contribute something meaningful to the conversation was to circumvent the model of page-view-based advertising. So he came up with a new system: making definitive recommendations for the products he felt were the best, then including links to those products in the same post. Every time a reader used that link to buy something, he earned his site a small commission. (Lam did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Though the model was novel in the digital media world, the mechanism Lam used was not. Affiliate marketing, or the process of sharing revenue via referral links, became a part of e-commerce just four years after the launch of the World Wide Web. William J. Tobin, the founder of PC Flowers & Gifts, first devised the system of digital leapfrog to promote his business in the early ’90s. He partnered with IBM to cofound Prodigy Network, an early internet catch-all media company that provided users with news, sports, weather, shopping services, games, banking information, and travel tips. Then he planted links to PC Flowers & Gifts on all of its pages. The idea earned him millions. By 1996, companies like CDNow (RIP) and Amazon had adopted similar models. When Web 2.0 services began to pop up a few years later, affiliate links became widely embraced among individual bloggers, who exploited search engine optimization to maximize traffic to their (often spammy) sites.
Lam’s idea was to reverse the traditional process, and let the journalism dictate the affiliate links. His team would make a definitive recommendation for the best DSLR camera or the best iPhone case, and then it would work with the retailers of those products to secure a cut of each purchase. He launched the site on The Awl’s publishing network in 2011, and, with the help of a small staff of freelancers, began posting six to 12 updates a month on electronics like laptops, projectors, and televisions. The idea was to provide the same service of a resource like ConsumerSearch, but in a relatable, snappy voice. The site’s early reviews were succinct, colloquial, and relied on Lam’s tech guru reputation. An early post from September 2011 titled “A Great DSLR for the Money,” for instance, included the recommendation (the Nikon D7000), its specs, a few paragraphs explaining why it was The Wirecutter’s top choice, and a bibliography of other online reviews that had handled the product. Though there was no detailed description of hands-on testing, the implication was that Lam and his staff were so well-versed in consumer tech that they just knew what the best choice was.
“It was actually more of an influencer marketing model at the outset than it ultimately evolved into,” Zhao, who was hired as the startup’s first full-time employee in January 2013, told me. “In the earliest days, it was like, people knew Brian from his Gizmodo EIC days, and the people that Brian trusts, therefore, we can trust these people for their takes.”
Much like the modern influencer, they also benefited from exposure in other media outlets. In 2012, David Carr profiled Lam and The Wirecutter’s affiliate link model for The New York Times, concluding that “a business that used to be mired in spam is becoming far more legitimate.” That same year, ABC News mentioned the site in a Black Friday shopping roundup, and the Wirecutter site crashed from the flood of traffic. “That was sort of when I was like, ‘Oh, we’re cooking,’” Zhao said.
That same year, Lam expanded to household items and appliances with a vertical called The Sweethome. Faced with more specialized household products, the site grew more committed to showing its work. Ganda Suthivarakom, who joined The Wirecutter as a writer that year, recalls blowing out her circuit breakers while testing toaster ovens. Her research process then was much like it is now. “The way that we approach our recommendations is to do the research that most people would do, just to survey the field, see what other people are saying,” Suthivarakom, who is now the site’s special projects editor, said. “We narrow it down to a list of things that we want to get hands on with, and then we test them. We test them not just for measurable benchmarks, but also for the real world problems that people have. Like when I was testing microwaves, it doesn’t matter how powerful a microwave is or how evenly it heats if you have to press four buttons in order to heat up your coffee. We take into account not just the power or the things that are measurable, but also the ineffables that make something enjoyable and worth having in your life.”
Such an open-ended testing process often requires explanation. And soon, the posts ballooned from around 1,500 words to as much as 8,000 words. Often they included elaborate subnarratives about the lengths authors went to evaluate the products in question. (Memorable entries include Eric Hansen tracking down his own bike thief to determine the best bike lock and Rose Eveleth simulating a synthetic vagina out of materials she found at Home Depot to test menstrual cups.) Though these articles were often entertaining, they could also get unwieldy. “I once got a rough draft for an iPad keyboard case review that was over 15,000 words, and that was sort of the tipping point for me,” Zhao said. “I was like: ‘No more words for words’ sake.’”
Eventually Wirecutter loyalists joked that they followed the site’s recommendations so blindly, that they didn’t even feel the need to read its reviews. Ultimately, the heft of each post offered a sense of reassurance to customers who just wanted to spend as little time as possible on a purchase, but still spend their money wisely. “The greatest compliment in the world when someone comes to us and just trusts us immediately,” Suthivarakom said. “We take that trust very seriously. We work very hard to keep that trust.”
That blind faith proved to be valuable. In 2015, the company generated $150 million in e-commerce transactions. In 2016, The New York Times purchased the company for more than $30 million, and in true startup fashion, the site dropped “the” from its name. Lam had proved that affiliate links could support quality service journalism without sacrificing their editorial reputation among readers or the wider industry, one toaster oven review at a time.
Beyond good storytelling, Wirecutter had another reason to emphasize its research: competitors were replicating its model with impressive speed. Media companies soon discovered that where there was an audience, there was an opportunity for an affiliate link operation. In 2011, the newspaper publisher Gannett purchased Reviewed.com, and began expanding it to include major appliances. In 2014, three Harvard Business School students founded an SEO-focused website called BestReviews. And during the 2016 holiday season, New York magazine tested out a “pop-up blog” that expanded its shopping-focused print section, “The Strategist.” These three sites aren’t the only competitors that materialized in the shadow of Wirecutter, but they represent a wide spectrum of both vetting standards and mission statements within the recommendation site ecosystem. To any other shopper in a hurry, they might be relatively indistinguishable. But their divergent methodologies and mission statements illustrate just how difficult it can be to decipher which recommendations are trustworthy.
Reviewed.com is the true neutral player among this group. The site began in the late ’90s, when its founder, Robin Liss, became annoyed with a crappy camcorder she’d bought, and launched camcorderinfo.com. She eventually expanded the website’s scope and name to cover other consumer electronics, all with the underlying goal of helping readers make the best purchases possible. When Gannett purchased Reviewed in 2011, it identified product categories that would set it apart: dishwashers, ovens, refrigerators, and the other aggressively boring but extremely expensive appliances that every home requires. (Though Wirecutter is known for its hands-on testing of electronics, accessories, and smaller kitchen tools, its recommendations for many big-ticket appliances are based on online research and aggregating other reviews.) Reviewed hired one full-time scientist and built a scrappy lab in Massachusetts as a testing ground for each of its product categories. Its content is now fully integrated into the publisher’s various publications, including USA Today. “It’s fun to buy other things,” Reviewed editor-in-chief David Kender told me. “But like a dishwasher, they kind of suck to buy, and we have to do it anyway. It’s really a bad feeling when you buy something, particularly when it’s something expensive, and it’s a disappointment. That’s really where our mission comes from.”
Reviewed’s dedication to these categories is illustrated in the recent lengths it went through to test a water purifier. “That took us, I would say over a year of sort of pre-production work before we even went into testing,” Kender said. First they sought to purchase the apparatus required to test a wide range of impurities in water. After realizing that equipment would cost them between $20,000 and $50,000, they pivoted to focus on a handful of harmful chemicals, such as lead, that could be detected via over-the-counter test strips. Once they decided on test strips, they ran data sets to determine various brands’ range of sensitivity. Additionally, to address the issue of taste, they held a handful of water tasting panels that used different types of pitchers in various employees’ homes. Other evaluation points revolved around how long each filter lasted, and how expensive it was to replace.
Despite the journey it went on to pick the very best water filter, the site’s final recommendation was just a short blog post. Kender recognizes that translating his team’s research into easy-to-read formats is part of the service the site provides to readers. “We don’t expect readers to read the whole thing,” he told me. “But we want people to know that we care about the process. When we’re recommending products that we’re not bullshitting you.” (This philosophy has earned Reviewed a small but dedicated audience. The site drew an estimated 858,605 unique visitors in the past 30 days, according to the website ranking service Alexa. And Kender says its influence has become so apparent among manufacturers that companies regularly engage with Reviewed editors to understand their testing process. Not too long ago, he was visiting the brand headquarters of a dryer company and an employee approached him to say they’d changed their lint catcher because of his review.)
Reviewed summarizes its involved testing process for the benefit of the reader. But less disciplined sites like BestReviews have inadvertently benefited from this trend. Founded in 2014 by business students who had no background in journalism, the site’s stated goal, per its about page, is “to make it easy for you to pick the best product and be confident in your decision.” Since then, millions of people have consulted the site, and in 2018, Tribune Publishing (formerly known as Tronc), spent $66 million—$30 million in cash and $36 million in company shares—for a 60 percent stake in the startup. In its coverage of the deal, TechCrunch wrote that BestReviews “publishes in-depth reviews of consumer products.” The website’s content is now distributed across Tribune Publishing’s regional outlets.
In reality, BestReviews replicates the look and feel of a thoroughly researched recommendation website, without putting in the same amount of work. Take its entry for the best air fryers, for instance. The standard design includes an illustrated comparison grid of the top five product models with “Pros,” “Cons,” and a “Bottom Line,” highlighting the item in the lineup that BestReviews considers “the best of the best” and the “best bang for the buck.” Beneath that feature is a small graphic that shows the effort put into this evaluation process, by the numbers: “models considered” (88), “hours researched” (49), “experts interviewed” (2), and “consumers consulted” (238).
To the average consumer who has come to expect a certain editorial standard from recommendation sites like Wirecutter, this layout conjures the impression of deep research: multiple air fryers—88 of them!—being pitted against one another in a test kitchen to determine which meets the standards of trusted experts. But when I asked chief content officer Heather MacKenzie to explain how the site chose the winner, she described the reverse. A freelancer was assigned to research air fryers online by evaluating other website reviews and customer feedback. That freelancer summarized the best and worst features for the five models, and determined which two were best without ever touching them. The 88 models “considered” do not indicate the number of gadgets that the reviewer in question handled, but the number that entered their purview in their online evaluation of other reviews. The “238 consumers consulted” weren’t actual people surveyed, but online reviews read (presumably on sites like Amazon—one of BestReviews’ main affiliate partners, and a platform that has been plagued by review fraud for years). The two experts that BestReviews “interviewed” were not people who had handled each of the air fryers pictured.
Whether or not you find that evaluation process valuable, the difference between BestReviews’ methodology and that of Wirecutter, or Reviewed, is stark. A brief survey of competing sites only widens that spectrum. Gizmodo Media Group’s site, The Inventory, runs a three-part weekly feature under a subvertical called “Co-op” that crowdsources nominations for the best products in specific categories. Readers vote for their favorites and, under the supervision of editor Shep McAllister, a winner is crowned. BuzzFeed Reviews uses affiliate metrics, audience insights, and traffic data to determine what to write about, a methodology that has resulted in reviews of lifestyle-related products like tinted lip balm and pens. Its posts are not bylined, and currently there are only “a handful” of full-time employees who work on its team, according to BuzzFeed Reviews managing editor Michael Nolledo. (BuzzFeed would not disclose the exact number of full-time employees who work on the vertical.) Rather than choosing a top product, Business Insider’s “Insider Picks” highlights the top five of a category and assigns each its own superlative. (Sample for best hyaluronic acid: “The Best Overall,” “The Best for Super Dry Skin,” “The Best for Beginners.”) CNN’s Underscored doesn’t even attempt to choose the best of something, and instead times its recommendations to sales and holidays. (In fact, many of these sites are padded with gift guide roundups that unsurprisingly all link back to Amazon products.) The choices of these sites often feel random in the sense that none of the products are considered in relation to one another. They lack a cohesive vision that is, more often than not, motivated by a desire to own the search results of less saturated categories, or adhere to Amazon’s affiliate incentives for new product categories.
“You can tell from assignment selection what people’s motivations are,” Zhao said. “If you have reviewed acne medicine and yoga mats before you’ve reviewed basics, like a food processor, or a toaster, then it shows that you are getting your assignments from an SEO search.”
The rush to cash in on the editorial affiliate business has often pushed coverage to be aggressively bland, painstakingly indecisive, and extremely random. And the sense of desperation has only become more palpable as internet giants become more powerful. In 2017, Amazon drastically reduced the commissions it offered to entities that drove a high volume of sales, specifically in major categories like electronics. The abrupt move left many editorial outfits with significantly less revenue, and also a sudden need to pivot to more lifestyle-focused categories. Meanwhile, Google has begun generating its own in-house shopping network suggestions when people look for “best dishwashers,” adding one more layer of competition for the publications that already shape their coverage according to whether they have a chance to appear in user searches. All these factors combine to slowly erode the trust of everyday consumers. For every media-savvy gadget nerd who can identify the difference between hands-on and hands-off research, there are likely thousands more who might get burned by the janky research process of one website, or the creeping feeling that it is designed to lead them back to an Amazon Prime–approved pick as quickly as possible.
Maybe that’s a good explanation for why New York magazine’s The Strategist has found success in what’s best described as a hybrid model: personality-driven research. In editor Alexis Swerdloff’s initial conversations about establishing an online shopping vertical, she imagined a lineup of posts that sought out highly specific people to solve highly specific shopping quandaries. It was 2016, and heavily researched recommendation sites were plentiful. So instead of mimicking the dozens of other properties by striving to uncover the objective “best” product, she would showcase the personal tastes of expert shoppers. “Early on, we were like, ‘We’re not going to be the Wirecutter. We don’t have the resources to test everything that exists, so why would we do that?’”
She recalls compiling a list with The Strategist’s deputy print editor, Jessica Sylvester, of potential posts like “The Best Red Lipsticks According to 15 French People,” or “The Best Gloves According to Canadians.” They also put together a “holy grail” of distinctively styled celebrities who they’d like to consult that included John Waters and Amy Sedaris. “There were certain people in our minds that were, like, OK these are our people in a dream world,” she told me. “These are the best shoppers.” Examples of early celebrity-driven recommendations were chef Guy Fieri (and podiatrists) on insoles, and astrologist Susan Miller on her favorite wireless hotspot.
Because New York magazine’s identity is deeply rooted in voice-driven reporting, it made sense that The Strategist’s product recommendations were too. And it was for this reason that Swerdloff leaned into the concept of the “ode.” Writers from the magazine were asked to endorse specific items they’d come to love, and how they discovered them, endearing the reader with their personal shopping journey. Early hits included Jason Chen’s ode to his toenail clippers, Molly Young’s endorsement of a foot peel named Baby Foot, and Merrell Hambleton on those legendary Charleston Shoe Co. sandals.
As the site grew, Swerdloff expanded coverage past one-person infomercials into roundups and recommendations that were in line with the sensibilities of the magazine. Her approach to composing the site’s popular Friday sales roundup, for example, involves her sifting through the sale sections of retailers that carry cult brands like Rachel Comey or Vintner’s Daughter, or reader favorites like Everlane. (Though affiliate partnerships are handled by the business branch of the site, Swerdloff is able to track the purchase completion rates on the links she includes on each post.) But mostly she says she compiles the posts for the most impressive shoppers in her life. “I have a couple friends who are religious sales readers and I’m honestly just thinking about them.”
The impact of Swerdloff’s weekly sale roundups, along with other lightening-rod product highlights, has become visually apparent among certain metropolitan subcultures. At Brooklyn barbecues and on Rockaway beach, the summer of 2017 was the summer of the Charleston Shoe Co.’s Monterey Sandal. After The Strategist highlighted a $140 Amazon puffer coat that had become popular among stylish Upper East Siders in 2018, the item went viral (in large part because other sites likely saw it as a good opportunity for affiliate revenue). I have multiple friends who own it. For the past two winters, I’ve made it a winter sport to spot them on my morning commute. In fact, I do that with everything I see on The Strategist now. Whether I’m in my gym’s locker room, my friend’s living room, or on the subway, I subconsciously scan the room for items I recognize from the internet, like the Terminator scans for targets and human casualties.
In this way The Strategist’s recommendation site mimics both the model and the effects of influencer marketing, and hints at the inevitable confluence of the two. People who admire the aesthetic of a certain entity seek to replicate it. A reader’s purchase may have just as much to do with their personal connection to a brand as it does their personal need. As someone who has happily spent hundreds of dollars on clothing recommended by The Strategist, I can attest to that draw. And, as recent online controversies have taught us, the upside of influencer marketing is that there is far less room for betrayal or blame. This January, Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway was ridiculed by the media for charging her followers $165 for tickets to a four-hour creativity workshop that, due to poor planning, was quickly labeled “Fyre Festival 2.0.” But when BuzzFeed interviewed some of the women who received refunds after the controversy, they defended Calloway. “I felt she gave us way too much already,” one follower said. “I knew it was too good to be true; she was promising way too much. I feel bad taking back the money. I actually want to give it back.” With enough finesse, one person’s scam can be another person’s valued purchase.
Though The Strategist has never gone so far as to hold an overpriced group therapy session dressed as a workshop, it has found ways for sustaining its business like any other affiliate marketing operation. The site now publishes SEO-friendly roundups of common home furnishings based on Amazon recommendations—a practice that purists at Reviewed and Wirecutter would see as antithetical to their mission. As Zhao puts it, posts that rely on the feedback generated by huge platforms just create “a giant ouroboros.” Swerdloff says these posts are just one of many rubrics that help readers shop, and that this spring her team reworked standards for every “People’s Choice”–style write-up so that they prioritize products with a lot of reviews rather than those with high average ratings and only quote them if they are marked as “Amazon Verified Purchases.” (They do not quote reviews from Amazon Vine reviewers, who receive free products in exchange for their feedback.) They’re also expanding this feature to include other major retailers like Sephora and Zappos. “We actually are thinking and talking about these issues constantly and trying to put as many safeguards in place to help ensure that we’re not including fake reviews and only featuring items that meet our standards—while still giving readers the service of combing through and making sense of these reviews,” Swerdloff said in an email.
All Amazon roundups aside, that may be exactly why The Strategist’s hybrid influencer model is so effective. An individual’s enthusiastic review requires far less evaluation than that of a site that claims it has found “the best” of something. It leads to a pair of extremely comfortable shoes from a little-known brand, that come complete with a good story of how you found them.
Because the unseen shopping recommendations of the internet can be only so diverse, it ultimately encourages us to be replicas of one another. A handful of Instagram accounts have popped up to chronicle our matching business vests and J. Crew shirts. Recently, the high I felt from purchasing a new summer dress was diminished when I opened my Instagram Stories to see that the same algorithms led a friend to buy the very same item from the very same Instagram brand. When I enter a bar and see another media-adjacent Brooklynite with the exact same leather Baggu purse on her shoulder, I am struck with feelings of affirmation, followed by a haunting sense of existential dread. This type of shopping is simultaneously encouraging and alienating. There is more stuff to own, and more people to convince you to own it, than ever. But you may never really feel good about buying it, and it will never really, truly be just yours. It’s enough to make you bitterly surrender your purchasing habits to the higher powers of the media ecosystem.
Over the past two years, I have placed the Monterey Sandal in my online shopping cart maybe nine or 10 times, always demurring when I convince myself I can find something just as good that nobody else has. This may be the summer when I finally just give up and buy them.