The Misguided Gift Guide

We’ve all seen it before… “10 best gifts for the (fill in the blank) in your life” or “Top Christmas gifts under (insert amount here)”.

They’re tempting to look at, especially if you’re struggling to find the right gift for someone special. The trouble is, many of these lists are motivated by a desire for profit – either to the publication or the author. These posts are full of affiliate links and monetized products, and don’t represent “the best” or true, high quality gifts. So much so, in fact, that some publications will even sell you on a truly terrible product just to make a quick buck.

The Backstory

In my “spare time,” I write for a pair of Apple news and review sites – Mactrast.com and iDropNews.com. Most of the coverage and reporting on these sites is totally fine. Covering news in the Apple and larger tech space is a pretty safe game. Often times, these sites will feature reviews of products, apps, or services – several of which (especially for MacTrast), I have personally written.

For apps or services, reviewers are often given a promo code for a free copy of the app or a free license to use the service in full. In turn, we are able to write about the full experience, as if we were experiencing it like a paying customer. Products are very similar. We get a free product, and then use it like normal, and report back our findings.

Sometimes you get a product that great, and the review is very positive because of that great experience. Sometimes, a product gets a negative review because it sucks. But it is up to the journalist/writer/reviewer to have the integrity to call it like it is. If a very expensive product is bad, it doesn’t deserve a good rating because it was given to the reviewer for free. It deserves a bad rating because it is a bad product.

The harder part, for me at least, is writing about something conceptually. It sounds great on paper, but I’ve never used it. This is the type of coverage I offer for many Kickstarter products. My writing is based purely on the pitch, not the final product (unless, on a rare occasion, I get a pre-release version).

When it comes to gift guides, however, sometimes the desire to sell a product outweighs the actual quality of a product. Instead of testing a product or service, and giving it a qualitative review (★☆☆☆☆ bad, ★★★☆☆ good, ★★★★★ great), some sites will simply compile a list of products that benefit them and disregard the actual quality.

Misguided Recommendations

Recently, at iDropNews, I was offered the opportunity to write some of these aforementioned gift guides, under 1 condition: In a list of 10 products, 5 were to be from Amazon, and 5 were to be from the iDropNews Stack Social store. This was done explicitly to monetize the products being recommended. No other sources could be used.

This posed a problem as I was compiling the “10 Gifts for iPhone” list, and my clear choice for the number 1 gift was AirPods. Amazon doesn’t sell the AirPods… Neither does Stack Social. When I asked about including something available elsewhere, I was told “No – stick to items available on Amazon or the iDrop Store” and “If you’d like to add an eleventy item to the list that’s a non-Affiliate item, be my guest.”

Because the retailers that DO sell them couldn’t be monetized, I was supposed to ignore them as an excellent gift idea. I eventually opted to suggest the Beats X, based on their holiday price drop, the W1 chip, and the overall less controversial design – although I maintain that the AirPods are the superior holiday gift.

You won’t believe what happened next! (…or maybe you would)

Shortly after my iPhone gift guide was published, another post appeared on the site, recommending products at a range of prices. On that list was the Stack Social knockoff of AirPods – ones I had personally reviewed just weeks before.

Here’s a summary of my ★★☆☆☆ review:

There are a lot of great Bluetooth earbuds on the market, and the AirPods are certainly a pricy option, but if the HBQ i7S earbuds are the alternative, I’d get the real deal. If you can get past the sound quality, the overall size of the earbuds and the charging case may still be a major turn off.

Truly, nobody should buy these things – they’re bad.

Reading the “Best Tech Gifts for Every Budget” guide, however, the implication is that they are good – desirable, even. At the time of posting, the gift guide stated that they “…are pretty reminiscent of Apple AirPods – they’re just a little better (in our humble opinion).” 1 That lead me to the question – have they every tried these? Or are these “recommended” for another reason?

What isn’t disclosed in this post is that this particular gift guide is solely compiled of products in the Stack Social store, and the entire list is aimed at making money for the site.

I don’t hold it against the site for trying to make money. Everybody has to keep the lights on, and writers deserve to be paid for the time and effort they spend writing. It’s hard to keep things running when there’s no money to power the machine. 2

I appreciate the small bit I get paid for writing on iDropNews – but if I have a choice between being honest to consumers that come to the site looking for good recommendations and making an extra few bucks selling shitty Chinese knockoff products, I’m going to side with honesty and integrity every time.

Being diligent as a consumer

The internet is full of opinions. Some are good, some are bad, some are subjectively perfect, and some are blatantly wrong. Trusting others on the internet to provide their opinion – especially when considering what product to buy or where to put your hard earned money – is a tough game for consumers. The motivations of those opinions is hard to understand, and wading through bullshit makes the true intent less clear.

In my opinion as a consumer, any product recommendation that doesn’t show evidence of actual use should be taken as a sales pitch. It’s up to you (or I), as readers, to be critical thinkers and do our due diligence to make educated decisions. While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the holiday season and just grab whatever discount headphones (or whatever product) somebody is pitching on the internet, sometimes it’s good to remember that you get what you pay for.

As far as my journalistic endeavors go, I’m done with gift guides. I’ll stick to writing news, reviews, and opinions. I’m not in the business of lying to people, and I prefer to take time to formulate an opinion and back it up with personal preference and experience.

Oh, and let me fully disclose this here – if you see a link to Amazon or iTunes on this site, it’s probably an affiliate link. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, and it’s simply a way for me to keep the site up. But I will strive to always provide context – if a product, app, or service is good, the review will reflect that accordingly. If something sucks, I’ll call that out, too.

  1. The post has since been edited to exclude that opinion.
  2. My writing for Mactrast, for example, has been cut back dramatically because I’m not compensated for anything I contribute there. I love writing for the site, but as they say – time is money

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