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Wirecutter CEO Sells Top Reviews for Kickbacks (2014) (xdesk.com)
80 points by forgotmyhnacc 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments



It's worth clarifying that this is from 2014/15. The New York Times bought Wirecutter in 2016, and Lam isn't CEO any more.

The site doesn't hide that it makes money from affiliate links:

https://thewirecutter.com/about/

FWIW, the XDesk post mentions The Wirecutter's response to their initial post, but doesn't link to it. That response is here:

https://thewirecutter.com/our-response-to-nextdesk/

They suggest the Wirecutter refused to review their desk (though the e-mails don't seem to actually say that?):

> We offered a review desk to your CEO and the response was basically “pay us a kickback”. So, the only NextDesk you’ve ever reviewed was our original model that is now 4 years old (2-3 versions ago)

When the current standing desk review page (https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-standing-desk/) features the "Terra 2", which appears to be the exact same desk XDesk's own site is promoting. And the page states:

> Xdesk did not return multiple requests for comment on our impressions.


At first I thought this was a disappointing scandal and then I realized it wasn't.

What confused me was the word kickback by the Wirecutter business team. If they'd said affiliate fee, which is what they really meant, then it would have fit perfectly with my model of what they do. That model is review products as best as they can and make money through affiliate fees.

I'd never thought through the edge cases of that affiliate model before since almost everything I look up on the WireCutter has an Amazon link. If the product they recommend is on Amazon, then getting the affiliate payment is straightforward. But if the product they end up recommending isn't on Amazon, then, yeah, I guess they have to approach the company about setting up an affiliate payment. The problem there though is that The Wirecutter has no leverage if they actually do practice editorial independence. If you were NextDesk, why would you say yes?

What bothers me is that NextDesk is using a PR pattern that I find predatory. It's preying on the fact that I wouldn't have time to think critically. So NextDesk has jumped on this word "kickback" which obscures that the actual accusation is not airtight. But because kickback sounds so bad, I'm inclined to believe NextDesk. In other words, I find that post manipulative and I don't like it.

The meat of the scandal though has two sides with a much less clear cut answer: A) On one hand, the NextDesk got downgraded. Possibly as punishment. B) On the other hand, as explained by The WireCutter, it was downgraded because of a new option that was half as much.

I tend to believe B because I find that The Wirecutter is consistently price sensitive. Overly so in my mind.


> B) On the other hand, as explained by The WireCutter, it was downgraded because of a new option that was half as much.

Except it wasn’t new, if the article can be believed. It was one they’d already reviewed and found to be inferior.


NextDesk/XDesk is lying, and you can determine this by reading their own webpage carefully. Quoting from it:

> Here’s what the Wirecutter writer of the article said:

> “I don’t part with that kind of money easily, but after seeing all the desks out there, I bought a NextDesk Terra.”

> The Wirecutter ultimately said: The best electronic adjustable height desk is the NextDesk Terra.

> Also important is what the Wirecutter said about another desk, the Ergo Depot Jarvis Fully desk (later name changed to Fully:

> They are noisier and clunkier. It’s a more basic technology, so it’s cheaper.

> - The Wirecutter Writer

Except if you follow the article's link to the web.archive.org version of the review (captured 2014-01-06), you'll see this is what the Wirecutter actually wrote:

> There are two cheaper options that I looked at: ErgoDepot, and VertDesk. These are cheaper desks first and foremost because of the motors. The expensive desks hide their motors in the legs, they work quietly, and they become something you almost forget about. The cheaper desks instead hook a motor to a rod that attaches to the other leg on the desk, and as the motor runs, the rod turns. These are motors that you notice. They are noisier and clunkier. It’s a more basic technology, so it’s cheaper. That’s how the desks can cost so much less.

That is, they looked at a desk from the company Ergo Depot (the company is now named Fully) - they did not look at the Ergo Depot Jarvis.

If you scroll down later in that snapshot, you'll see a mention of the Jarvis - in the comment section, where someone notes that it's brand new.

So, the Wirecutter did not review and could not have reviewed the Jarvis at the time they made those quotes about it being "noisier and clunkier," because it didn't exist yet. The Jarvis was released after their review. (That also provides a legitimate reason for the Wirecutter to have put a "hold" marking on their review, commenting that new options had just come out.)

The Wirecutter's official response to NextDesk/XDesk agrees with that timeline: "When we changed our top pick in February 2015, we did so because another company had entered the field with something nearly as good but for half the price. ... We still recommended the NextDesk product when there wasn’t an affiliate relationship, up until February 2015."

And if you look at the Wirecutter's February 2015 review, also from the web.archive.org link graciously provided by NextDesk/XDesk, you can see that they have several positive things to say about the NextDesk Terra - but the Jarvis is cheaper and almost as good overall, and better in a few ways. Look back at the 2013 review, as quoted in the article, and you can see that they're clearly unhappy with the price - they only think the Terra is the top pick because there aren't competitive cheaper options.

Another hint - the old web page for the Jarvis, http://www.ergodepot.com/Jarvis_Desk_p/jrv.htm , has its first web.archive.org snapshot on 2013-11-05. The review that favors the Terra is from 2013-08-29.


Nicely done. I was just taking them at their word instead of looking into the archive.


It was found to be inferior to some extent, and half the price.


The point is the timeframe. They’d already reviewed both and recommended the expensive one. Then they changed the recommendation.

(Allegedly.)


Note that being open that you're beholden to product sellers and not beholden to users is more honest, but doesn't actually incentivize user-oriented reviews.


I think it says more about how shady the Wirecutter CEO is. One can only hope that this behaviour was cleaned up after the NYT acquisition.


Read through the entire thing... mostly sounds like a pretty normal attempt to get some kind of affiliate revenue from Nextdesk. And it doesn't look like there is anything in the emails that says "pay us or we will decrease your ranking" or "pay us and we will increase your ranking". At worst, the CEO erred by using the phrase "kickback", instead of affiliate program or similar.



I highly recommend a Consumer Reports subscription. Yes, you have to pay for it, but that's the point, no conflict of interest.


It's been a few years since I've used Consumer Reports, but I found their reviews were too few for the given category (e.g. rating perhaps eight items [TVs, detergent, whatever] out of a generally available selection of two dozen) or stale (a just-published article was for devices one or two generations old). I'd often look for a recommended appliance and find that only one retailer sold that model, two years ago. Or I'd look at rankings and products I owned and considered excellent (and not niche) weren't included. I felt that their methods needed to be updated.

There were still some places they did a good job, e.g. their car reviews provide good information for the average consumer, and I will turn to them next time I'm in the market. I certainly applaud that their unbiased viewpoint.


I second this. I'll also add that the items I've purchased based on their reviews have consistently lived up to expectations.


I absolutely agree. Consumer Reports is indispensable.

My only wish is that they'd focus more on reliability testing. I can evaluate for myself whether that new sedan handles nicely (or whatever). But it's wonderful to have somebody warn me the wheels are going to fall off after 70k miles...


Not a great story but also not as hysterical as the headline implies.

1. Man/most/all wirecutter links are relatively benign "affiliate" links, mostly to Amazon.

2. Wirecutter updates review, usually annually, and frequently selects a new #1.

3. Price is a key component of Wirecutter selections. They are not just picking "the best" but instead, "the best for most people".


Not defending them, but it seems like a lot of online websites have kickbacks. I mean hell, you can set up an amazon referral link for your youtube channel in like 2 seconds. The intensives of the review "industry" are fucked... it's not like movie reviewers make 10 cents if I see Star Wars


As a reader of Wirecutter I am personally comfortable with the referral/affiliate model that they use to make money. It does mean that they only review products where they can collect the referral fee, so their choice will come from a constrained pool. But since that usually means Amazon, and most products are on Amazon, it's usually not a problem.


It's for this reason that I find myself watching amateur video reviews of phones and other expensive gadgets. You know the type; bad lighting, shaky narration with lots of pauses and uhhs, and not-great camera work.

The fancier the production values are (splash animation, music, pro lighting), the more likely it is that I'll be hit with a "like and subscribe" ask, and a sponsor message. If by some chance the video doesn't have these, there will be an affiliate link on the bottom.


I think you'll appreciate this, it's a little long but definitely worth it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FJEtCvb2Kw


At best, review sites are funded by affiliate referral fees. The other business models for reviews are even worse.

It sounds like the Wirecutter (under previous ownership) may have gone over the line, but NextDesk also comes across kind of holier-than-thou if they think they can survive without paying to acquire customers.


Can the mods add a "(2014)" in the headline for this one?



I genuinely don't care how corrupt Wirecutter is because at the end of the day I still find their recommendations to be well above-average.


I am Jack’s total lack of surprise.


Please don't post unsubstantive comments here.


It’s... jokey. But it’s not exactly unsubstantive.

It really is unsurprising to hear that a company that purports to give unbiased reviews is actually asking for kickbacks from manufacturers. That is the most obvious way for such a company to operate. Did anyone expect them not to act like that?




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