DPReview  – An Amazon Company Imagine if the consumer rights/products review website  Which?  in the UK was owned by giant …

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DPReview  – An Amazon Company

Imagine if the consumer rights/products review website  Which?  in the UK was owned by giant UK CE retailer Currys, or its Australian equivalent,  Choice,  was part of the JB Hi-Fi national CE/IT chain, or ConsumerReports.org in the US was owned by Amazon.

The first thing to happen would be that their credibility would plummet. Even if robust firewalls were built between the publishing business and the retailing business, the value of the former would fall as the  perception  of its independence diminished. There would be a conflict of interest.

– So how the hell does  DPReview  get away with it? This supposedly independent camera review website is, in fact, owned by Amazon, as has been the case since 2007.

It’s Amazon

There is no prominent acknowledgement of Amazon ownership on the website, so people who are ignorant of this critical linkage remain so, while those who do know that  DPReview  is an Amazon business note that this fact has been deftly hidden from view. One reason would be that an upfront statement of ownership ‘DPReview  – An Amazon Company’ would in itself undermine the credibility of the site as a place to go for objective reviews of camera gear. As it should. People of goodwill and honesty can handle conflicts of interest, but that doesn’t mean they have been eliminated.

What you  do  see upfront is a plethora of ads for Amazon – although curiously none on the home page. There are no ads for any other camera retailer or camera manufacturer – or none which clearly mark themselves as separate from editorial, anyway.

In fact, it would appear that advertising revenue – the factor in the equation which dictates success or failure for many competing camera enthusiast sites – such as  Photo Review  – doesn’t seem to be a biggie for  DPReview  under Amazon ownership. A click on the ‘Advertise with Us’ link simply takes you to an off-putting Feedback Form – any advertising manager worth their salt would at least insist their contact details were supplied somewhere on the website!

For competing online retailers such as B&H and Adorama it’s ‘please do not apply’, I guess, but you would imagine the camera companies would be lining up to buy some display space on this Mecca for enthusiasts. And that  DPRreview  would be able to name its own rates. And if  DPReview  wasn’t a profitable going concern when Amazon bought it, it begs the question ‘why did they buy it?’.

But by the looks of it,  DPReview  isn’t even trying to maximise profits via advertising. It’s a component of a bigger business – Amazon – rather than a going concern in and of itself.

Skin in the game  

The revenue source  DPReview  points to is earnings from its own online retailing website, Gearshop, launched earlier this year. Once again, you have to dig deep into the legalities to discover this:  Gearshop is ‘owned and operated by Amazon.com LLC, and all items sold on DPReview Gearshop are sold by Amazon.com LLC.‘ It’s not on the ‘About Us’ page or even the FAQ page, but buried in the seldom-seen pages on Sales Tax and Privacy Policies. (Just by the way, you may be interested to know that Amazon is tracking your movements on Gearshop and  DPReview.)

DPReview  fanboys and girls are encouraged to purchase from Gearshop to help  DPReview  write more and better reviews. That seems to be the unique selling point of Gearshop: ‘...the small fee we receive from every Gearshop sale will help us to fund future growth and to review more cameras and lenses, more quickly. It will reduce our reliance on selling advertising and allow us to continue to refuse to accept more intrusive adverts.’

So Gearshop – and the Trojan Horse it hides in the belly of, DPReview – is basically a market segmentation strategy by Amazon, dressed up as a specialist photo retail website. It will directly capture a segment of enthusiasts who would otherwise be inclined to shop on camera specialist sites. It expands Amazon’s reach.

This is not a million miles away from, say, a Canon enthusiast website linked to a Canon online store, except it’s multi-brand.    

It’s all good  

Whether this move into retail has made  DPReview  less critical would require a longitudinal study of ratings over the years, but a quick-and-dirty review of  DPReview’s  reviews through 2013 does paint a rosy picture of current cameras: They are pretty well all good – it’s just a matter of degree.

DPReview  posted 39 camera and lens reviews since the start of January this year. Of those, 15 earned Gold Awards and another 15 earned Silver Awards, leaving only nine products without any sort of ‘seal of approval’. And of those remaining nine products, only two were given a rating under 70 percent.  

The lowest rating of 67 percent was for the Nikon Coolpix S800c – an otherwise mediocre camera which slips into the canine category due to not properly delivering the promised Android connectivity and having a battery life of about half an hour. Sixty-seven percent? No way! It shouldn’t even get a pass.

The  DPReview  product reviews in 2013 read, in my opinion, like they have been written to accentuate the positive and downplay anything less than stellar. They seem too mindful of the sensitivities of the camera marketers. They pull their punches.

Recently the Australian financial press has copped criticism for being a propagandist for business, rather than reporting objectively on the business world. Perhaps  DPReview  is experiencing a similar dynamic. It is directly dependent on retail sales for its survival. It’s hopelessly, structurally conflicted.  

One wonders whether there isn’t a giant poster in the DPReview office stating ‘If You Haven’t Anything Positive To Say, Find Something!’  

Even rusted-on  DPReview  supporters have issues with the perception of a conflict of interest. One wrote in a forum when Gearshop was announced.

 

This is seriously going to undermine DPR’s credibility as an unbiased source of information. Is DPR rating the Canikon X-Pro EM-6D with a Gold rating because it’s really the best of breed, or because they make a bigger profit on that body than on anything else?

So much for objectivity, guys. I understand the profit motive, but combining these two businesses wasn’t a smart move, IMHO.   It’s going to be real hard to beat retailers like B&H and Adorama on price and speed, and real hard to re-build the trust that this will cost.

The editor Simon Joinson responded:

You have a very low opinion of the integrity and honesty of the people who write reviews –  but later in that response conceded that the author had a ‘valid point about our credibility’.

This is ‘going the man’. One doesn’t have to have a low opinion of anybody to recognise the potential for a conflict of interest. As another poster noted:

But … there is a conflict – real or imagined – between giving unbiased advice and selling products. Not saying that you cannot handle the conflict. But, even if you can – there will always be suspicions.

Of course DPReview isn’t the only website which relies on income linked to sales via affiliated online retailers. It’s just that the others aren’t owned by the affiliate! Since the big camera companies have chosen, particularly over the past couple of years, to spend marketing communications dollars on increasingly elaborate branded websites and social networking activities, and withdrawn the traditional support for third-party enthusiast publishers, quite a few enthusiast websites have been forced into this compromising kind of arrangement. But Gearshop takes it one step further, as another poster observes:

If I understand correctly, DPR will get more money from more sales.  If so, DPR staff will benefit from working for an organization that has more resources.  It appears that it is in your interest to generate more sales, even if there is no direct cash incentive.

That being said, there are many review sites with affiliate links, so the sites (and their reviewers) benefit from sales and therefore have an incentive to produce more positive reviews. I’m not saying they consciously slant their reviews, just that they have an incentive.

It’s not clear to me that Gearshop is any worse, although it does seem to go a bit further than affiliate links.

– True, that.

> Keith Shipton  |  www.photocounter.com.au