Retrevo: A New First Stop for Tech Shoppers

Retrevo logoHave you shopped for a digital camera lately? Even for shopaholics like me, it can be a daunting experience. The choices are, quite simply, mind-boggling. Sifting through them all and trying to pinpoint the best model for your needs and budget is a Herculean task.

Sites like PC World (my former employer) and CNET help, with expert reviews, ranked charts, and links to user reviews, specs, and (typically) pricing engines (to help you find the best deals on the models you’re researching).  Now, however, a site called Retrevo is raising the bar on aggregating product information and packaging it in exceptionally accessible and user-friendly fashion.

Retrevo isn’t brand new: It’s been gathering product data for a couple of years and providing it both on its own site and those of partners. PC World’s product pages, for example, include a link to user reviews on Retrevo. But Retrevo today launched a site redesign that makes clever use of artificial intelligence and great new graphics to put a slew of potentially useful metrics at your fingertips.

Graphics to Replace Thousands of Words

Major product categories now start with a Product Advisor page featuring the usual ranked chart underneath something you don’t see every day: A Retrevo Value Map that plots each product on a scatter chart (the X axis is the price, the y axis shows the value Retrova has assigned the product based on specs, user reviews, price and so forth. Retrevo representatives say these ratings change constantly as Retrevo updates the data and factors in the competitive landscape.

The points plotted on the map show the ranking of the product; mouse over them to see the product names and link to their entry on the chart below, which provides the sort of info you expect on these charts (basic specs, price) plus Retrevo’s thumbs-up, thumbs-down take on the product’s overall value and how it’s viewed by users (Retrevo determines this by using AI to scan user reviews).

Next to the Value Map you can click on category subsets so that, for example, the laptop Value MPap will only plot netbooks, or Apple notebooks, or notebooks with great battery life. Further down you can filter using more traditional categories such as price, brand, screen size, and the presence of specific features. Here’s the Value Map for netbooks as it appeared yesterday:

Retrevo's new Value Map plots products on a scatter chart based on their price and a Retrevo-assigned value.

Retrevo's new Value Map plots products on a scatter chart based on their price and a Retrevo-assigned value.

Tabs along the top of the Product Advisor page send you to additional useful information, including buying guides from several top sites (including PC Magazine and CNET); laptop-relevant how-to articles (I found one from PC World in this group); a user forum (called “Fans”); and a Daily Deals list of products that on sale (drawn from Retrevo’s analysis of pricing engine data).

Product Pages That Integrate Community

Going back to the Product Advisor chart, clicking on an entry will get you to a product page, where you’ll find links to user reviews, prices and deals, the product’s user manual, and technical specifications. Further down on the page you can even see recent forum posts, or ask a question to other users yourself without having to search around (a particularly nice feature since forums are rarely integrated with product pages). Here’s part of a typical product page.

A Retrevo product page features links to user reviews, prices and deals, the product manual, and tecnical specifications. Not shown, but further down on the page, are community comments and a form for posting a question.

A Retrevo product page features links to user reviews, prices and deals, the product manual, and tecnical specifications. Not shown, but further down on the page, are community comments and a form for posting a question.

Clicking on the Read Reviews link gets you to another key feature of Retrevo’s redesign: Rather than just going directly to the usual list of reviews, Retrevo serves up a page it calls Retrevo Real-Time Reviews, with metrics intended to answer what it deems the major questions you’d be looking for in the reviews. First, there’s a graphic that shows where the product is in its cycle (i.e., whether it’s brand new or aging) — something you can’t always tell on many sites.

This is followed by a few quick questions and answers (drawn, once again, from Retrevo’s AI analysis of reviews and pricing data): Do users like the product? (You can click through to read actual reviews, but if all you’re looking for is a sense of what the community thinks, you may wish to skip the bad grammar and meandering prose.) Is it a good deal? How much is it going for? (This simply links to the pricing engine info.) What are the principal specs? The reviews page looks like this:

A Retrevo Real-Time Review provides good snapshot info on a product, but no human hands-on is involved.

A Retrevo Real-Time Review provides good snapshot info on a product, but no human hands-on is involved.

A Review with No Reviewer

The Retrevo Real-Time Review concludes with an overall recommendation based on the aforementioned data. But it’s important to realize that this bottom-line recommendation does not come from a human being. Indeed, I find the use of the term “review” a bit misleading: Maybe because I write reviews after spending time with products, I feel you should only call an evaluation a review if a human being is involved in making the judgment.

 That Retrevo’s evaluation process is completely automated doesn’t make it worthless–or even unique (CNET for years has used automated evalutions based on specs, pricing, etc.). In fact, I really like what Retrevo has done to make a lot of relevant information easily accessible, especially for non-geeks who want to cut to the chase.

Do I trust the under-the-hood AI to make accurate assessments? Yes, up to a point. For controversial products especially, I still would rather use my own intelligence to evaluate user comments. And I still want to read what an experienced human being has to say.

But I might well start my research on Retrevo, if only because its innovative ways of presenting data should make it a lot easier for me to hone in on a few choices. If I were at PC World or CNET or any other site that reaches out to shoppers, I’d take a long hard look, because Retrevo has just gone to the head of the class on aggregation for product data.

(You can check out the Retrevo’s new look starting today, but only for a handful of product categories. The company says it will be expanding the approach to all of its 40-plus categories in the weeks and months to come.)

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