Sara Volk
The movie review site Rotten Tomatoes displays its rating system as a "freshness percentage", allowing you to compare both critics' and theater-goers' opinions.

For a while now, being a "smart shopper" has been synonymous with knowing the ins and outs of the Internet -- not only for cheap prices and coupons, but also as a source for the greatest tool in any shopper's repertoire: reviews. Whether it's a star rating on a local food establishment or a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of a spatula on Amazon, online reviews are quickly becoming one of the most accessible and comprehensive ways to decide whether you should save or splurge.

Star ratings

Do you remember those gold star stickers that teachers sometimes put on the top of tests? Think of these as their digital equivalents.

A star rating, when boiled down to its base, is a numerical evaluation of a product or service. Star ratings on many online retailers (such as Amazon or eBay) use the traditional "five stars" measuring system (with five being the best).

These numbers can be displayed in various ways, depending on the website. The movie review site Rotten Tomatoes displays its review numbers as a "freshness" percentage. This is visually represented with a ripe tomato being a "good" movie (over 50% positive), and a squished green one being "bad" (less than 50%).

What these rating systems have in common is that they are very quick to look at, and even easier to quantify. You can click the "only four stars and above" option on Amazon to filter products with less than stellar feedback, or note that the movie you wanted to see in theatres has only a 35% freshness rating and might not be worth the box office price tag. Being able to quickly glance at these ratings makes them ideal for quick or last minute purchases.

Traditional reviews

Often used in conjunction with star ratings, a traditional review goes into more detail on the reviewer's impression of an item or service. If paired with a star rating, a traditional review will usually justify why the item warranted the rating given. It may include pros and cons of the item, compare it to a similar product, or even recommend an alternative.

Traditional reviews may also talk about the issues they may have had with the product. For example, a review may mention that a set of headphones cut out after only a month, or that they've been using them daily for over a year with no significant change in performance.

Because traditional reviews are more in-depth, they can be a great tool for researching items before you purchase them. This is especially useful for big ticket items like appliances, furniture and electronics.

Video reviews

A video review is comparable to a traditional review, but in video form. With the rise of YouTube, video reviews are becoming extremely popular, largely due to the visual format. Videos can be especially useful when reviewing makeup/toiletries (for swatching and application feedback) and clothing (to see how clothes move and fit). Video reviews are often blunter about the pros and cons of items, as well, since they are spoken rather than written and edited. Like traditional reviews, a video review may sometimes be combined with a star rating.

Sponsored reviews

Sponsored reviews are increasingly common as YouTube stars and big-name bloggers become more mainstream. A sponsored review is when a company or service provides their product for free in return for the feedback from the reviewer (whether in written or video format); alternatively, a company may pay a reviewer to look at their product. For example, an upstart makeup company could choose to send their new collection of lipsticks to a highly popular YouTuber known for beauty how-tos in order to reach their fanbase.

Take everything with a grain of salt

Reviews are one of the greatest ways for you to glean through feedback on just about any product you use in your daily life, whether you're buying a new purse or seeing which laundry detergents actually hold up to their "sparkling clean" promises. But not all reviews should be treated equally.

Here are six tips to help you navigate online reviews, and make sure that your purchased item is everything you could have hoped it could be:

1. Be wary of sponsored reviews. While sponsored reviews, in theory, are just another form of promotion for a company, you should also keep in mind that a reviewer may be biased towards the positive end of the spectrum. Use your best judgment.

2. Keep an eye out for fake reviews. Occasionally, companies will post fake reviews in order to boost their ratings -- and the practice is more pervasive than you might think. General things to look out for include poor grammar/spelling, very short reviews, when an account has only one or two reviews tied to it, and anything that sounds "generic" or has been copy-pasted.

3. Read through negative reviews. What were the problems that customers had with the products? Sometimes, "negative" reviews left on products (especially on online retailers like Amazon) have nothing to do with the product itself, and more to do with shipping or customer service of the retailer or second hand seller they purchased it from. If someone is angry enough, they will leave a one-star review because they didn't receive an item when they expected it.

4. Check for duplicate products/sellers. Occasionally, products are listed on retailers twice; this may be an accident, but is occasionally done intentionally if a product has received too many negative reviews on its original listing. The same thing may happen with sellers who receive too much negative feedback. Make sure to do your homework when buying larger items for that reason.

5. Make sure you're buying from reputable sellers. Some dishonest sellers will steal images and use them online, and send knock off items that do not match the quality of the originals or outright fakes. You can always check a business' standing with the Better Business Bureau if you're uncertain about their trustworthiness.

6. Check multiple sources for feedback. If a product is receiving rave reviews on YouTube, Amazon, and blogs -- chances are it's actually worth the hype! It never hurts to have more than one opinion.

Sara Volk is a Bismarck native and the current Special Sections editor at The Bismarck Tribune. When she isn't working to give her cat a better life, she dabbles in baking, sewing, and anything nerdy.