Interview with Olin Coles of Benchmark Reviews


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So I’ve decided to introduce you to other site owners out there, maybe they own a site you’ve never heard of, or maybe you already visit the site, nevertheless, the aim of the interviews is to help you get to know the owners a bit better.

Today I’ve got an interview with Olin Coles, the owner of BenchmarkReviews.com. I’ve personally known Olin for a while, since before he had his own site, and he’s an all around great guy in my opinion. He’s taken BMR and done great things with it, in a very short time it’s become a respectable and highly visited site, so read on to learn more about Olin, and about Benchmark Reviews…

Here’s a picture of Olin he sent me over, he said it was taken at CES last year:

Olin Coles

Q: First off, can you tell us a bit, in your own words, about Benchmarks Reviews?


A:Benchmark Reviews was started back around March of 2007, roughly one month after leaving a position with another technology website where I wrote product reviews.  Benchmark Reviews maintains a core focus on testing mainstream and enthusiast computer and consumer electronics technology.  Our primary goal is to test related products and deliver our results to the consumer so they can make an informed decision about their product purchase(s).  More than anything, I strive for Benchmark Reviews to compare one product against another, so that we’re providing more than just an opinion of our experience but a baseline for our results.

 

Q: Benchmark Reviews has become very popular in a relatively short amount of time, which of course is a good thing, is being a site owner all that you expected?


A: No.  Being the owner of a productive and competitive website has been extremely different than I first expected.  When I joined the Marines in 1992 I was only 17 but somehow knew there would some miserable days ahead for me.  But when I launched Benchmark Reviews, I honestly though that it would be as simple as testing product and writing about it.  In retrospect of the past two years of writing reviews, I can keenly say that the Internet is not a nice place.  Many of our visitors are good people, some of which take the time to drop a nice note to us on occasion or offer constructive criticism.  However, the Internet provides a anonymity that brings out the worst in people.  I’ve seen some very ugly things said on the web that are just plain dishonest and spiteful, and it pains me to stay up until 3AM finishing an article when I know someone will probably ruin my day with insults the following morning.  This brought about another revelation: I can’t do it all myself, which is why I have grown the staff of Benchmark Reviews to about ten writers.  In the same regard, this experience led me to better appreciate people like Kyle Bennet (of HardOCP), because BmR has only received a small amount of hate mail and threats of lawsuit compared to him and his site.  I have no idea how he does it today, without wanting to publically sacrifice the occasional keyboard warrior.

 

Q: Do you have any big plans in the works for BmR? Or are you going to continue doing what you’re doing?


A: Yes, there are some big plans in store.  Benchmark Reviews was a successful endeavor, but I personally feel like the walls of our industry are closing in.  Console game systems have taken away a huge number of former computer hardware enthusiasts, and the failing economy is going to claim several more.  People are becoming less interested in expensive hardware upgrades, primarily because they’ve moved on to less-expensive tastes, or they have already met their needs with yesterdays hardware.  Benchmark Reviews began my interest in publishing online content, but I have experienced so much since we began eighteen months ago that my interests have matured.  Gadget sites are growing in hordes, so whatever happens next will have to either be a fresh idea, or better than the rest.  Benchmark Reviews falls into the latter of those two, but some of my other projects (Tech Playboy and TechHertz News) will have to work very hard to be competitive when I begin developing them.

 

Q: What’s an average day like for you?


A: Posting news has become a real time thief, and demands my attention morning and night.  Of course, there’s usually a system running tests at the same time, and coordinating projects with writers and manufacturers is common.  These days though, my average day is extremely busy working full-time for Benchmark Reviews.  Old articles need updating with new product references and relevant ads.  Jumping through the hoops of a very short and nearly impossible time-frame for launch product turn-around has also makes up a portion of every day.  Thankfully though, I’ve got some very good staff assisting me now, and the future looks a lot better than the past.  12- to 14-hour work days are no fun, but there are plenty of those when you operate a site like Benchmark Reviews.

 

Q: What was the first product you reviewed?


A: The Sunbeamtech Tuniq 2 Mid-Tower ATX Case.  I loved the look of this case from the front, but everything else was sub-par.  I wish that I could say this was the worst product I ever tested, but it wasn’t.  It just got nit-picked a lot more than any other.  The irony is that Sunbeamtech recently advertised with Benchmark Reviews, despite the fact that we have not reviewed another one of their products since.  Another irony is that the products I really wanted to review in the beginning (video cards and motherboards) would become the two most dreaded items on my project list.  It can take over 16 hours to photograph the product, edit the images, complete benchmark testing, build charts, and then write and format the article for a motherboard or video card.  As a business owner, it would have been better for me to administer a server network for a few hours and buy the product.  Essentially, my first review taught me that you don’t write these articles for the gear, because that’s a losing proposition.

 

Q: How do you feel that manufacturers have treated you through the years?


A:
This will be the question that gets me into trouble.  Technically, it will be my out-spoken attitude and the following answer that gets me into trouble… For the most part, manufacturers are fair.  A large portion of the manufacturers will sponsor (donate) product for review if you have a clean and well-organized website with good content.  There are several that won’t even respond to your calls and email unless you’re at the very top of the tech ladder, although the recent turn in economy has seen that ladder come falling down for the big-ten sites.  Although BmR hasn’t grown by very much over the past nine months, the vast majority of tier-one websites have seen readership decline in large numbers (as evidenced by Compete and Alexa) and we are on much closer proximity to them now.  There are still a few hold-outs though, that won’t support our requests because we test products made by their competition.  Even worse, their are a few manufacturers that won’t support us anymore because we didn’t award their product in a review.  Including myself, three of the writers at BmR have the luxury of owning a computer service company, so when a product wasn’t available for review we could occasionally pull it off the shelf for testing.

 

Q: What do you feel makes your reviews unique?


A: Considering that we encourage our writers to use their own individual voice when they create reviews and articles, I would hope that their unique personality would shine through.  In truth though, it’s becoming very difficult to be yourself and keep readers interested at the same time.  I used to write long, very verbose articles.  After scrutinizing my site analytics I discovered that most visitors skip to the test results and conclusion after skimming over the product images.  So now, when I write a review, I try to make it personal but in smaller bites.  On the other hand, I know that my own reviews have crossed the line a few times; such as when I call-out a manufacturer for dishonest marketing practices or conditional product treatment.  Many websites would like to please their product sponsors with every review, but I’ve burned too many bridges with them for that to matter at this point.  Anymore I strive to be honest about the product I’m testing, while at the same time keeping a professional voice.  We might put PriceGrabber ads somewhere on the page, but there’s nothing pushing us to be nice to the product or manufacturer.

 

Q: What makes a good reviewer?


A: To be a successful technical product analyst, you should have: a strong vocabulary, good grammar, technical experience, product insight, a sense of humor, integrity, and honesty.  As the owner of a review website, I would add reliability to this list.

 

Q: With your reviews, who is your main audience?


A: The consumer, the enthusiast, and the hardware hound that must be "in the know".  Ideally, our reviews would help guide someone in their decision to purchase product A over product B.  However, the economy being what it is, and unemployment being what it is, I can’t deny that our audience has changed from consumer-centric towards more of a store front for window-shoppers.  This suits me fine though, since I can’t afford most of the items we test anyway, and understand how it is for people right now.  I used to like playing video games, but now my only outlet is benchmarking with them, and reading someone else’s review.  Either way, I’m glad that our work entertains and educates people.

 

Q: How do you rate your products?


A: Cautiously?  Rating a product used to be instinct, but after having so many manufacturers send us a short-term loaner product and then having it fail in the hands of consumers the rating has become dangerous.  One perfect example is the OCZ Core SSD, which I was allowed to test for three days before shipping it back.  Weeks later I began receiving mass amounts of hate mail, because many people went out and purchased this product based on my rating and now it appears to be a defective design.  Despite constant correspondence with OCZ on the issue, I never was told that a few months later a second version of this product was being released to correct the problem.  So now I have to rate a product with caution, and my most recent reviews have actually began issuing a statement at the beginning that reads like a warning.

 

Q: How did you come up with the rating system?


A: The rating system at Benchmark Reviews has been a topic of heated discussion since its inception.  Most websites don’t give a score or rating, and I am beginning to understand why.  We base our rating from five categories: product presentation which informs consumers of system specs and requirements, appearance and design looks, product construction and durability, features and functionality (performance), and finally price value.  Of the bunch, presentation seems frivolous until you take into consideration the number of products that offer no real truth in advertising.  Price is the worst offender of the bunch, because a launch-time price might sink to half the amount only two weeks later (such as the NVIDIA and ATI price wars seen this past summer) and we grade based on the price at the time of writing.  Our rating system is evolving though, and I expect it to undergo even more changes into the future so we can best offer a realistic score to the reader.

 

Q: How do you select products to review?


A: I used to take anything that manufacturers would offer, back when BmR was starving for donated products.  These days, we work more closely with proven manufacturers to help launch their upcoming products, but we also try to supply product reviews for items that are popular with online retailers and electronic storefronts.  If it sells to our audience, we want to test it.

 

Q: Out of all the products you’ve gotten for review, which is your favorite? and why, what makes it your favorite?


A: Choosing just one favorite is not easy, because at least three are at the top of my list.  My favorite review item so far has got to be Solid State Drives.  Initially these products were ho-hum, but they’ve become refined to the point that the slowest man in the performance chain is now much closer to the second-slowest (system memory).  Honorable mention goes to my RatPadz gaming surface, and GeForce GTX 280.

 

Q: What tips can you offer readers when it comes to purchasing a product?

A: Wow, that’s a short question with a long answer.  My advice is to research as many sources as possible on the product your looking to purchase.  If we all trusted just one source, there’s no telling what would get crammed down our throats.  So by researching a product purchase, you’ll learn about some potential alternatives while at the same time getting a broader view of what to expect.  Once you’ve decided on your purchase, use a price comparison tool like the one we offer at Benchmark Reviews, so you’ll know what the bottom line is going to be.  Quite often though, I even use several different price comparison tools, because they are all fee-based and not everyone wants to pay to list their product.  Also, keep in mind that when you read a review there’s a good chance that something has changed since it was published, so feel free to write the author for a personal opinion.  I know that we gets questions all the time, and we’re happy to answer requests.

 

Q: Finally what do you think of sites like technogog that aggregates and analyzes a large number of reviews?


A: Sites like technogog make me envious.  technogog has accomplished the one thing I have not since entering the online content industry, and believe me when I say it’s not for a lack of trying.  Review websites are useful for many people, but news aggregate sites are the preferred destination for many.  I first got involved with writing reviews after visiting sites like Warp2Search and DVNation back in 2005, which are similar to technogog but not nearly as comprehensive.  It’s my personal goal to have a site similar to technogog in the distant future; only with a different focus that hasn’t already been perfected.

 

I’d like to thank Olin for his time, and for letting me interview him, I hope this gives our readers more insight into BMR and Olin. Of course when you get the chance, if you haven’t yet, stop over at BMR and check things out, he runs a great site full of in-depth and professional product reviews and other useful information.

 

 

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