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How Reviewed experts pick products and deals for shoppers (sometimes they set things on fire)

I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here. 

David Ellerby sets out nine foil pans and fills each with a different brand of kitty litter. Next he pours 5 teaspoons of fox urine on each (that's how much an average cat goes each time it goes). 

Then he wraps each pan in a giant plastic bag and seals it. He'll come back hours later with an air-quality meter and determine which brand does the best job of absorbing odor.

Ellerby is the chief scientist for Reviewed, the arm of the USA TODAY Network that rates and reviews thousands of products each year.

How we find the best products and deals 

After our experts test and pick the best products, our writers search for the best deal on that item. The combination of quality and price leads to our "best of" lists – best blenders, best grills, best air fryers and yes, coming soon, best kitty litter.

Ellerby has a tabby named Pepper at home. "So I may be changing brands based on what I find in a few minutes," he  said, laughing. "It's going to be a mixture of excitement and horror, I think."

This week, the days leading up to and out of Black Friday and Cyber Monday are some of the busiest at Reviewed. Staffers tested around 2,000 products this year, many in their 24,000-square-foot lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those tests form the bedrock of reviews, gift guides and other stories. (Other items may make a list if they get significant positive reviews from actual users.)

Ellerby helps design the tests to make sure results are credible and replicable. For larger items, like dishwashers or refrigerators, staffers will use industry testing standards. For smaller or more unique items, they'll come up with their own (often fun) testing rigs and protocols.

Reviewed's TikTok videos show the staff setting aprons on fire, working out on rowing machines and testing deep fryers by deep-frying Oreos.

"I'm a professional scientist used to digging into and interpreting the scientific and technical literature," said Ellerby, who has a background in physiology and biomechanics. "So the tests we run are very much rooted in science; they're developed in a way that can be completely replicated. And that allows us to stand by our data a hundred percent."

Reviewed does the searching for you

Reviewed articles include links to online stores so users can buy the items easily. And the company does get a commission for many of the items sold. But editor-in-chief David Kender makes it clear that never influences what items make a list or what store links get included.

Reviewed always sends users to reputable businesses with the best price, whether or not they have a financial agreement with them, Kender says. The cost of the item remains the same for the customer, with or without a commission. A financial disclosure appears on every Reviewed article.

Reviewed pays for all the products it reviews (spending about a quarter of a million dollars each year) or it will test a product on loan and return it to the manufacturer afterward. Products make a list only if they're good, Kender says. He's known for saying, "There's no such thing as a good deal on a bad product."

"Most of the time, the problem that needs solving is that someone needs to buy something," he said. "I need to buy a new umbrella, a new coffee mug, a gift for my niece. We want to cut to the chase as quickly as possible, deliver them the recommendation, make sure it's at a legitimate retailer for a good price. And at the same time, try to underscore that we know what we're talking about. We've done our homework, here's a picture of us testing it. And so please move forward with confidence."

And the entire staff gets in on the reviews. Some products are best reviewed in the field, which often means home. Kender once spent three months trying different electric toothbrushes

"My teeth probably never looked better," he said.

He also once gleefully tested duct tape. The review disclosed that Kender "has had an unusually strong affinity for duct tape since childhood."

After the best items are chosen, Kate Ellsworth's team starts looking for the best deals. 

"So our absolute favorite robot vacuum is on sale. Awesome. We're going to tell our readers about it," said Ellsworth, executive editor of commerce content. "After all product testing is done and we have what we love and what our experts recommend, we take that and we teach people how to shop it on sale ... how to shop at different retailers and at different price points."

Jon Chan, senior lab manager at Reviewed, is the in-house vacuum expert, and has tested or overseen testing of hundreds of vacuum and robot vacuum on the market.

The year's best products

In time for holiday shopping, Reviewed has collected reviews from the past year and created the Best of the Year awards, naming the top products in 10 categories, from pet to tech to cooking.

Kender unveiled them in a video awards show, complete with a tuxedo, fancy  envelopes and canned applause. 

What are their personal favorites? 

Ellsworth loves what she calls the Big Blanket, a 10-foot-by-10-foot "cult favorite."

"After living with the Big Blanket for a full year, using it nearly every day during the colder months to lounge on the couch, sleep under, and build blanket forts, I can say I am now a proud member of the cult of the Big Blanket, even though my husband tore a muscle climbing out of it on day one," Ellsworth wrote in her review

She also recommends anything that can be delivered digitally, given supply and shipping challenges in some areas. She points out Black Friday deals on streaming services, online classes or things that will be delivered throughout the year. 

"Bouqs is a flower delivery service and you can have flowers delivered every single month," she said. "So I got that for my mother for Mother's Day and she has forbidden me from ever canceling it."

Kender says he's "a sucker for the toys because I have a 7-year-old."

"The Harry Potter and the Star Wars Lego advent calendars are amazing," he said. "But they move so quickly and I'm going to try really hard not to buy myself anything that I don't absolutely need this year." 

Wait, I thought those were for the 7-year-old?

"We would share," he said, laughing. "Half the fun of being a parent is that you get to play with toys all over again."

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Support journalism – subscribe to USA TODAY here. (Black Friday deal: $1 a week for 52 weeks.)