What Makes a Good Gift Guide?

“In a time of great shift we must respond in kind,” the writer and editor Meaghan O’Connell recently wrote on X. “The media industry needs a new genre: gift guide criticism.”

Ms. O’Connell’s wry observation refers to the mini-industry of online shopping guides that has expanded exponentially in the last decade. A Google search for “gift guide” yields over 255 million results — and that’s just in English.

It makes sense in a media landscape challenged by declining advertising revenue and print subscribers, that many publishers have sought alternate revenue streams that include affiliate marketing. Legacy media brands (and the writers and editors that once worked at them, many of whom have flocked to Substack) are capitalizing on their reputation as tastemakers by building entire ecosystems around product recommendations, pegging guides to holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah and Mother’s Day.

Even universities and the U.S. Mint are getting in on the action. (Wirecutter, the product recommendation service from The New York Times, also does many gift guides, to which Styles reporters sometimes contribute.) But with gift guides entering the realm of ubiquity, what exactly makes a good one?

“You want to highlight the big-ticket items that people talk about all year long but that are hardly ever on sale, like the nugget ice maker or a fancy skin care tool,” said Caroline Moss, the founder and host of “Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!,” a product recommendation podcast and platform. “You also want the gift guide to help the giver say something about themselves.”

The most shoppable gift guides, some say, suggest products that are novel but useful, surprising but thoughtful, affordable but not cheap. “A really good gift guide is a well-curated list of things someone would be genuinely excited to receive as a gift,” said Maxine Builder, the editor of New York Magazine’s popular shopping site The Strategist. “It sounds so simple, but it’s something that’s really easy to just miss.”

Two of The Strategist team’s favorite gifts for this year, Ms. Builder said, have a sense of whimsy verging on strangeness: the “judgy fish” sticker book, which is exactly what it sounds like and is currently sold out almost everywhere, and the Bitzee, a 3-D interactive digital pet that’s like a next-generation Tamagotchi.

Timing is also key for gift guide success. In order to stay ahead of trends and appear at the top of Google’s search results, many websites begin updating and publishing guides two to three months in advance of a holiday.

“Our team starts attending press appointments, combs through pitches, and researches what’s new in the marketplace before releasing our core guides as early as September,” said Julie Tong, shopping director at Vogue.

Building a good gift guide can also involve delving into the psychology of an outlet’s audience. “Who typically reads your gift guide — what do they care about, who do they care about, what kind of budget are they usually working with?” Ms. Moss said. “Gift guides should include a mix of things that the shoppers already know about, and related products that they may not know about.”

And while they’re not necessarily useful, there’s also enjoyment to be had in a wildly impractical gift guide, like those published by Robb Report and Air Mail. These guides captivate (a $12,000 model train set!), enrage (the 30.42 carat diamond necklace Martha Stewart wore on her Sports Illustrated cover!) and arouse jealousy or even horror (a personalized mural by a famous artist for your private jet and a three-night stay at a former Italian monastery!).

The absurdity of luxury gift guides’ inflated price tags ($17,000 tulip vase, anyone?) is also what makes them addictively perusable. They allow those of us without the budget for a $358 porcelain box in the shape of a baguette to imagine a life in which buying that kind of thing might be normal. Like materialism make-believe, or the e-commerce equivalent of watching “The Real Housewives, they inspire pure, unadulterated voyeurism twinged with a healthy dose of shock at how the other half does the holidays.

Goop, the wellness and lifestyle company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, was perhaps singularly made for this moment.

“Each year, we start thinking about the gift guides a year in advance and file away the coolest, most genuine, delicious things we’ve seen for months ahead of time,” said Roxanne Marie, Goop’s senior director of fashion.

Goop’s “Ridiculous but Awesome” gift guide this year includes a weeklong blimp ride to the North Pole (Goop editors call it an “airship”), a $400 hunk of Parmesan cheese and a custom-built safe for all of your rubies (which, at $11,000, you might have to sell to afford the safe). The joy of the Goop holiday gift guide is that it consists almost entirely of things you couldn’t possibly have known even existed unless you’re in the 37 percent tax bracket.

Sometimes the best gift guides are just straight-up weird. Rayne Fisher-Quann, the writer of the Substack newsletter Internet Princess, taps friends and fellow tastemakers for ideas for her guide. This year’s edition, released Nov. 13, included hand-embroidered “Afghan war rugs” depicting Sept. 11, a set of animal bones and a slip-on rubber guard for your Ugg boots that makes them waterproof.

At the end of the day, what makes a good gift guide may be pretty similar to what makes a good gift.

“Part of the challenge of a good gift guide and good gift-giving is matching the gift with the recipients,” Ms. Builder, of The Strategist, said. “Though we can give you as many ideas and make as many assumptions as we want, at the end of the day it’s up to the person buying the gift to be the matchmaker.”

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