Amazon Problems: Fake Product Reviews

az5starqUpdate: As of 10/3/16, Amazon has changed their policy and now prohibits reviews in exchange for discounted products. From the Amazon Blog:

Our community guidelines have always prohibited compensation for reviews, with an exception – reviewers could post a review in exchange for a free or discounted product as long as they disclosed that fact. These so-called ‘incentivized reviews’ make up only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of reviews on Amazon, and when done carefully, they can be helpful to customers by providing a foundation of reviews for new or less well-known products.

Today, we updated the community guidelines to prohibit incentivized reviews unless they are facilitated through the Amazon Vine program.

This the new language in their official Seller Policy:

Additionally, you may not provide compensation (including free or discounted products) for a review. Review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to modify or remove reviews.

Contrary to Amazon’s claims, incentivized reviews do not make up only a “tiny fraction” of all reviews. According to this ReviewMeta video, 50% of all new Amazon reviews are now incentivized! 20% of all the Amazon Reviews they analyzed are incentivized.

Will this make it better, or worse? In response, many sites still giving out free stuff but are now simply telling users that reviews are no longer “required” and you don’t have to add any disclaimer at all. But, the sellers can usually still CHOOSE which people are eligible to receive the discounted products. Do you think they will give out free products to people who leave mostly positive reviews, or those people who take stuff and do nothing? Hmmm.

Original post:

For while, I was convinced that one day I would only shop at two places: Costco and Amazon. But recently, I’ve been concerned that Amazon’s quest for growth has hurt their customer-centric reputation. Here’s one part in what unfortunately may become a multi-part series.

Discounts for reviews. In the past, I wrote about a few websites that provided you with discounted products from Amazon in exchange for an “honest review”. I originally felt that since Amazon itself does this type of thing with its Vine program, it should be fine for the makers of a product to send out a few samples for review.

In the months since, I’ve gradually changed my mind. This practice is no longer a way to “jumpstart” your product with a few reviews. Instead, it has basically resulted in a race to the bottom where other sellers feel they must give out tons of free product and end up with hundreds of 5-star reviews with the disclaimer “I received this product at a discount in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.” This screenshot from Reddit is a perfect example of the bottom of this downward spiral:

az_bias

ReviewMeta.com analyzed 7 million reviews and found that the reviews with disclaimers had nearly all 4 and 5 star ratings, with a much lower occurrence of 1 and 2 star ratings.

I think where I messed up was that when a regular website like CNET does a gadget review, they have a readership and reputation to maintain. An anonymous individual is probably busy and just wants to satisfy the review requirement in order to keep getting discounted stuff. There is no feedback system to keep them accountable.

Fake reviews. What’s worse is that some reviews are simply fake with no such disclaimer. As someone who has to deal with spam comments every day, I see the same language patterns in Amazon reviews. Another website called FakeSpot.com also analyzes the quality of reviews:

Fakespot utilizes numerous technologies to validate the authenticity of reviews. The primary criteria is the language utilized by the reviewer, the profile of the reviewer, correlation with other reviewers data and machine learning algorithm that focuses on improving itself by detecting fraudulent reviews.

Check out this Micro SD memory card, and see it’s FakeSpot analysis.

fakespot1

ReviewMeta adjusted their 4.8 star rating down to 1.3 stars:

reviewmeta1

Survivorship bias. As someone who has bought a few “discount-for-review” items in the past (I no longer participate), I can tell you that when I left a less-than-positive review and others did as well, the item simply disappeared from Amazon shortly thereafter. It’s quite easy for a factory to simply slap on another made-up brand name and thus create a separate, new listing. This makes it quite easy to just start over, seed with positive reviews, and keep selling until too many “real” reviews start lowering the average rating. Repeat as necessary.

As always, buyer beware. Amazon has already filed some lawsuits over paid fake reviews, but they still have a lot of room to improve.

Comments

  1. I think what mistake many people make is, look at the stars and decide. If one takes time to go through some of the review, even sponsored ones, many do write shortcomings of the products. Then the star rating does not really matter. I have personally done that. Initially, it was annoying to see the products offered for discounts but it actually helped me a couple of times. I got a laptop battery almost a year and half ago. All the reviewers received discount for the product so I was hesitant but took a chance. That laptop battery is going strong, much better than the OEM actually.

    I have learnt over the period of time, Fakespot is not really as good as it is claimed. So I removed that extension after a couple of months. I have not tried Reviewmeta.

    I think its difficult to make a yardstick for the reviews. Many supposedly genuine reviews are copy and past of the other reviews. I wonder why one would do that. IMO, the best idea is to actually read the review and go with the gut feeling.

  2. When buying items on Amazon I always check fakespot for reviews and camelcamelcamel to check price history. Beware of new sellers. I’ve had a couple of items I’ve purchased say they’re shipped, but the shipping city and state is different from where I live. Another thing to be wary of is items coming from overseas. They take forever and by the time it’s “shipped” you’ve almost forgot about it. One item I bought was a toddler pillow, but I got a toddler case. I know what you’re thinking – I ordered wrong, but no the title said “toddler pillow, no case needed”. I love Amazon and get something delivered from them weekly. Just becareful when ordering items on Amazon.

  3. Joshua Katt says:

    Could not agree with your more, especially about only shopping at Amazon & Costco. But lately Amazon will let anyone with computer access sell anything. As a Buyer and Seller on Amazon for 15 years, their coveted reviews have turned into a joke. Anyone with an axe to grind (the post office delayed my package causing my birthday present to be late) automatically gives 1 star while others rave endlessly for legit or non legit reasons. Its harder and harder to decide once you get reading these reviews.

    BTW, AMEX emailed an offer for 1 free Sams’s membership, a place I had not been to in 15 years. Went Sunday and was pleasantly surprised, many of the same and similar items at prices better than Costco (including gas). Most amazing thing was an iphone app to scan your cart as you fill it and head right out the door (skipping the line), that may be a game changer for me. Time will tell.

    • I hadn’t heard about the iPhone app, that’s pretty clever on the part of Sam’s Club. I was already pretty happy with the self-checkout line at Sam’s when I only had 1 or 2 items, since Costco doesn’t have that.

    • Brian Colorado Springs says:

      The thing one needs to be wary of with Sam’s Club gas is it’s NON Top-Tier. This means there are no added cleaners to help keep your engine clean inside. I have never had any issues with Costco’s gas on the other hand and it has FIVE added cleaners in both regular and premium grade gas. Its totally up to you if that is a big deal or not. I prefer Costco gas and it is also cheaper than Sam’s Club gas in my area.

  4. pjhalifax says:

    I’ve been frustrated with Amazon reviews for a while now. One thing that helps: using the filters to search by “verified purchases only.” Even though sellers can get around that, it tends to weed out the worst of the useless reviews. Still, allowing what are essentially paid reviews seems like a bad practice and I ignore anything with language indicating a reviewer was compensated (or when I see the same phrases over and over again). I saw the effects first hand when I was more involved in publishing via the KDP platform, where ebook sellers were early adopters of review-enhancing strategies.

    Anyway, the overall effect is that I spend less on Amazon – I don’t trust them as much these days – so maybe it’s a good thing in terms of money management. 🙂

  5. Amazon can use Machine Learning algorithm to detect fake review, based on content they write and not based on stars across all other reviews that particular user provides and drop those reviews or give least weight. I thought Amazon does this already, if they don’t I see them using it soon, esp when machine learning has advanced this far.

    Richard

  6. Steve Kohn says:

    My practice has long been to go first to the 1- and 2-star reviews, even when, maybe especially when, most of the reviews are 4- and 5-star. Sometimes the negative reviews are mindless whines or 3-word dismissals, but sometimes they address my exact concerns and questions.

    The highly positive reviews are where we can find good aspects of the product that might not have been apparent from an ad or specs page. So I’ve never used FakeSpot, and doubt I ever will.

    Kind of on the same subject, let me add a word about the second-best idea I’ve ever had: to NEVER read a review, any review, on a book, film, or CD before experiencing it myself cold. It allows the element of surprise to enhance the joy, and it forces me to establish my own opinion without being swayed by others. AFTERWARDS, I do go to the reviews for perspectives of others, and where I often learn about aspects of the performance I’d missed. Try it.

  7. One issue I have long had with Amazon reviews is that they combine all reviews of all versions of a product together. So, if “Bob’s Widget” comes in plastic, aluminum and stainless models – and the stainless model is great with consistent four- and five-star reviews but the plastic model has a high failure rate and consistent one- and two-star reviews – often, you see the combined total when you look up the plastic version of “Bob’s Widget.”

    That is lazy at best by Amazon.

    Some reviewers are very careful to lead their review with a disclaimer citing exactly which version they are reviewing, which is very helpful.

  8. Yeah, I understand your frustration. However, I would not place too much stock in fakespot either. What’s a low quality review? Why do you trust their algorithm so much? I would guess that many real reviews are being filtered out that should not be. Some people write thorough reviews and some people do the bare minimum… If doesn’t mean those review are fake. At the end of the day you should ask if reviews help or not. I can tell you that before Amazon reviews I bought a lot of disappointing products, but now it’s rare. Then again, I read many reviews instead if simply looking at the star rating.

    • Nowadays, those products with high ratings are often getting 4 or 5 stars from folks getting discounted prices. The first thing I do is looking for the disclaimer. If I see it, i don’t buy that item.

  9. Brad Ford says:

    I always avoid no name products with a limited amount of reviews – all positive. The best reviews are for products with lots of reviews – positive and negative.

  10. I have an intense hatred towards the “unbiased” reviews although I do like to receive lots of free stuff (most of which I don’t even need). On some sites the sellers can handpick which customers receive the free products. The Amazon sellers can see their ranking, average word count, average star review, and look at their review history to determine whether or not to give them a code for the free product. Amazon customers are much more likely to get selected if they have a history of giving nothing but 5 star reviews. The reviewers have to quickly review the product if they want to receive more free products. For example, I have to review my elbow compression sleeve before I even get injured and have to use it. Some of these sites have secret ‘clubs’ where you can get free products just by entering in certain search terms in Amazon and then buying their product (now against Amazon’s rules). I constantly get emails from the sellers asking for my feedback and for my review. I don’t need them to email me when my package is on it’s way, when I receive my package, and a week later if I haven’t reviewed the item by then. The best products at the best value no longer show up at the top of search results…I wish Amazon would change its policy to prohibit these “unbiased” reviews, as Amazon reviews are starting to become meaningless to me. The only people it benefits is the people who receive tons of free stuff.

  11. Amazon claims to be customer centric but they are not really doing much to engender that trust. I have many personal example with them that prove they are just a big marketing machine who knows how to massage user behavior (i.e. Fake reviews being just one).

    Wonder if there is a Fakespot like site for Yelp reviews too. Same issue there and I guess anywhere where people rely on reviews for purchase decisions.

    • David Thomas says:

      Fakespot does Yelp now. Its an easter egg but if you put in the yelp review it analyzes it. Fakespot really is the best.

  12. I’ve been with amazon for well over a decade. Starting from college. I’ve left reviews on there myself. I’ve just resorted to not buying items with “unbiased reviews” ratings. Also, I’ve decided to avoid brands I’ve not heard of. The problem is these products have such high ratings, sometimes 200 to a 1000 reviews that they seem to pop up first on a product search. Also, even when I’ve decided to filter using brands, they still pop up as sponsored. I did the vine product in the past and haven’t done in it for about 2 years now. Amazon didn’t require a 4 or 5 star review. I’ve rated some vine items 2 or 3 stars.

    That said, I understand some small companies may be starting but it’s too much a hassle to sift through and take the risk on any of them.

    You also mentioned reviews that don’t have the disclaimer on them. I’ve learned to spot these. I’ve seen a poster post the same thing under two items. Both were phone protector cases. then someone points out it was actually a copy and paste from a part of a legimate review. It’s a shame.

    The other thing is people wanting to increase their review ranking they post the same review under 5 listings of the same product. I was reading the forum the other day after hearing amazon is deleting some of these reviewers and banning their review priveledges. One person posted 10+ reviews in in a day each day. Do you have a life? No, on a day when I’ve had a chance I’ve posted 5 reviews but that’s because it’s my first time chosing to review a product in months. How do start reviewing from July 2016 and have over 3900 reviews?

    I’m glad you’re writing about this, Jon. I’ve been following your blog almost 10 yrs now. Still had my student email then, now I don’t.
    Anyway, I’ll stick to brands I know and trust.

  13. I have a product on Amazon with only 17 reviews, but they are mostly good ones… I’ve often considered including a flyer with my product asking for reviews, but it seems the most genuine reviews come from folks who really liked it who took the time to write something up. Honestly, I would happily give away a $20 product for a 5* review as they are SO important for people evaluating a purchase. Problem is, my product isn’t for everyone and some people love it or hate it, so I risk getting a bad review if I solicit them from non fanatical customers.

    I’m also a victim of a 3* bad review that was out of my control. One person received a product where the outside of the package was sticky… I took the hit because of something that obviously happened during delivery. (I have no liquids or sticky materials in my product.)

    Jonathan actually did an interview with me years ago for MMB… The product is still going strong and continues to provide a bit of mailbox money.

    https://www.amazon.com/Penny-Portrait-Abe-Lincoln-Poster/product-reviews/B00ITSN7UK/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_viewpnt_lft?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=recent&pageNumber=1&filterByStar=positive

    • Hi Maury – In my experience, your best bet would be to politely solicit feedback after a “real” purchase from an interested customer. What I’ve also had happen is the seller offers some sort of carrot for me to leave a review (“bonus gift!”) which can get a little shady if it is a big gift. For example, I bought a stroller and they offered me a set of replacement wheel covers worth a few bucks.

  14. Amazon no longer allows free or discounted products in exchange for “unbiased” reviews. YAY!!! About time Amazon!

    • Joshua Katt says:

      Except that Amazon has a ton of rules that are largely unenforceable and/or up to a Seller to discover, prove, bring to Amazon’s attention and hope they understand and do something about it. Frustrating and time consuming.

    • Thanks for the heads up. I agree, about time, as supposedly half of all new reviews had become incentivized.

  15. Unfortunately you cannot trust fakespot either. They are incentivized and biased toward some products and they are also Amazon affiliates. Why listen to them? Basically another junk blogger making money from Amazon links masquerading as consumer advocates. They are the fakes.
    I know several products very well that are F rated with NO FAKE reviews. There are other well rated products that have only bad reviews. It seems they automatically dislike products with lots of good reviews, meaning if they are good they must be fake.

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