Amazon sold over 5 billion products through Amazon Prime in 2017.
The company also claims that about half of all products sold on the eCommerce platform are from third-party marketplace sellers, many being small businesses.
The opportunity for small businesses to cash in on Amazon’s high traffic is tremendous. But so is the competition for a product to appear high in Amazon’s search rankings.
READ MORE: Amazon Ships More Than 5 Billion Items with Prime in 2017
For years, many sellers complained about paid reviews. These are reviews where it was obvious that the buyer received the product for free or at a big discount.
Amazon tolerated these reviews as long as the reviewer disclosed they received the product in exchange for the “unbiased” review. But let’s be honest, it was extremely rare to find an “incentivized” review that didn’t give a 5-star rating.
And those 5-star ratings catapulted the product high in search results, immediately increasing its visibility to Amazon shoppers.
Of course, that resulted in a sales boost that often made the investment into paid reviews the go-to strategy for sellers offering new products on the Amazon platform.
But there was a growing problem of trust in this review system.
How many shoppers actually read the reviews and only relied on the rating system to make a purchase decision.
And how many of these products were as good as the reviews seemed to indicate?
Amazon Bans Incentivized Reviews
In 2016, Amazon decided to ban the practice of “paid” reviews. In its announcement, the company said:
“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.”
This is corporate speak, we have a problem, and we must fix it because we are getting too many complaints. The company even sued sellers to try to combat fake reviews in 2016.
In fairness, Amazon did offer a method for buyers and sellers to report obvious fake reviews. But how many people actually bothered to do so?
A search of the history in the Amazon Seller Central community forums finds discussions going back many years where sellers are concerned about this practice.
Here is an interesting thread where a seller claims another seller’s reviews for male products are mostly from women.
Before 2016, Amazon did try to use improvements in text recognition technology to try to search out obvious suspicious reviews, but it just wasn’t that easy, and apparently didn’t do much to solve the problem.
Finally, a ban on incentivized reviews was the answer Amazon implemented in hopes to further stamp out the practice, but did it help?
Paid Reviews Go Underground
Before the ban, it was easy to spot an incentivized review.
The reviewer only had to mention they received the product in exchange for their opinion for free or at a discount. If a buyer actually read the reviews for a product they could decide how much they would trust them.
At least, if a buyer was savvy and willing to take the time, they could weigh the number of incentivized reviews into account before making a purchasing decision.
But that is no longer the case as the practice is officially forbidden and now it seems to spot incentivized reviews is even more difficult as the practice has gone underground.
Type “Amazon Review” in the Facebook search box and the results will show a long list of groups with tens of thousands of members willing and ready to review products in exchange for receiving the product at little or no cost.
There are even proposals for cash on top of the free product!
But let’s not just blame Facebook, postings seeking paid product reviews on Amazon can be found on Reddit (/r/slavelabour/), Upwork (search: ‘Amazon Review’ under Jobs), other outsourcing platforms, invite-only chat groups, forums, slack-channels, etc.
It is as widespread as ever if one is willing to do a little searching.
According to ReviewMeta, a company that rates reviews on Amazon, there has been a sharp decline in the trustworthiness of reviews in the middle of 2017 that correlates with an increase in the average product review rating during the same period.
In other words, the average review rating for all products on Amazon is up and ReviewMeta’s analysis of reviews seems to indicate an increase in “unnatural reviews.”
Even ReviewMeta admits they have no idea on the cause of this phenomenon and it’s virtually impossible to even guess how many reviews may be fake.
Only Amazon could provide informed statistics based on their deletion patterns and deep data analysis. Even that would be still an educated guess but at least would be based on the best available dataset.
Amazon and ReviewMeta and similar services generally rely on speech patterns to now identify potential fakes.
Speech pattern analysis may look for unusual word usage, phrase repetition across different reviews, and other indications that the reviewer is working from a template or keeps reusing similar wording to describe different products.
All common issues in fake reviews.
But as the job posting sample above shows, and others that can be found in Facebook groups and elsewhere, marketers are actively looking for better quality fake reviews.
They know the AI techniques used by Amazon will flag more reviews as suspicious if they continue to follow the same pattern of employing people to write reviews who rely too heavily on formatted texts.
Paying people to write reviews, especially US-based Prime Members, may eat into the quantity of reviews due to the higher cost associated with that practice, but should improve the quality of reviews and make them less detectable by Amazon.
If this trend continues, and there is no reason to doubt it won’t, this will make spotting fake reviews more difficult.
More Sellers – More Problems
In 2017, Amazon added over 300,000 new sellers to its platform. That is a lot of new sellers that want their products to show up high in search results.
READ MORE: Amazon Marketplace U.S. Grows by Over 300,000 Businesses
Right now, it looks like the Fake Reviews problem on Amazon is not going away anytime soon and may be getting worse.
Is it time for Amazon to tackle the problem from the buyer end?
The company could suspend the ability to leave reviews if they suspect a buyer is engaged in posting fake reviews. They could even go as far as shutting down buyer accounts for egregious violations of their community guidelines.
On the selling side, the company already requires more liberal return policies to protect consumers. In theory that makes it more expensive for a dubious seller to offer bad products using fake reviews.
Also, Amazon does have some product and categories that require pre-approval before a seller can list products, another process that helps protect buyers and probably reduces fake reviews.
But is it time that Amazon tightens up requirements for selling before the company will allow a seller on its platform?
Fake reviews are not just harmful to buyers, but they harm honest sellers that offer great customer support and good products. In the long-term it is in the best interest of Amazon to do more to fix this problem.
Have your listings on Amazon been affected by unscrupulous sellers that use fake reviews? Head over to our Facebook Discussion Group or use the comments section below.