As you know, comments on an Amazon page can make or break a product. That’s why the company says that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate because they are written by real shoppers who aren’t paid for them.
But a Washington Post examination by Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg found a majority of reviews in certain categories with certain characteristics such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in. In other words, fake reviews.
Amazingly enough, many of these fraudulent reviews originate on Facebook, where sellers seek shoppers on dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group. Shoppers are asked to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation.
The Law Of Unintended Consequences
As I’ve been reporting (Amazon Steps Up Its Antifraud Efforts, and Amazon Rewrites Review Policy), Amazon has banned paying for reviews because consumers distrust paid reviews. Every once in a while, Amazon purges shoppers who break its policies. But the ban merely pushed an activity that used to take place openly into the underground.
There, an economy of paid reviews has flourished. Merchants pledge to drop reimbursements into a reviewer’s PayPal account within minutes of posting comments for items on Amazon, often sweetening the deal with a $5 commission or a $10 Amazon gift card. Prodded by The Washington Post, Facebook deleted more than a dozen such groups this month alone and Amazon kicked Atgoin, a five-star seller, off its site.
These days it is very hard to sell anything on Amazon if you play fairly. If you want your product to be competitive, you have to somehow manufacture reviews.
A Devastating Practice
Sellers say the flood of inauthentic reviews makes it harder for them to compete legitimately. “It’s devastating, devastating,” said the owner of a baby-products company. He said his product rankings have plummeted in the past year and a half, attributing it to competitors using paid reviews. “We just can’t keep up.” And customers are no less angry. An Amazon Prime customer says he no longer trusts five-star reviews. He sees them as a marker of likely fraud rather than excellence.
Suspicious or fraudulent reviews are crowding out authentic ones in some categories. ReviewMeta is a company which examines red flags, such as an unusually large number of reviews that spike over a short period of time or “sock puppet” reviewers who appear to have cut and pasted stock language.
For example, of the almost 50,000 total reviews for the first 10 products listed in an Amazon search for “bluetooth speakers,” two-thirds were problematic, based on calculations using the ReviewMeta tool.
Amazon aggressively polices its platform for incentivized reviews and has filed five lawsuits since 2015 against people who write paid reviews and companies that solicit them:
“We know that millions of customers make informed buying decisions everyday using Customer Reviews. We take this responsibility very seriously and defend the integrity of reviews by taking aggressive action to protect customers from dishonest parties who are abusing the reviews system. . . . We take forceful action against both reviewers and sellers by suppressing reviews that violate our guidelines and suspend, ban or pursue legal action against these bad actors.”
Facebook vs. Amazon
Problems with the authenticity of Amazon reviews come at a moment of broad public concern over the accuracy of information on online platforms. The spread of Russian disinformation and hoaxes on YouTube and Facebook has raised questions about the role of technology platforms in displaying and amplifying falsehoods, contributing to a feeling of distrust and social division.
Against this climate, a Facebook spokeswoman said:
“We are committed to increasing the good and minimizing the bad across Facebook. . . . There are many legitimate groups on Facebook related to online commerce, but the groups identified misuse our platform.”
Sellers say that Amazon’s position as the top e-commerce destination has spawned a race to master — and game — the company’s systems. More than half of all online product searches start on Amazon. Landing among the first 10 results on an Amazon search can drive an explosion in sales.
To combat fake reviews, Amazon uses artificial intelligence to analyze “hundreds of thousands” of customers who have been banned from leaving reviews and uses the data collected to build computer models of their behavior to predict future techniques.
For two decades, Amazon permitted incentivized reviews, as long as reviewers disclosed that they had received a free or discounted product. But it began cracking down on the practice in 2015, acknowledging its struggles to control it.
“Despite substantial efforts to stamp out the practice,” company lawyers wrote in a lawsuit, “an unhealthy ecosystem is developing outside of Amazon to supply inauthentic reviews.”
The Atgoin Effect
Atgoin, an electronics company based in Shenzen, China, was one such company that leapfrogged to the top of Amazon rankings. In November, its $30 headphones had just a handful of reviews. Then, over a five-day period in December, the product received nearly 300 reviews, almost all of which gave five stars.
ReviewMeta found that more than 90 percent of all the reviews for the Atgoin headphones were suspicious. Many featured repeat phrases, such as “I’ll be using this for my gym workout going forward” and “comfortable to wear.” By early February, the Atgoin headphones, which had 927 reviews, appeared at the top in non-sponsored search results.
It is unclear how Atgoin, which has now been removed as an Amazon seller, obtained the flood of positive reviews. But in February, there were nearly 100 Facebook groups, split up by geographic region and by product categories, in which Amazon merchants actively solicited consumers to write paid reviews. One such group had over 50,000 Facebook members until Facebook deleted it. There are also Reddit boards and YouTube tutorials that coach people on how to write reviews. Websites with names such as Slickdeals and JumpSend let merchants give out discounted products, using a loophole to get around Amazon’s ban.
Renee DiResta is policy lead for the nonprofit Data for Democracy, a group of technology researchers dedicated to promoting integrity online. She has conducted research on paid Amazon reviews by joining some of the Facebook groups. Her first act was to write “interested” next to a post describing a pair of Bluetooth headphones for $35.99. Almost immediately, a Facebook user called Li sent her a direct message, calling her “dear” and asking for a link to her Amazon profile. If she reviewed the headphones, Li said, he would reimburse her via her PayPal account.
Within an hour of getting this message, DiResta got a slew of direct messages from other sellers, asking her to review tea lights, containers, shower caddies, badge holders, sanding discs, rain ponchos, pocket-size vanity mirrors, and butterfly knives. The messages came in so quickly, she barely had time to respond.
DiResta spent three months monitoring the groups. She observed the sellers using tactics to avoid detection by Amazon, such as focusing on reviewers who have a long history of writing Amazon reviews. The sellers even asked her for screen images showing when she started her profile.
DiResta found that many of the Facebook accounts had no friends on the social network. Their only Facebook posts were about cheap products, and their profile pictures included stock photos. A reverse image search on Li’s profile photo (a man on a beach) revealed a stock photo called “seaside man” that appeared on various Chinese-language lifestyle websites.
“Fascinating” (Mr. Spock). And it’s not only Amazon. My first book had a five-star review on another sales site, but the comments had grammatical errors (gasp!) and I was listed as the reviewer!
Lol-that’s so funny 😀
Thanks for this depressing but important news, Nicholas. lol It’s good to know what’s going on in places we shop and/or have our author accounts.
Another day, another scam 🙂
Super post, Nicholas. Thanks
Thank you so much, John. How did it go last month?
I’ll send a report today
The ‘wild west’ of the interwebz days are starting to show their darker side to the masses … about time too. Maybe some people will wake up, maybe. 🙂
Everything has an underbelly, I guess 🙂
It’s amazing. One way to get around it is for Amazon to only allow reviews for items directly purchased by the reviewer. But when other sites like Facebook are swamped with reviews, there’s little Amazon can do to control it. Facebook is taking a lot of heat lately as a festering swamp of unethical activity.
Heh, heh, heh …’festering swamp’ … love it! 😀
As I was just saying, it’s such a loaded word nowadays!
Ooh, swamp is such a loaded word these days 😀
Isn’t it! We are mired in it over here. 🙂
Thanks for keeping me informed, Nicholas.
So good to hear from you, Elle! Hope you’re well 🙂
Wow. Shame on them. Unfortunately, authors get swept up in this type of scam. We’ve all known authors who’ve had legitimate reviews removed for whatever reason. It’s all so disheartening.
That does happen quite often. I must have at least one third of reviews of my books removed and I don’t even know why. I’ve never paid for reviews and none of my “real-life” friends (not the wonderful people who frequent this blog) seem to either read my books or bother reviewing them, so it’s just plain silly.
I agree with the comment recently published by Sue Colletta Writer ( the awesome author like many others who have social media pages to reach readers) and the one submitted by Nicholas C. Rossis (the writer who compiles this blog). I often visit book-reviewing websites and ones related to magazines that I contribute my opinions to by submitting comments in discussion threads like these features on this page and send comments and messages to book related websites and submit comments as part of forum discussions on book related webistes like them connected to magazines centred on the field. I also participate in reader’s groups and author pages that are run by authors on various websites that are similar kinds of communities such as social media and blogs that allow users that follow them to publish reviews for their books in exhcange for submitting votes in a special competion that is focussed on readers and solicited by authors that allows the book to have success according to how many reviews there are. These are genuine reviews as it is readers that are publishing them and the writers and publishers that are offerring it are not being paid to print reviews of there own because they are supported by advertising copy.
Amazon seems to disagree with you on occasion. It seems to treat reviews by online friends as suspect as those by “real-world” friends 🙂
I find the whole culture depressing, Nick. I often count on reviews for online shopping, be it for books or other products… but I count on content, not the number of stars. You can usually spot a fake review in the first sentence, not least because it doesn’t actually give you any solid reason why the reviewer liked the product. I haven’t trusted 5 star reviews either for the last 5 years or so because in the majority I find them meaningless. But it’s worth mentioning too that some of the autobot tools used by Amazon and others to supposedly spot fake reviews are identifying a worryingly large number of real reviews as fake, too. David Gaughran had a good piece last week on this.
Sounds like a great post for your blog. And yes, David is always ranting about it. He can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s more upset about Amazon doing too little or too much 😀
That might well be the case, but autobots are never the solution! They might be handy for spam, but that’s about it. Whether the fault is in the programming or the execution is up for debate, but either way I agree that they’re not working when it comes to reviews.
Just because we get a free book doesn’t mean that we are “being paid” for our reviews. I have seen some of my posts disappear off Amazon and it really upsets me. Like you said, 99% are real, so let it be, a free ebook is NOT being paid.
I agree; it’s mostly non-authors who run this kind of scam. I’m sure that Amazon is aware of this.
This just made the national news on the BBC here. The knock-on effect is bad for authors and small manufacturers. If most people start to discredit 5-star reviews, many excellent books and products will be victimised. I review a lot of stuff on Amazon, and I am on the Vine Review Panel, as you know. This means that many of my reviews contain repeated phrases and terms, such as ‘Brand leader’, ‘Oozes quality’, or ‘Feels like a premium product’.
At the end of the day, there are only so many superlatives and descriptions suitable for relatively short reviews, and those analyzing such comments should be aware of the limitations of the system.
Best wishes, Pete.
Ooh, I now wonder if the BBC is reading my blog 😀
Thank you, Pete. I’m always grateful when you share your reviewing experience.