NPR.org has published an article and an audio segment that’s been making the rounds about the fake review problem on Amazon.com. Amazon has been making a number of changes to the ways in which reviews appear, whether or not customers are permitted to leave unverified reviews on products, and more.
There have been broad discussions of the article on social media and on popular tech news aggregators like Hacker News.
Sellers are under pressure to push the limits on product reviews
Sellers, brands, and sellers who own their own brands are caught in a difficult position as it relates to this review issue. Amazon has wavered repeatedly on the issue of incentivized reviews and how it goes about enforcing its rules against people who abuse the system. The company has also filed multiple lawsuits against defendants who have operated businesses advertising reviews for sale.
Amazon has also shuttered hundreds of private Facebook review groups. However, a cursory search of Facebook groups finds many such groups with massive discussion volume. Here’s an anonymized example of how highly trafficked some of these groups can be:
Given that so many shoppers put so much weight on a 4.5 star review average on Amazon, sellers in competitive niches find themselves pressured to push the limits. They often notice that competitors who may or may not be offering a better product wind up beating them in the sales rankings because of the use of illicit techniques such as hiring reviewers, providing top reviewers with discount codes in return for a positive review, and bombing competitor listings with negative reviews containing language that can trigger product and account suspensions.
Review schemes can create serious risks
Participating in these kinds of review schemes can pose serious risks beyond the danger of account suspension. It can also be a risk to the reputation of the brands involved and can put your business in danger of being sued. Further, when Amazon sues these kinds of review businesses, during the discovery phase of the lawsuit, the fake review purveyor is generally required to hand over their book of business to Amazon. Amazon can then decide to use that book to take action against the brands in question.
Amazon can also subpoena individual reviewers in the course of their lawsuits against them to get the seller information. Many of the expectations you might have of confidentiality from payment processors and other similar intermediaries can go up in smoke as Amazon traces the links between individual review writers, fake review business intermediaries, and the brands or agents of those brands who are commissioning those reviews.
Another point to keep in mind is that any legal action that Amazon takes against fake reviews will be viewed by the general public as a good thing regardless of the details of the case involved and the difficult position that ecommerce sellers find themselves in when all of their competitors are using illicit review building strategies. The typical goodwill a small business would have by virtue of defending against one of the biggest companies in the world evaporates when shoppers feel that they have been deceived.
This is a much larger issue that we will continue to write about in the future.