Amazon Reviews: How Amazon Encourages its Own Black Market

Amazon Reviews: How Amazon Encourages its Own Black Market

After I reached a reviewer ranking of less than 80,000 I started getting emails from Amazon sellers asking me to review their products. From an algorithmic standpoint this makes complete sense: products with more (and better) reviews are more likely to be seen by other customers and the best way to advertise to potential customers is by utilizing a system already in place on the website. Sellers will offer cash or heavy discounts to entice people to review their products – some ask for “good” reviews, others just ask for reviews.

Awkwardly, this is completely against Amazon’s stated policy, but it wasn’t always. As recently as August of 2016 Amazon encouraged sellers to provide discounts as long as the reviewers stated that they had discounts on the products (i.e. a disclaimer on the review that said “By the way, my review is honest, but I got it at a discount”). Seeing those disclaimers on products is what made me interested in this challenge: “Wait, I can get free products? Yes. Absolutely.”

Then Amazon Blind-sided their own Reviewers

When I started paying attention to these statistics a couple months ago, I ran across a discussion board in which a frustrated Amazon Reviewer had found that all of her reviews with these disclaimers had been removed (thus hurting her reviewer ranking) and she’d been banned from reviewing products. Over the subsequent months, based on the discussion boards, it seemed that Amazon went on a spree of removing reviews with these words in it (they use an algorithm to initially approve/reject reviews) and also penalized users who wrote reviews and also got major discounts on the products – Amazon can easily track coupon codes. This was done largely without informing Amazon reviewers that this was happening so a lot of people who’d been happily reviewing products and putting disclaimers on them were now in the dark.

Amazon has since officially changed their policy, but “official” doesn’t mean straightforward. This part of the policy implies that as long as you aren’t trying to manipulate the reviews or promising future benefits, you can provide discounts to customers:

Although products may be provided to customers for free or at a discount, and those customers may write reviews, any attempt to influence or manipulate reviews is prohibited, including conditioning any future benefit on writing a review or the content of the review. Benefits include but are not limited to: future opportunities to receive free or discounted products, continued membership in a program or club, cash rebates or gift certificates, entry into contests or sweepstakes, bonus digital content or credits, and ratings or referrals that may affect the recipient’s chances of receiving other benefits.

On the same page, this part implies that you can’t write reviews on products in exchange for any type of benefit:

To help illustrate, here are a few examples of reviews that we don’t allow:

  • A customer posts a review in exchange for cash, a free or discounted product, a gift certificate, or a discount off a future purchase provided by a third party

Good Intentions, Terrible Execution

Do I agree with Amazon’s roll out of their policy? No, not at all. As a programmer I understand that Amazon is trying to prevent ranking manipulation: a system where reviewers are paid for good reviews (4-5 stars) and may prevent honest reviews from rising to the surface. They’re trying to prevent consumers from thinking that ads are honest reviews. That’s fair, understandable, and also adheres to the Federal Trade Commissions standards for product reviews, but as a consumer who enjoys buying things on Amazon, it’s hard for me to be willing to buy a product with no reviews at all (or suspicious reviews). I would much, much rather have a person post a review with pictures and some honest feedback with a disclaimer on it. I don’t see any harm in companies trying to increase their product’s presence by getting reviews on it as long as they’re honest reviews.

What’s resulted is a weird mixture of people who don’t know/care about the new policies and people who are working around it. Some product reviewer groups still offer extreme discount codes (up to 99%) and I consider this dangerous to potential product reviewers who aren’t aware of the new changes and are attracted to inexpensive/free products. These reviewer groups are bound to get a lot of innocent people in trouble with Amazon and I would steer clear of them.

The Black Market

On the other hand, you have the Black Market of Amazon Reviews which has developed. These are sellers who seem to be aware of the “No Benefits for Reviews” policy and steer clear of Amazon by offering Paypal payments instead of discounts. There are a couple advantages to this for the seller:

  • Amazon can’t track these interactions (done via email and Paypal)
  • The reviewer is actually buying the product: a “verified purchase”
  • Because of Amazon’s algorithmic system to remove reviews that admit it’s a paid review, it discourages reviewers from being honest about their involvement

The mind-boggling part of this black market is how much trust is involved in these interactions: a seller pays the potential reviewer before the order even takes place, so theoretically a reviewer could walk away with the cash and the seller wouldn’t be able to do anything about it besides not use them in the future or tell their colleagues. Additionally, it isolates the reviewer and they have to decide for themselves if they feel like it’s an ethical deal or whether the company is trying to influence them.

In my opinion, it seems like this is precisely the opposite of what Amazon should want, but it’s where the future of customer reviews is heading. Instead of eliminating paid reviews, the paid reviews are becoming increasingly camouflaged and impossible to track by Amazon.

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