Amazon Reviews: The Evolving Psychology of Black Market Reviews

Amazon Reviews: The Evolving Psychology of Black Market Reviews
Amazon Ranking: #10,872

A little over 6 months ago I wrote about how Amazon started accidentally encouraging a black market to develop around its reviewing community by making it clear that reviews that involve free or discounted merchandise are prohibited (these are often the perks that drive people to review in the first place).

Initially, Amazon got rid of paid-for reviews by removing ones with certain keywords and ones bought with extreme discounts. At the time, sellers got around this policy by directly emailing reviewers and offering reimbursements in the form of Paypal so that customers could buy the products from their own accounts. Some sellers also directly sent merchandise, bypassing their involvement altogether in the online merchandise and leaving reviewers with a shifty, “I got this as a gift from my mom,” excuse for not being a verified customer.

In the past 6 months, Amazon’s algorithm for identifying black market reviews has gotten a lot more complex.

Cue: Seller’s Paranoia

I became aware of it first from a seller that contacted me in September (it’s a brand I’ve worked with before that specifically contacts me because they like my photography). My sales rep gave me some oddly specific instructions whereas before she would just provide a link.

“Use these words, find the dress on the 4th page, compare it with other dresses, look at it for a while, then buy it” – it sounded like instructions to unlock some sort of treasure. When I asked her what had been going on her response was:

I’m not sure how they found the accounts, but amazon has a system to detect some unusual accounts.So we do reviews more careful recently.

This was the first of many similar interactions to follow. Sellers began giving these oddly specific keywords and directions; they would refuse to send any identifying information so it became a “hunt” for the products rather than the quick click and purchase. Sometimes they’d even request that you’d ask questions or make comments on the product to make it a more “organic” experience.

Sellers want Reviewers that Don’t Review

Recently this paranoia has evolved into sellers only wanting to work with people with a handful of reviews per month (they’ll preface these requests with “Must have less than 20/10 reviews in the past 30 days” – some are less up front about the requirements because these limits can make reviewers more selective (i.e. “If I can only review 10 things a month, I want them to be good things”).

This is a double edged sword since to be considered a top reviewer you have to, well, review things. Those reviewers at the top of the list have reviewed hundreds or thousands of products. This is great for newbie reviewers who are just getting their feet wet and don’t have many reviews, but is a roadblock for those of us whose goal is to beat the system and not just get free merchandise.

Is the paranoia warranted?

No. Definitely not. From a technical perspective there are a few things that could be happening and none of them involve Amazon spying on you.

One seller mentioned that they thought Amazon was using cookies to track links and take down reviews – and this is the closest reasonable explanation I’ve heard thus far, but I have a better one.

Most people don’t look at URLs, but they provide a lot of information. This is the entire basis for Amazon’s affiliate program: you give people a link to a product and Amazon gives you credit for bringing people to the website to buy things. They do this for everyone, not just affiliates, which is how they figure out who’s looking at things when and where.

Let’s say I’m a totally normal Amazon user and I want to share a cute sweater that I’ve found online.

The link that I see looks like this: http://a.co/5GldtkG. This is a shortened link that is interpreted by the browser and expands to a longer link (you can shorten any link at bitly.com).

When I plug that short link into my browser it results in this: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076JG8RPG/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_ep_dp_nSvtAbPK4C37W

Anatomy of  URL

URLs contain a lot more information than you’d think. Generally they break down into:

  1. Domain name/Server access point
  2. File path
  3. Queries

The domain name is what points your computer to the correct place on the internet. In this case the domain is “amazon.com”. You can go to amazon.com and start shopping right away without anything else.

The file path delves deeper into the website similar to the way your file system works on your computer. In this case the file path is “/dp/B076JG8RPG” – think of “dp” as standing for “Direct Product” or another acronym. “B076JG8RPG” is an identifier for the specific product. If I go directly to https://www.amazon.com/dp/ I get an error page that let’s me see the dogs of amazon, but if I go to https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076JG8RPG it takes me to the product I want.

The queries are URL specific information (sometimes it’s product specific information but more often it’s related to your specific visit) and are at the end of the URL. You can put product specific information and use it like a query (like with the product ID) but generally the queries at the end of the URL are optional. In this case “ref=cm_sw_r_cp_ep_dp_nSvtAbPK4C37W” is the query parameter. What it looks like is a reference id (the ID being cm_sw_r_cp_ep_dp_nSvtAbPK4C37W). It looks like gibberish to me, but it definitely means something in Amazon’s system. It might be connecting people (i.e. “Johna sends stuff to her mom”) or it might be about how someone gets to the page (i.e. “This was shared from a desktop computer”). If the sharing is successful and the person buys the product Amazon definitely wants to use that data to figure out how to get people to buy more products.

Why Does the URL Matter?

If a seller shares a link with a reference ID to a reviewer that buys it, then that seller becomes directly linked to a person who’s purchased their own product. That’s easy to flag and easy for Amazon to review later on. It’s one thing to advertise your own products, but it’s super suspicious if every single person you send a link to also reviews it.

Honestly sellers could probably get around this by sending out simple links: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076JG8RPG instead of making reviewers jump through complex hoops to “find” their products.

Could there be other factors at play?

Absolutely. Amazon might flag reviewers that only have 5 star reviews, always review things as soon as they get them, get dozens of products from the same company (but that could also be seen as product loyalty), or they might flag products that have very short 5 star reviews attached to them.

As a technologist who looks at patterns, the only thing that seems like a concrete solution is that reference link. If people are buying from a seller’s own reference link then that’s an easy flag for the system to hook onto. Saying “This person has reviewed x amount of items in the past 30 days” is not a catch-all when you have over seven million customers.

How will this change my reviewing strategy?

I’m still happy to work with sellers, but quite frankly hunting and searching for products is a pain. I already purchase things regularly on Amazon and I’d rather review those items to improve my ranking rather than struggle through conversations with sellers that have set arbitrary limits.

TL;DR

Amazon has upped it’s game when it comes to targeting reviewers and sellers that are working together. The sellers have caught on but haven’t quite figured out what’s going on and they’ve started creating oddly specific requirements for reviewers. I personally think that Amazon is tracking sellers through the URL’s they provide, nothing more and nothing less, and the new strategy that sellers have made up is pretty exhausting. I’m really hoping they find a different system sooner rather than later.

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