Amazon Reviews are Fake and Third Party Sellers are to Blame

If you liked that click-bait title then you may be part of the problem. Let me explain. First, sorry for the misleading headline but this article is NOT in support of the current narrative that Amazon sellers have some huge black hat review ring and any merchant that violates even the slightest of TOS is a nefarious scamster.

Whether you’re an Amazon buyer or seller, if you’ve been following the review drama in the news then you saw the tides of change come with a scathing video put out by a group called “Review Meta.” The self-proclaimed “data scientist” group put together an analysis of over 7 million Amazon reviews and determined that reviews given in exchange for free or discounted product were heavily skewed toward positive.

The video went viral and two weeks later Amazon banned “incentivized” reviews from its platform. Amazon defines incentivization as the offer of product for free or at a discount in explicit exchange for a product review.

Most people saw this change as positive for both the review community on the Amazon platform as well as for sellers. The problem was, the media continued to latch onto this hot topic in an effort to milk it for all of the views and ratings possible, which no doubt caused Amazon to attempt to refine its approach. Amazon ended up with a bastardized review community protection scheme in place that has made growth on the platform difficult for some.

But I digress.

…there isn’t any evil scheme. No one is trying to defraud anyone. Feedback in all forms, positive and negative is welcome.

The Aftermath

Shortly after what was affectionately dubbed by some Amazon merchants as “Reviewmageddon,” it appeared the only people these new efforts were thwarting from getting reviews were honest sellers. With the closing of a perfectly legitimate way to get feedback for a product, the only gaping holes left were in the ways people cheat the system.

And so enterprising “journalists” as well as our favorite group of ambitious “data scientists” continued to throw fuel on the fire with articles such as “Amazon’s Fake Review Problem Is Now Worse Than Ever, Study Suggests” featured on Forbes.com.

In the wake of this, Amazon saw that just banning incentivization wasn’t enough. So, in the shadows, it continued to tweak its formula. First, all reviews from discounted purchases were tagged as “unverified.” Then, reviewer accounts were wiped out entirely. Many innocent Amazon shoppers got caught in the mess and lost their review history and ability to review in the future.

The final “nail in the coffin,” so to speak, was when Amazon created a threshold where now even discounted purchases at a certain deep discount level are not permitted to be reviewed at all; unverified or otherwise.

But, how are these changes bad?

Excellent question and I’m glad you asked. It’s because Amazon has left precious few (if any) options for new sellers to gain much needed reviews to stand a chance competing on the marketplace. Combine these restrictions with the ability for buyers to opt out of receiving messages from sellers and all avenues to review seem to be barricaded in some way. Meanwhile large brands continue to dominate because they never have any issues at all garnering reviews (incentivized and not). And none of that is to even mention the ease with which black hatters get away with cheating the system.

Why Are Reviews Important Anyway?

First, it is necessary to understand that reviews ARE important to any online business. In today’s technological age, social proof is the driving factor for online growth. Analysis regularly proves this, with stats showing that 92% of consumers today read online reviews. And 80% of consumers trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.

A whopping 97% of consumers claim reviews influence their purchase decision and up to 92% claim to hesitate to make a purchase if a product or business has no reviews at all.

The importance of social proof cannot be overstated.

Now, the Amazon platform is a double edged sword. On the plus side, it only takes about 21 reviews to influence an Amazon shopper to buy. However, only about 5 to 10% of consumers even take the time to leave a review.

In fact, shoppers are typically much more likely to leave a negative review if they leave one at all. And it makes sense. If nothing went wrong, then the transaction went exactly as expected. People buy a product EXPECTING it to work. The idea of praising it just for doing what it was supposed to do likely seems a bit unnecessary to many.

The problem this poses for Amazon merchants is that Amazon does NOTHING to incentivize or otherwise persuade buyers to leave product reviews.

The Current Situation for Brand Owners on Amazon

As a private label brand owner and seller, I’d like to now share the results of every effort I’ve attempted to make to grow three new products over the past few months.

Here is a snapshot of sales > follow up emails sent > reviews left over the course of the past two months (from March 1 to May 1). I currently send out a one email sequence with a thank you video and a request for product feedback.

As you can see, due to email opt-out many emails aren’t even getting sent (almost half). Of the ones left, open rates aren’t HORRIBLE at almost 30%. The real pain point, however, is the 10% review conversion rate. This represents only 2.7% of all emails sent out to buyers and less than 2% of all products sold.

Now, I am aware that I can increase this number with better images and copy in my email follow up sequence. The point of this exercise isn’t to look at ways to optimize my review requests. It is to illustrate the missed opportunity with all of the opt-outs and unopened messages.

And these missed opportunities aren’t just mine. I am certain there are MANY sellers suffering the same problems. Many new products suffering from only receiving 10 reviews in two months! Meanwhile, the larger brands that we compete with on the platform have systems, marketing dollars, rewards programs, social media outreach and even incentivization (untraceable to Amazon) that keeps a steady flow of reviews.

Please make no mistake. I am not saying they shouldn’t have those things. I am not suggesting Amazon do anything to stop them. I am saying that it would be nice if Amazon wasn’t so busy hindering US smaller brands.

But again, I digress.

The Washington Post Article and the Current Problem

All of this brings us to the most recent of scintillating pieces of “journalism” on the topic of Amazon reviews, published by none other than the Washington Post. In their article “How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews” the authors team up with the likes of Review Meta again to expose the continuing nefarious activities of bad actors on Amazon’s platform.

By now, based on the quotation marks I’ve used alone, you can see the sarcasm dripping from each statement I have made about these articles and their contributors. And here’s why:

“…the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews”

This article, which was also made into a news segment, draws no distinction between a paid review and an incentivized review. By that logic, there is no difference between a seller who gave their neighbor a product and asked for their feedback on it, and a seller who paid a stranger $50 to leave a review.

“These days it is very hard to sell anything on Amazon if you play fairly,”

I completely agree with this sentiment. However, there is a problem with the way these “journalists” and “data scientists” define playing fairly.

“…an Amazon Prime customer who no longer trusts five-star reviews. He sees them as a marker of likely fraud rather than excellence.”

Here again, the idea is being planted that 5-star reviews procured in any way against Amazon’s TOS may be FRAUD!

“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 climate of distrust and social division.”

A parallel is being drawn between agents attempting to manipulate political elections and Amazon reviews.

“Amazon rankings are the new “battlefield” for online manipulation”

This quote was also referred to from a person who attempted to infiltrate the dark and seedy underground of “paid reviews.” Again, product in exchange for review is being referred to as “paid.”

“Merchants seeking to defraud Amazon have flocked to Facebook in particular…”

Now, essentially, anyone who has attempted to use a Facebook review group is trying to defraud Amazon.

Here’s where I take issue. The fact is, YES, there is fraud, bad actors, and otherwise nefarious sellers taking advantage of buyers and the Amazon platform. However, the vast majority are small brand owners just trying to GET REVIEWS!

These articles lumping everyone that does anything against Amazon TOS together with law-breakers and cheaters is not pressuring Amazon to do anything positive for our cause.

The truth is, it would appear evident that media attention and articles like these that go viral do sway Amazon’s policy decisions. Yet, as news outlets seeking views and complicit sellers continue to spur the media with reporting like this, Amazon continues to clamp down on what it thinks the public wants. These clamping efforts are NOT making the review platform a more secure and trustworthy place, and worst of all they are making it increasingly difficult for aspiring brands to grow.

Now I know a lot of people will have a problem with those statements. They’ll say “but these activities ARE against the rules and you should follow the rules.”

I don’t disagree, but many of us have found ourselves in a bad spot. With great quality products, competitively priced and amazing customer support channels in place. But, not able to get ahead because despite all that, reviews just don’t come in.

Out of desperation, many of us have joined a review group on Facebook. Many of us have sent PM’s to people asking if they’d be willing to leave their HONEST feedback on a product. Many have offered a refund for said product as extra incentive to take the desired action.

All in an effort to just get some of that coveted social proof.

The importance of social proof cannot be overstated.

In these instances there isn’t any evil scheme. No one is trying to defraud anyone. Feedback in all forms, positive and negative is welcome. The only goal is to get the social proof. To show that real people HAVE obtained the product. They HAVE tested it. They HAVE put together their thoughts on it.

And, according to research already shown, that starts the “engine” that gets the sales cycle moving and gives the product a fair chance to survive on a platform dominated by major players.

A Seller’s Plea

So, on behalf of many third party sellers and brand owners, I’d like to make my own appeal to Amazon.

First, if you want to improve the review community, start taking action to actually target bad actors. Rather than sweeping bans that wash away legitimate reviews, reviewers and sellers in the current, target real black-hat activities such as bots and scripts, fake accounts, etc.

Next, give smaller sellers a chance. Currently all roads to review have obstacles that are extremely hard to surmount without loads of cash. If you insist on gating reviews from anyone and everyone that has ever known someone possibly connected to a seller, or from anyone that has not purchased the product at full price, then offer a better review program. The Early Reviewer Program that gives buyers up to 12 months to leave no more than 5 reviews is simply not enough. This is a half-measure (or even a quarter-measure at best). Competing against large multi-national conglomerates, this program simply doesn’t move the needle.

And the Vine Program is an elite club only offered to larger vendors anyway. But even when offered to “regular” brand owners, it is so prohibitively expensive it isn’t an option for many. These are not real options for the vast majority of third party sellers on the platform.

How about you try harder? Try to actually give sellers an avenue allowed by your many rules to get HONEST FEEDBACK on their products. Give sellers the ability to get a decent, competitive amount of that feedback early on in the creation and launch of a new listing so as to give it a fighting chance.
Your platform is really intelligent. It already knows how to distinguish between real traffic and searches, real purchases, etc. The ranking algorithm is smart enough to let bad products die and good ones thrive. The only outlier to this system is consumer behavior. Why not show some love to the smaller sellers and give budding brands a fair shake by helping things along?

At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of third party sellers who sell their own brand of product on Amazon isn’t interested in cheating anyone (I say this without definite statistical evidence but with great confidence). They….WE….just want a fair chance to show consumers what we have to offer. And early social proof = visibility, which = more opportunities to meet and exceed customer expectations, which = growth, profit, and scaling.

By | 2018-05-07T15:57:04+00:00 May 7th, 2018|Brand Building, Case Studies, General, Mythbuster, Reviews|

About the Author:

Anthony Lee is the COO of SixLeaf, a brand owner, an author and a perpetual student of the ecommerce industry. His entire career with SixLeaf (and ZonBlast before that) has been spent analyzing and picking apart marketplace data. That is because Anthony believes that with enough data, any process can be systematized. And a systematic approach to launching, ranking and making sales can help anyone be profitable online.
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