Can we trust Amazon Customer Reviews?

Are coupon clubs clouding the truth?

by Mark Hodgkinson Mar 16, 2016 at 4:46 PM

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    Can we trust Amazon Customer Reviews?
    Unless you’ve been living in a bubble for the last few years, the chances are you’ve shopped on Amazon, at some point.
    Moreover, if you’re the sort who likes to research your product purchases – as we’re sure most AVForums readers do – you will likely have taken the time to read some customer reviews of your intended buys. Whilst professional reviews are all well and good, and we say this advisedly as that’s part of our own remit, we fully endorse the idea that there’s no substitute for customer feedback when it comes to ‘real world’ experiences of a product. In fact, we would argue that part of Amazon’s success has been built on their provision of a customer network with feedback on vendors and products, alike, readily available for all to see.

    But what if some of those reviews weren’t based on any experience of the product, at all? This would surely erode some of the trust you would place in them, right? Amazon is certainly aware that this would be the case and took legal action, themselves, against over a thousand people who they claimed were, “misleading Amazon's customers," by selling "fake reviews of products," toward the end of 2015.

    The targets of the lawsuit were account holders on – a website which acts as a marketplace for ‘odd jobs,’ where what they refer to as ‘gigs’ were sold for $5 and up. According to the court filing: "In at least one instance, the seller of a 'Verified Review' was willing to receive an empty envelope, not the product itself, simply to create a shipping record," and thus make it an Amazon Verified Purchase. Whilst that particular form of shady practice is likely very rare, it does call in to question what constitutes an Amazon Verified Purchase – we’ll call them AVP from here on in – and how vendors and customers could circumvent Amazon’s fake review detection systems.

    To begin with, let’s take a look at how Amazon judges what an AVP is. According to the following criterion has to be met:

    When a product review is marked "Amazon Verified Purchase", it means that the customer who wrote the review purchased the item at Customers can add this label to their review only if we can verify that the item being reviewed was purchased at Customers reading an Amazon Verified Purchase review can use this information to help them to decide which reviews are most helpful in their purchasing decisions.”

    Furthermore, upon completion of a user review, according to Amazon, you should be presented with a tick-box to mark your review as an AVP; if the tickbox doesn't appear, according to the blurb, Amazon weren’t able to verify that you purchased the item from them.

    This all sounds well and good but on perusing the Amazon Sellers Forums we were provided with some illumination on how the system might be negated and it all hinges on discount coupons. At some time during 2015 – it’s not clear exactly when - Amazon decided to allow customers who had used coupon codes for purchases to submit verified reviews, thus opening the doors for less scrupulous merchants to potentially provide heavily discounted/free items to customers in exchange for positive feedback.

    A simple web search on ‘Amazon Coupon Clubs,’ brings up a multitude of websites that all promise pretty much the same thing – free or nearly free goods from Amazon in exchange for product reviews, see the example below:

    On the face of it, there would seem nothing too much wrong with these clubs – and we can see why people would be attracted to them - but, in fact, it is expressly against Amazon’s terms and conditions to submit a review on anything you’ve received for free from a vendor without declaring that is the case; in reality, there is virtually nothing to stop you doing so, bar that tickbox.

    We were first alerted to the possibility of AVP reviews not necessarily being all they seemed by an AVForums member who pointed us in the direction of a particular Amazon customer profile who had a somewhat remarkable purchase history in December 2015.

    On the 6th December 2015, alone, said customer submitted more than 900 product reviews on a very diverse range of goods with exactly the same text in each – “Excellent product, totally recommend to everyone looking for a finest product.” Even ignoring the poor grammar, we think this looks like extremely suspicious activity, compounded by the fact the same customer has another 1,000, or so, identical in content and all with 5 star ratings.

    Could somebody have purchased nearly 2,000 items from Amazon in the space of less than a fortnight and then submitted reviews for each? Yes, but surely it’s highly unlikely and the fact Amazon removed hundreds of reviews submitted by the same customer on the 5th December 2015 indicates that the retailer feels the same way. We would also have to question whether all those products were physically sent out and received, rather than the customer using coupon codes supplied by the retailer, in exchange for monetary payment rather than goods. It’s also an awful lot of reviews to be submitted for a normal human being which would then also bring in to question whether this might be some automated, bot-style campaign.

    So why would a retailer resort to such tactics? Well, if indeed such practices are going on, the answer to that would seem to be fairly straightforward. The Amazon marketplace is an extremely competitive one and customer reviews – especially positive ones – are clearly a highly desirable commodity when less than 1% of customers bother doing so after a purchase; if a retailer sees one of their competitors doing it, or at least suspects they are, we can understand why they would do so themselves regardless of the morals involved.

    To be clear, we aren’t saying fake customer reviews are a huge problem on Amazon but there is no doubt they exist and perhaps Amazon could do more to stop them by at least disallowing reviews for purchases made on discount codes and coupons.

    UPDATE 17/03/16: We reached out to Amazon for comment and they stated: "Our goal is to make reviews as useful as possible for customers. We use a number of mechanisms to detect and remove the small fraction of reviews that violate our guidelines, and we terminate accounts. We've recently filed lawsuits against a number of individuals and businesses who were abusing the system,but the question of whether they could be doing a little more remains.

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