Amazon’s efforts to clean up product reviews have sent the problem underground. Fake reviews are still around, but are harder to detect.
This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team and founder of ecommerceChris.com.
Amazon has had a fake review problem for a long time. Up until late 2016, Amazon allowed sellers to give away products in return for a review. Those reviews were “honest and unbiased”, at least according to the disclaimers that reviewers sometimes added.
Back then, many sellers used product giveaways to increase their positive reviews. Amazon’s algorithms acted on the review data, search visibility went up, and buyers bought those items more often. Everyone went away happy, right? Well, at least the sellers did.
Then Amazon prohibited all incentivized reviews, and the problem swiftly went underground. Incentives continued to be offered, but away from the official discount code system, so Amazon couldn’t see the activity at all.
Fast forward to today, and a whole black market ecosystem has evolved. It’s focused on manipulating the Amazon reviews and search ranking systems, using a vast range of nefarious techniques. Amazon’s ban, ironically, has resulted in a fake review problem that makes the old behavior look quaint by comparison.
What do fake reviews on Amazon look like now?
Fake reviews that appear on the Amazon site today often appear as “verified purchases”, just like real reviews, with no indication of a connection between the buyer and the seller. This means that the reviewer actually bought the product from Amazon, which is a big indicator of authenticity in Amazon’s eyes. In reality, the purchase was funded by the seller using PayPal, an Amazon gift voucher, or other means.
To support these fake reviews, black hat service providers use automated buyer accounts (or “bots”) to upvote positive reviews for their seller clients, and downvote positive reviews for their competitors. Both buyers and Amazon appear unaware that this goes on.
Also, no one seems to know how to track associated buyer accounts for sellers who offer payment in exchange for four and five-star reviews (all five-star reviews might generate too much attention).
The same applies to accounts used to target honest sellers with fake negative reviews, and fake upvotes used to give those reviews extra weight. Sellers need to try and track competitor behavior if possible, because they may need to fight back if they are on the receiving end of an attack. Of course, fighting back has risks of its own and should be done under the supervision of an experienced consultant.
Is it safe to buy fake Amazon reviews?
I understand the strong temptation to follow the advice on many Facebook groups and use PayPal to buy positive reviews, or at least encourage reviewers to say something in your favor. I also understand that sellers often take a short term gain over long term account health. When they see competitors benefit, with no apparent enforcement from Amazon, it just doesn’t seem fair. But, despite Amazon’s current challenges in tackling fake reviews now, consider their track record in catching up with the times.
From what I can see in my daily account suspension work, this behavior eventually leads to a couple of outcomes.
- You’re tracked down and suspended by policy teams for “review manipulation”; or
- The reviews get deleted down the road, and possibly your account too.
If Amazon think you’ve solicited reviews in non-compliant ways you not only lose the reviews, but also your selling account. Amazon are only too happy to dig back months into your account history and punish you for ASINs, warnings, old listings or old behaviors that you haven’t done for a year or more. There’s no statute of limitations to protect you.
What are “review manipulation” Amazon account suspensions?
Sellers can get hooked on buying fake reviews. It feels like everybody is doing it, and they’re all posting about how successful it is. The thing is, people aren’t so quick to post when they get suspended.
If Amazon jump on you with both feet, due to regular reports and complaints of abuse, you will be forced to try and get your account reinstated AND come up with a new strategy to replace your old ways that were working so well.
Getting reinstated won’t be easy, either. If you tell them that you’ll no longer pursue that path, it will fall pretty flat now you’ve waited until you were caught to become a reformed character. Everyone claims to have mended their ways at first, and none of them are welcomed back with open arms by suddenly declaring an interest in proper behavior.
One of the main ways people get tripped up is with their automated review requests. It’s easy to see how sellers might think their email sequence won’t violate Amazon’s policies. But often it’s all about the first impression of your messages, not so much being able to defend the exact wording in a lengthy debate with policy teams.
What problems do fake reviews cause for Amazon?
If all this seem harmless to you, think again. Fake reviews hit at the very foundation of the Amazon marketplace, affecting buyer trust and buyer experience.
Sellers who play by the rules suffer from fake negative reviews, while their competitors accrue fake positive ones. It’s enough to drive some decent sellers away forever.
Amazon itself loses more faith in the validity of the reviews with each passing day. Ultimately, the integrity of the entire marketplace comes into troubling focus, and everyone asks why Amazon isn’t doing more.
Why aren’t Amazon doing more about fake reviews?
There are a number of internal reasons why the current situation is proving difficult for Amazon to address:
- It’s hard to scale the kind of investigation work needed. Most of the bad behavior now occurs off Amazon.
- So far it’s almost impossible to connect the buyer accounts associated with fake verified reviews back to the third-party “service providers” arranging them.
- Amazon are trying to reduce investigator headcount, not add to it, so this pulls them in the wrong direction.
- Managers within Amazon are not equipped to address such an unwieldy problem, given the lack of resources allocated for this type of large project.
- Higher-level Amazon executives don’t understand the scope of the problem.
- There are no fully-functional standard operating procedures which attack the core causes.
- And lastly, the greater public isn’t familiar with how this works and doesn’t know how much they should care about it, yet.
What can be done about fake reviews on Amazon?
There’s a lot of room for Amazon to improve its operations around fake product reviews. It only requires the will to proceed meaningfully, from the top layers of the executive teams, and an investment in quality investigations by the teams entrusted with marketplace protection.
The first step will be to assess how review abuse impacts the major Amazon marketplace stakeholders.
Many sellers have been on the receiving end of fake negative reviews, and have reported the abuse via the standard channels, but with little success. Sellers need to do more than report abuse via Seller Central, or email Jeff or Seller Performance, or complain about it in Facebook groups. Until sellers learn the proper way to escalate to Product Review Abuse (PRA) managers, they can’t expect much movement or action.
Sellers should be willing to escalate to the teams that are responsible for policing this behavior, even if they feel like no one listens, cares, or takes any action.
It’s obvious how bad this is for buyers, once they become aware of the problem.
Some buyers may understand that the overall rating is artificially inflated with biased reviews from friends and family, sure. But do they understand the extent of competitor attacks, leaving negative reviews with comments like “fake” or “unsafe” because they know Amazon scripts flag those instantly?
When will buyers worry that bots have upvoted or downvoted reviews or that other “buyers”, whose reviews they value because they are “verified purchases”, come from third-party service providers working for the seller? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe the current state of affairs will continue much longer.
This problem is one of the biggest elephants in the room, because it strikes at the heart of buyer trust in the legitimacy of the marketplace.
If buyers stop believing the reviews they see, whether positive or negative, then the integrity of the site is at risk. While it may take time to develop new tools, and months to create fresh and effective investigator training strategies, there’s no time like the present for Amazon to begin. Hiding from the fake reviews problem won’t work much longer. Word is out.
This post was by Chris McCabe, founder of ecommerceChris.com. ecommerceChris shows Amazon sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.