This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team and founder of ecommerceChris.com. For Amazon sellers, having their merchant account suspended means losing time and money trying to get back in business. ecommerceChris shows sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.
Helpful product reviews written by Amazon customers have been at the heart of the Amazon marketplace from the beginning. Amazon has no interest in seeing their well-established product review system falling by the wayside.
Our goal is to eliminate the incentives for sellers to engage in review abuse and shut down this ecosystem around fraudulent reviews in exchange for compensation.
Some sellers have tried to take advantage Amazon’s previously inconsistent scrutiny of product review abuse. But now they’re cracking down. In 2016, I’ve seen sellers warned or suspended for:
- Asking friends and relatives to buy from them and leave glowing reviews, even if the buyer accounts were related and/or linkable to their seller accounts.
- Creating new, fake buyer accounts based on past (and legitimate) buyer account information, in order to leave fresh, positive product reviews.
- Offering incentives beyond discounted products to supposedly “independent” reviewers in exchange for automatic positive reviews.
- Purchasing items from competitors for the purpose of leaving bad reviews, or having employees do the same.
- Having employees purchase using their own buyer accounts for the purpose of leaving a glowing product review.
- Using review-generating web sites or services which pay reviewers for positive reviews.
- Creating fake email accounts in order to buy from themselves and review their own products.
- Using Super URLs to manipulate Amazon’s search algorithm.
The Warning Notice
A warning that several sellers have received in recent days is this:
We understand that you may have manipulated some product reviews. Sellers on Amazon.com are not allowed to manipulate ratings, feedback, or reviews.
Violations of our policies may also violate state and federal laws, including the Federal Trade Commission Act. In order to maintain customer trust and provide the best possible shopping experience, Amazon investigates sellers, vendors, and others that attempt to manipulate reviews and third parties that offer reviews in exchange for compensation. Any further violations may result in removal of your Amazon privileges or other enforcement action.
To learn more about this policy, search for “Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions” in Seller Central Help and see our Anti-Manipulation Policy for Customer Reviews (https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201749630).
To talk to someone about this email, you can ask our Seller Support team to contact you (https://sellercentral.amazon.com/hz/contact-us/performance).
Seller Performance Team
The Suspension Notice
If you fail to heed that one warning (that you may or may not receive) then you might see this:
We recently contacted you about product review manipulation. Because you are still manipulating product reviews, you currently may not sell on Amazon.com. If you have any open orders, please ship them. You can view previous messages on the Performance Notifications page in Seller Central.
In one case I worked on, the seller received their warning months prior to the eventual suspension.
But the warning did not do the trick, somehow. They found themselves suspended because they continued to believe that upvoting nice reviews and downvoting ugly reviews fell into a “grey area” of review manipulation. It’s a black hat act, so it doesn’t.
How Does Product Review Abuse Work?
Based on information from a source close to the Product Review Abuse teams, Amazon measures not only the sheer quantity of these reviews but also the tight timeframe behind the spike in positives, how many accounts were used, and the age on those accounts. That makes this area of selling a potential minefield for many current sellers who think that their “grey area” past behaviors will somehow be grandfathered into this new reality.
In fact, Amazon reserves the right to change their minds and reverse course on a dime, and demands that every seller move right along with them in that direction. Anyone addicted to review abuse who plans to continue it, could easily find themselves on the outside looking in.
Getting Reinstated: The Review Abuse Information Request
As part of the reinstatement process, Amazon wants some sellers to name names and describe or clarify their methods of review abuse. You may have a difficult decision to make about whether or not you want to swap that information for access to the marketplace.
Are you ready to discuss the services you’ve paid for to increase positive product reviews? Are you prepared to divulge all of the methods you’ve employed to boost sales via the number of great reviews for top selling ASINs, without a guarantee of reinstatement?
To sell on Amazon.com, please reply to this message with the following information:
- A detailed description of all methods you used to post or obtain customer reviews that are prohibited by Amazon policies. To learn more, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).
- Contact information (name, email address, website, etc.) for any third parties you engaged to obtain Prohibited Reviews.
- Identifying information for any customer accounts you or a third party used to post Prohibited Reviews.
- List of any Prohibited Reviews remaining on the Amazon site.
- A plan that explains how you will prevent product review manipulation in the future. Once we receive your plan, we will review it and decide whether you may sell on Amazon.com again. For help creating your plan, search for “Appeal the Removal of Selling Privileges” in Seller Central Help. We look forward to hearing from you.
Review Moderator Amazon.com
Which methods are OK, and which are not? What tools and services can you use with confidence and security and which ones must you avoid? Therein lies the rub.
The TOS for reviews are intentionally vague so Amazon can maintain their discretion on a case by case basis. We can’t know which way Amazon will land on this in the future. For example, the policy states, “You may not intentionally manipulate your products’ rankings, including by offering an excessive number of free or discounted products, in exchange for a review.” But what is considered an “excessive number?”
Many sellers appear to be looking for concise rules to follow in terms of what can be done, what cannot, and which companies or services sellers should use (or avoid). Amazon doesn’t commit to providing lists of specific companies or services, because they reserve the right to change their minds anytime and don’t like to be hemmed in when it comes to doing so. They will state that knowing and following posted policies are up to you.
Beyond making sure you’re only offering discounts in exchange for “honest” and “unbiased” reviews of products, Amazon isn’t offering much clarification to those who ask. If you decide for yourself what remains a “grey area” based on seller forums or what you see on the site, then keep in mind that grey can turn black awfully fast, when abuse is detected and enforcement tightened.
So, What Now?
Know the TOS when deciding on your review strategy, and weigh the benefits against the risks.
As always, what Amazon tolerates today may be a lightning rod for enforcement tomorrow. Understand what “abuse” means and be wary of any services advertising easy batches of cheaply acquired reviews. Also stay away from creating several new buyer accounts for the sole purpose of inflating your positive product reviews.
Sellers who continue to play on the edges of acceptable product review behavior may find that the fun does not last very long.
This post was written by Chris McCabe. Chris can be contacted via ecommerceChris.com.