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What does the spike in Amazon fake reviews mean for other marketplace platforms?

Written by Birgit Thümecke · 6 min read >

What does the spike in Amazon fake reviews mean for other marketplace platforms?

By: Birgit Thümecke

Over the past year, a series of reports, published by media organizations as diverse as The Guardian, CBS News, BuzzFeed, and The Hustle have highlighted the prevalence of online review fraud, especially on marketplace platforms. Without exception, all the reports singled out one major culprit in the ongoing battle against fake reviews – ecommerce behemoth, Amazon.

That should come as no surprise. As the world’s largest online retailer, with $232.9 billion revenue in 2018, Amazon has long been a target for review scams. One of the biggest contributors to its snowballing fake review problem has been the growth of its Marketplace, a platform for third-party sellers to sell new or used products alongside Amazon’s regular inventory.

With more than 3 billion products listed worldwide, the competition to be noticed on Amazon is brutal and increasingly desperate. Amazon’s data shows that 81 percent of product selection happens on the first page of search results, with the first three items getting two-thirds of all clicks. Since search results can be filtered by average customer ratings, one of the best ways to get noticed is to gather as many five-star reviews as possible, in the hope that your product will appear on the coveted first page.

The value of online reviews for sales conversion goes beyond average ratings; volume plays a role too. Research has shown that consumers will pick a product with more reviews, even though products of better quality, but with less reviews, are available.

In the digital economy you live or die by what others have to say about your product or service … and how many of them are saying it.

Since 82% of US consumers say that they check online reviews before making a purchase, it is safe to assume that customer reviews have become the holy grail for online sales success. In a perfect world this would mean a more transparent shopping experience for the buyer and a more level playing field for the seller. Unfortunately Amazon has not been able to curb the gaming of its review system; review checker sites like ReviewMeta and Fakespot estimate that between 11 and 30 percent of the reviews on its platform are untrustworthy.

How are scammers gaming the Amazon review system?

First of all, it’s important to understand that not all Amazon reviews are born equal. A verified purchase review (i.e. written by a customer who bought the product on Amazon) carries much more weight than an unverified review (no proof of purchase). The most popular way to gather fraudulent verified purchase reviews revolve around illicit discounts, refunds, and commissions.

The process usually starts with Amazon review clubs hosted on closed Facebook groups, invite-only Slack channels, or Reddit subreddits. Once you’re in, you are offered either huge discounts via promo codes or a full refund plus a commission (via Paypal) once you have purchased and reviewed the product on Amazon. A quick online search will reveal thousands of these review groups. Here’s one on Facebook.

The next level up are review farms, the bastard stepchildren of the click farms that put Facebook on the map. They consist of companies that hire low-paid workers to write fake reviews for clients who are selling on Amazon. There’s the uncomfortable suspicion that review farms could be part of organized crime networks, many of which have already been implicated in online ad fraud. Add counterfeit products into the mix and you have a vertically integrated criminal enterprise.

At the top of this odious pile of fakery sit computer-generated reviews, which are mostly of the unverified variety. However, what they lack in weight they make up for in volume. It is estimated that automated robot reviews account for 90 percent of all fake reviews. It’s not unusual to see hundreds of unverified five-star reviews pop up overnight on the product page of some unknown brand, selling cheap, generic goods, such as headphones or mobile phone chargers.

The nastiness does not stop there. An especially egregious fake review tactic is to leave negative reviews on a competitor’s product page in an attempt to push it down the search results. A practice that takes ‘throwing shade’ in the retail world to a whole new level.

Review scams have become so prevalent that even well-known advertising platforms like Wordstream seem to be promoting fake reviews on Amazon.

What has Amazon done to combat fake reviews?

Review fraud is illegal and is increasingly being prosecuted. America’s Federal Trade Commission has stepped into the ring with the first successful prosecution of a company that paid a 3rd-party website to post fake reviews on Amazon.

Amazon itself follows a holistic approach that combines law suits, human moderators and machine learning algorithms in the fight against fake reviews. For example, a product’s star ratings are based on a machine-learned model that incorporates the age of a rating, whether the ratings are from verified purchasers, and factors that establish reviewer trustworthiness. On the legal front, the company has ramped up court actions against both sellers and reviewers who contravened its rules.

Amazon’s eligibility requirements for posting a review require that reviewers:

Have an email-verified Amazon account

Spent a minimum of $50 on Amazon over the preceding 12 months

Purchased the product on Amazon (for verified purchase reviews)

Keep the review relevant to the product

Steer clear of profanity, obscenity, racism, sexism, and defamation

May not drown out bona fide reviews by coordinating with others

May not receive discounts, free items, or refunds in exchange for reviews

Sellers are also warned that they may not “manipulate the Amazon Verified Purchase badge, such as by offering special pricing to reviewers or reimbursing reviewers.”

In an attempt to use public opinion against inappropriate or suspicious reviews, product page visitors are allowed to give feedback in the form of a ‘Was this review helpful to you?’ thumbs up or down, and can also comment on the review.

Although violations of Amazon’s review guidelines can be reported via a “Report abuse” link, it remains an ongoing battle. In what seems like a game of Whac-A-Mole, just as one fake review group or farm is closed down another pops up. Bona fide sellers have also been complaining that their complaints about unscrupulous competitors tend to fall on deaf ears, resulting in serious financial losses for some.

Have fake reviews affected other online marketplaces?

Dodgy reviews are ubiquitous across the online marketplace landscape, with Ebay, Yelp, and Etsy just a few of the well-known marketplace platforms that have been targeted. Platforms that have been affected by this digital scourge also include, with more than 50 percent of its reviews rated as suspicious by online review analyzer, Fakespot.

A demonstration of the ease with which reviews and ultimately, rankings, can be manipulated, is the infamous case of The Shed in Dulwich. As part of a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, a Vice journalist listed a non-existent restaurant on TripAdvisor, which went on to become the top-rated restaurant in London based on fake reviews.

Does this mean that all online marketplace reviews are suspect?

Amazon has a vested interest in keeping third-party sellers happy, whether they utilize fake reviews or not. No surprises there, seeing that the company generated revenue of $42.75 billion from seller services in 2018 alone. It is also worth noting that reviews for Amazon’s in-house brands include ones from its Vine program, whose members often receive the products for free.

The likelihood and incidence of fake reviews are influenced by a variety of factors. Even on Amazon, it’s by far mostly low-priced, fast-moving consumer electronics that are affected. That makes sense if you take into account the logistical difficulties of purchasing and refunding a $20,000 car or wedding.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a refund and a $50 Amazon voucher after you purchased one of these lovely watches and left a glowing review.

Reviews on marketplaces offering services instead of products, such as event planning, are also much more difficult to game than product-led marketplaces. It’s a bit tricky to fake a Moroccan-themed diamond jubilee with 300 guests. To put it mildly – other people are involved.

The sheer size and variety of products on Amazon and Walmart’s platforms also make them complicated beasts to tame. Dedicated or niche platforms tend to have lower, more targeted traffic that can be more easily moderated.

Finally, marketplace platforms that do not take a cut from each transaction are far less likely to take a laissez-faire approach to suspicious review activity. In many SaaS-based marketplaces, the motivation to stay transparent does not have to compete with the promise of transactional revenue.

How can you spot fake online reviews?

A whole cottage industry has grown up around the spotting of fake reviews on Amazon, with the rise of sites like Fakespot and ReviewMeta which analyze the trustworthiness of reviews based on consumer patterns and other factors.

ReviewMeta explains their ‘natural occurring reviews’ approach, “You’d see some newer reviewers and some experienced reviewers. You’d see short reviews, some long reviews and some reviews in the middle. You’d expect them to appear evenly over the life of the product, and not just on a few different days.”

In general there are a few red lights to look out for. Products with reviews that exhibit any of the below characteristics should probably be given a wide berth.

Lots of typos or broken English, since many fake reviewers are based in foreign countries

A lot of overly positive reviews posted within a short space of time

Generic word use and gushing non-specific language

The majority of reviews originate from locations where the product is not being sold or shipped

A preponderance of very short reviews

Obviously fake reviewer profile names and images (No, Leonardo DiCaprio did not leave a five-star review for a hot water bottle)

1000s of unverified reviews in a short space of time is a sure sign of bot activity

The best way to get reviews for your product or service

Put the customer at the center of everything you do – deliver top-notch products and services, and then ask your customers for feedback.

Don’t be shy, 68% of consumers have left reviews after receiving requests to do so, and 80% of reviews come from follow-up emails with review requests. Even better, use a platform that automates the review request process for you!

Sell your product on a marketplace platform that is committed to transparency. Platforms that have clear and consistently enforced review policies will help you compete on a level playing field. Industry-focused platforms that don’t focus on fast-moving retail goods tend to be better at ensuring the validity of reviews.


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