Is It Really Five Stars? How To Spot Fake Amazon Reviews (#GotBitcoin?)
It’s on us to understand how Amazon reviews really work before we buy, and it’s on Amazon to start rethinking the star system entirely. Is It Really Five Stars? How To Spot Fake Amazon Reviews
Dogs Love Water!!!
My dog loves this pet drinking fountain. He doesn’t care that it’s louder than Niagara Falls when the water level is low, and that the setup instructions were impossible to follow. Oops, this is supposed to be a positive review. So, yeah, the LED light is nice, I guess?
I’ll never actually post that, but it could have been worth money if I had. Let me explain. I visited a Facebook group called “Amazon Reviews” and was promised a full refund on a $44 Amazon purchase of a pet fountain if I did the following on the mega-retailer’s site:
- Write A Positive Review.
- Post My Photos of The Product.
- Rate It Five Stars.
Not only is this ethically problematic, it is also against Amazon and Facebook user policies. Plenty of people don’t care, though: They’ll do it for this pet gizmo or one of the other bajillion products in these forums.
Every day, many of us search for a product on Amazon, pick a four- to five-star option and tap Buy Now. Those little yellow stars can make or break a product.
“In early 2012, the Amazon catalog grew too big, and the only way to get to the top of search results was to prove to the algorithm that your product was the best,” said Juozas Kaziukėnas, chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, a business-intelligence firm focused on e-commerce. “Most sellers realized acquiring reviews was a golden ticket.”
Over the past few years, Amazon has cracked down on fake reviews as well as on incentivized reviews, where companies offer refunds to shoppers in exchange for top stars. However, my hours lurking in shady Facebook groups and combing Amazon reviews tell me both types are very much still alive and well.
It’s on us to better understand the complicated world of Amazon reviews before we make a purchase. But it’s on Amazon to start rethinking the star system entirely.
The Types of Reviews
There are four species of Amazon review:
A Legit Review. Left by a human who bought a product and felt like sharing, the legit review, often labeled as a “Verified Purchase,” might be peppered with real-life experiences that indicate genuine use.
Legit reviewers tend to be moved to review when they love or hate the product, so the ratings are more extreme, says Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta, a website that analyzes Amazon reviews.
A Vine Review. Amazon invites some of the most prolific legit reviewers to be a part of Vine. The program rewards them with free products in exchange for reviews, marked with a green label. Vine members choose from a preselected group of products, but neither Amazon nor the company that provides the product can influence, edit or modify reviews, Amazon says.
Amazon Vine reviewers I interviewed say they don’t let the perk influence their ratings, and showed me many negative reviews they have written. ReviewMeta found Vine reviewers give more two-, three- and four-star reviews than other groups.
“I write reviews because this is a way for me to have a voice—on the garbage products and the great products,” said Kathleen San Martino, of Morris County, New Jersey. She has reviewed approximately 1,500—I repeat, 1,500—products on Amazon over the years. (To see her in my video, click here.)
Vine reviewers do pay something: The products’ value is considered taxable income.
An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook.
Here’s How It Works: A shopper joins a Facebook group with a name like “Amazon reviews.” These groups tend to be private but I was let into two, even after saying I was a journalist.
Sellers, often out of China, post about free products, say Bluetooth headphones. The buyer gets the Amazon link from the seller via direct message, orders the headphones through Amazon so it can appear as a “Verified Purchase,” then writes the review, posts some photos and rates it five stars. Once proof of purchase is provided, the seller refunds the buyer, generally via PayPal .
The moderator of one of the Facebook product-review groups I joined directed me to his rules, which state that members are meant to write honest, unbiased reviews, and that the group isn’t responsible for “deceitful posts or dishonest reviews left by buyers/sellers.” Facebook says it closes groups that offer incentives for fake reviews. Amazon says it works with Facebook to police these groups.
I spoke with various reviewers in these groups, many of whom didn’t want to be identified. They say they write these types of reviews to save money.
THE SHADY SIDE
Some categories on Amazon draw the most questionable, potentially fake product reviews, according to ReviewMeta. Here are 10 of the most targeted categories:
- Earbud Headphones
- Screen Protectors
- Weight-Loss Supplements
- Hair-Loss Products
- Baby Monitors
- Testosterone Boosters
- Streaming Media Players
- Phone Charging Cables
- Diaper Bags
- MP3 And MP4 Players
“I definitely gave a 4- or 5-star review to stuff that wasn’t good,” said Jeffrey Chu, from Charlotte, N.C., who reviewed products from Facebook groups until Amazon blocked him from reviewing last year. “I felt a little bit bad about doing it, but even before this, I noticed a lot of BS reviews. I figured the system was broken, I figured I’d get stuff out of it.”
The fake review. Finally, there are the full-on fakes. These reviews don’t show verified purchases and consistently deliver high ratings without much detail. One person I saw on Craigslist offers reviews starting at $5 a pop. So-called click farms in Asia claim to control thousands of Amazon accounts that vendors can hire to leave reviews for between $1 and $5 each.
Sellers also “hijack” legit reviews through some back-end trickery, Mr. Noonan said. A merchant might put a new item on the page of a well-reviewed but now-unavailable older product. The star rating looks good, but the reviews don’t match the item.
Amazon is on high alert right now, cracking down on scams and fake reviews and deleting thousands of suspect reviews.
“We suspend, ban or pursue legal action against these bad actors as well as suppress all known inauthentic reviews,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. “Customers can report suspicious reviews 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we investigate each claim.”
Last week, I spotted a listing for headphones branded Wotmic with 51 five-star ratings—and no poorer ratings. This week, Amazon’s sweep removed all 51 reviews. Wotmic’s parent company, Shenzhen Womaisi Technology Co., Ltd. hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment.
Another page I found featured a teeth whitener with an apparent average 4.5-star rating. However, many of the written reviews pertained to fish oil, cinnamon tablets and other health products. When I reached out, the vendor, AsaVea, didn’t respond—but soon all but the relevant reviews disappeared. (Negative reviews complaining about the apparent review hijacking also remained.) The product is now rated three stars.
Many dubious reviews still slip past the sentries, so we all have to follow three steps:
Step 1: Skip Stars. Read The Text.
Even just skimming the written reviews section will allow you to spot red flags. Be on the lookout for potential product swaps, or for a bunch of generic-sounding five-star reviews posted on the same date. Click on reviewers to see what else they’ve written.
Step 2: Try A Review Rating Site.
ReviewMeta and Fakespot automatically look for those red flags and more. Paste in an Amazon product page address, and either site gives you a review of the reviews. They both calculate the average star rating with questionable reviews removed. I prefer ReviewMeta for its more comprehensive report cards.
Step 3: Take Everything With A Grain of Salt.
Don’t believe everything you read. Amazon says it gives more weight to reviews deemed helpful by shoppers, but many star ratings might still be artificially inflated.
After all my reporting, my conclusion is that the star system itself is the culprit. I’m not the first to reach this conclusion: Netflix moved to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down system with more personalized recommendations after acknowledging star problems.
I’m not sure how Amazon would adapt that sort of system, but certainly one of the world’s most valuable companies, with more than 600,000 employees and a major investment in artificial intelligence, can try to figure it out. Hopefully before we all buy two-star pet fountains masquerading as five-star ones.
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