My kitchen table looks like Macy’s vomited up its end of season stock. I’m drowning in beard oil, testosterone pills, Vitamin C serums and iPhone 6 cases. I have three accessories for an Apple Watch (I don’t own one) and enough face serum to last me two years. These 29 products cost me a total of $44. Retail value: $507.06.
I received these through the weird world of Amazon review companies who offer high-value items for a few dollars in return for writing an honest product review.
But how honest can a review be by someone profiting from a discount? Consumers are being tricked into thinking items are better than they are because of a high volume of paid-for reviews.
Why gaming the review system matters
Checking Amazon before you splurge on fancy moisturizers and big TVs is pretty standard nowadays. 66% of people trust online product reviews, according to a 2015 study by Nielsen. They surveyed 30,000 people and found the majority rely on personal recommendations when shopping.
This is in antithesis to the idea of an open internet. Review data should offer greater transparency and protect consumer rights. But companies are playing the system. They know how to hide negative search results and they’re using volume to their advantage; hundreds of biased reviewers drown out any negative comments.
This goes against the basis of the Amazon review system, which was, in part, created to counter the flawed magazine product review system.
Magazine reporters are often told to pull their punches when writing product reviews; the magazine might be receiving thousands of dollars from advertisers like Macy’s or Sony and the magazine’s sales director wants to keep the sweet. I’ve seen this happen a number of times in my media career; a three-star item gets bumped up a star, a two-star item becomes three and a half. It’s a flawed system.
Amazon reviews are meant to counter this, with real people talking about their real experiences. And I’ve already stated that 66% of people place a large amount of trust in this.
It’s not a perfect system, but it used to be easy to spot the shady fake reviews: people with eggs for head typing in broken English. But what about the prosaic well-written product reviews that you can’t distinguish from the fakes? Sure, they have a teeny tiny disclaimer saying “product revealed at a discount for review” — but it’s often hard to spot.
“As an Amazon consumer, it’s really made me untrusting of Amazon reviews,” entrepreneur Jack Smith told me via email. Smith previously co-founded startups Shyp and Vungle and said he sometimes orders via review networks, as he likes getting free stuff. But he agrees that the system is messed up.
“It makes it really hard to judge which products are actually any good and which ones are not,” he said.”Now I have to do quite a lot of digging into reviews, to see which ones have been listed in exchange for a free item, and which are from real consumers.”
Consumer expert Kaitlyn Wells, who reports for ConsumerReports.org and Techlicious.com told me that there are a few key signs to watch out for when figuring out if reviews are real. “One way you can easily spot illegitimate reviews is when they either are a little too gushy in their review or are too negative, while failing to elaborate on how they came to their conclusions about a product,” she explained.
When there’s so much to gain by playing the system it’s unlikely that reviewers will stop anytime soon.
What pro Amazon reviewers gain
Take Instagram user Back_to_My_Roots. A scroll through her feed shows the enormous amount of boxed products she’s received. Selfie sticks. Argan hair oil. Bluetooth headphones. Printed cardigans. Foam rollers. She clearly labels all her items as review products and offers referral codes to let other people sign up. She’s not an anomaly. (She did not respond to a request for comment).
A large amount of people are signed up to many of the different Amazon review networks, all keen to get as much free swag as they can.
And, in light of my investigation, I signed up to a large number of these networks as well.
I wanted to see if it was as easy as it sounded and the sort of stuff that was on offer. Also, how much of a time commitment would this be, and how much effort would the process take?
I set myself a couple of basic rules: I would not give any false reviews, I would test out products fairly, regardless of “3 day review” requirements, and I would use a number of review networks to evaluate how they worked overall.
What you need to know about Amazon review networks
I need to make it clear that it’s 100% legal for companies to offer products in this manner. According to Amazon’s T&Cs, this is within their rules as you’re not paid and don’t get any compensation in whatever form (future products, contest entries, etc).
The BUT here being:
“The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact.” – Amazon
And, according to the FTC rules for endorsements, as long as you disclose the discount, you’re in the clear. In fact, they stress that the emphasis should be on the advertiser to make sure YOU disclose, which is why all the Amazon review networks make a point of saying this.
As long as you follow these rules you’re not doing anything wrong. But it’s more complex when you start thinking about the ethics of the system.
I signed up to eight of the largest Amazon Review Networks. To register they require your Amazon profile URL, and some ask for Facebook login and a cellphone number.
- Elite Deal Club
- Amazon Reviewer Network
- AMZ Review Trader
- UberZon Club
There are also a number of Facebook group review networks, but for coherence I concentrated on companies with official websites. At first glance, they all seemed to offer amazing deals with ridiculously low prices. The reality was a little different.
For every exciting product offered there were a 100 offerings of vitamins and face cream. And many of the exciting products – a pair of bluetooth headphones down from $79.99 to $4.99 – were “sold out” when I clicked the review link. Manufacturers provide a certain number of deal codes for each item, and you have to wake up early and click fast to snag the most wanted deals. This is pretty disappointing.
And some of the “deals” offered were too good to be true. I saw listings where items were reduced 90% to $5… but an Amazon search revealed the item always retailed for $5. This was confusing. Then there were “high end” face serums for $1 from brands I’d never heard of. Just because they’re cheap doesn’t mean they’re good, or necessary. And some of the discount codes didn’t work when I clicked through to buy.
In other cases, items offered at “70% off” turned out to be false, as the seller had inflated the price when listing the offer and a set of headphones that retailed at $12.99 would cost me $12.49. Some companies have tried to crack down on this, issuing statements that sellers must genuinely offer deals that are 50% or higher. Or they remove them from their listings.
And they sell some weird ass things as well…
Stylish doggy diapers. Wedding veils. A million crappy looking Bluetooth headphones from no name China companies. An emoji “poop” throw pillow. Some look more exciting – a hoverboard for $200 from Elite Deal Club.
I purchased a number of products for the story, but nothing I was super excited about. And because of the problems getting codes, I didn’t manage to buy products from all companies.
This isn’t a problem only I had. Scouring the Facebook pages of the companies, there are hundreds of comments that echo these findings.
Where it gets shady
I wanted to speak to the review companies offering this service for this story to see what they had to say. As of December 2, 2015, I’ve emailed every network I signed up to – the ones whose email I could find – asking for a media comment.
Just finding the contact emails was an issue in itself. Out of eight, one had none (just a phone number) some had email forms, and only two had easy(ish) to find published emails. And for the majority, contact details were all obscured, hidden at the bottom of pages and in tiny letters.
The companies’ “about” sections were minimal, too, detailing their service but nothing about the company owners, with the exception of iLoveToReview, which featured CEO Adam Hudson on its about page. This isn’t illegal, but it does make you think they have something to hide.
In total, I heard back from three of the companies. Snagshout provided me a name and number to call. AmzRC emailed me saying they could help, and then said they couldn’t take a call and I should send them questions. Elite Deal Club responded via email asking what my questions were.
I will update when they respond further.
Update: I heard back from AmzRC. Details below.
CEO Andrew Arnott told me he founded AmzRC in June 2015. He’d been struggling to make money as an Amazon seller because, he said, a lot of companies were using black hat techniques such as Super URL’s and shady review companies. He thought about using review companies, but they were expensive and had shady practices.
Q: WHY DID YOU CREATE AMZRC?
“I set out to make a solution for myself and other sellers that would follow the Amazon TOS, and get sellers reviews that were honest,” he said. Arnott’s a long-time entrepreneur (in 2006 Wired wrote about Collaboradate, a program he built that let you search multiple dating sites simultaneously) and believed he saw a space in the market.
Q. HOW CAN YOU MAKE SURE BUYERS WILL LEAVE AUTHENTIC REVIEWS?
There is no way to FORCE a user to leave an honest review, but unlike other review services we tell our users outright that an honest review is expected and encouraged. We also make it clear that there are no repercussions for bad reviews. We sometimes get emails from sellers saying “hey this person left a bad review on Amazon, can we filter them out”. I respond by telling the seller that I understand their concern, but our site doesn’t work like that and that our buyers can leave the review they deem appropriate. Some sellers will leave our service because we refuse to cave in and offer questionable features like our competition.
Q. WHO BENEFITS HERE?
For businesses, it’s a way to get a new product seen. Part of the reason for that is because most of the businesses on Amazon are small businesses run by a few people (like ours that’s run by my wife and I). They don’t have a marketing department like some of the established brands they are competing against. I really like that I’m helping the little guys (and gals), it truly makes me happy to help these small businesses succeed.
As a consumer, you might get a product that you normally couldn’t afford, or you may discover a product that you’ve never seen.
Q. WHAT’S YOUR OPINION ON REVIEW COMPANIES WHO “CUT YOU OFF” IF YOU LEAVE A LOW STAR REVIEW?
I think it’s vile and unfair. It also taints the reviews on Amazon. I don’t think any seller wants to sell a crappy product, and if they are stuffing their listing with false reviews the customers to follow will leave scathing negative reviews.
We encourage only honest reviews. Sellers can’t filter out a buyer because they didn’t get a good review from them. As a huge Amazon customer myself, I want to make sure that reviews I see are authentic and truthful. As Amazon requires, all of our reviewers post that they got the item for free or at a discount in the review text.
As of publishing, I have not managed to reach Snagshout, and will update this with their comments after we have spoken. I do commend them for being the first company to respond 1) personally, and with a name and number, and 2) for stating that reviewers have two weeks to write a review (some companies give three days).
Despite the review companies saying they want buyers to create an honest review, sometimes their own literature belies that statement.
“If you do feel compelled to write a negative review, that’s OK but please be considerate about what you are are writing. If for example you are reviewing a cellulite cream and the product says that you have to make dietary changes and exercise as well and you didn’t do that, then a negative review is not really warranted.
Remember that there are real people behind these products and they have invested a lot of time and money into putting their product into the marketplace. Your review will stay on Amazon forever and it will have a real financial impact on someone’s business so please keep that in mind when reviewing.”
Overtones of guilt, right?
The trust problem with Amazon – scandals in the news
The trust problem around internet reviews is not a new thing. Over the last few years, scandals have rocked the online review world, with exposés about paid review content farms with teams of writers hired to write glowing reviews. This is in strict violation of Amazon T&Cs. In response, Amazon is suing people who paid for and provided fake reviews. And they’re crafting better algorithms to spot fake reviews and take them down quicker.
“Fraudulent reviews are unlikely to knock Amazon’s sales performance but they do undermine the sense of community between the buyers and sellers in the Amazon marketplace,” Amelia Martyn-Hemphill, business correspondent for TheStreet said. “Bringing legal action against these phony reviewers is an aggressive move but highlights the problem that is also being faced by companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor.” Martyn-Hemphill said it’s in everyone’s interest to deter rogue users from cheating the system.
Despite Amazon’s crackdown, as of December 2, 2015, there are 1,919 gigs on Fiverr offering “reviews.” Not all of these are for Amazon, but many obviously are. Like Alance22 who promises five-star reviews on “any network.” Alance22 has 902 positive reviews. Other enterprising sellers offer longform 400-word reviews (706 happy customers), but say they won’t post them for you.
Amazon itself is partly at fault for the problems that are occurring. For one, they let anyone with an account write product reviews, regardless if they’ve purchased. People who actually paid for the item they’re reviewing get a small “Verified Purchase” next to their name, but I bet you never knew exactly what that meant, right?
And then there’s the secretive Amazon Vine club, whereby Amazon elevates some members to Vine status, sending them high-priced goods in return for quality reviews, positive or negative (they are labeled as Vine members).
Adding up all these different services and the flaws implicit in them creates an overall culture where trust is complicated and a weird economy of she said-he said presides.
If sellers keep gaming the system, Amazon will be devalued, and as a company that’s only just started making a profit, that’s far from ideal. (They did not respond for a request for comment).
Amazon knows this. It’s one of the reasons execs filed a lawsuit against the fake reviewers they uncovered. In their court documents Amazon says that it “strictly prohibit(s) any attempt to manipulate customer reviews” and that the “Defendants are misleading Amazon’s customers and tarnishing Amazon’s brand for their own profit, and the profit of a handful of dishonest sellers and manufacturers.”
Currently, the defendants are named by their user handles as Amazon doesn’t have data about their real names yet. Pity the poor lawyer who has to discuss the crimes of cakepopsbymari, naughty_girl01, and mama_nice, among others.
How can you protect yourself from fake reviews?
Sadly, there’s no perfect answer for making sure you don’t get semi-scammed when buying a product. With review networks so prevalent and people emphatic about staying in them, this issue is going to continue.
“It’s up to the consumer to perform their due diligence and critically review what they’re reading online,” said Wells. This means analyzing reviews and paying attention to notices that say “discounted.”
There’s no reason that all discount reviewers are being inauthentic, but with so many networks pushing for positive reviews – or you’re out – it certainly incentivizes people to be positive.
To try and counter this, engineer “Dukefall” (his Hacker News username) built a website called Fakespot last year. This was to help the public identify which reviewed items were fake using machine learning and algorithms. Fakespot analyzes reviews for sentiment analysis and bots, looks at the language, and looks at whether it has been uploaded by a bot. It’s free to use – put in any Amazon URL and it will give you an indication of how trustworthy a product review is.
For example, this $44.99 Exlight Baby Night Light has 31 reviews on Amazon and has a total score of five stars. Fakespot rates it as 100% fake. And the JankoTM Wireless Bluetooth Headphones – which I’ve seen listed on a lot of review sites – is listed as 100% fake, despite 383 Amazon reviews totalling four stars.
“The review system is an important part of the company brand and identity,” Hemphill-Martyn said, and while she says Amazon’s strength is in “delivering a seamless buying experience to people who already know what they want to buy,” if trust continues to erode this could end up very messy.
Working on this story has really shaken me. I considered myself a savvy consumer, aware of the pitfalls of digital shopping, but discovering this underhand – and 100% legal system – of reviews has left a nasty taste in my mouth.
A few of the products I purchased for $1 were ones that I’d previously considered buying – completely unaware of why they were rated so highly. The sheer amount of Vitamin C serums and iPhone accessories available through the networks makes me very suspicious. Sure, there’s no real harm in a cheap cable or a phone case that shatters, but when you start looking at how this would affect high-priced purchases it gets murky.
Will a waterproof phone case rated at five stars actually protect my phone, and what’s my compensation if it doesn’t? If people have to review vitamins or skin products in four days, even if they’re 100% honest, how helpful can their review really be?
The alternative seems to be to go back to name brands, ones targeted to us on TV and in magazines, and not generally seen on these sites. But that means that we could all be missing out on great, cheaper products… we just don’t know enough about trusting them. Social commerce is so big nowadays – and shows no sign of slowing – so we are all going to start needing some real markers of authenticity to not end up drowned in poor quality goods that are way too good to be true.
There’s no real answer for now, but if this article has inspired you to sign up and try these services for yourself, I’d advise you to think hard about it. Do you want to consciously be part of the problem, or would you like to work with others to create a better way of verification?
The choice is yours.