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  • Márcia Fervienza

Is There a Solution to Amazon's Increasing Fake Reviews Problem?

As an Amazon avid and loyal customer, I do make a lot of decisions on the purchase of new products on the reviews the item shows. They tell me if the product has been around for a while (the higher the number of reviews, the longer it likely has been around), they tell me about the quality of the product (if the customer average rating is 4+ stars) and they indicate to me the reliability of the Seller (a product with a high customer rating will probably offer a better customer service should I have a problem, in my opinion). I also read the reviews posted, including the negative ones, to see if the problems they had were with the product itself, or with the delivery, customer service, packaging, etc. But is what I read there always true?

According to a recent article published on Forbes, a recent study has shown that the number of fraudulent reviews on Amazon has significantly escalated in the past few months. Apparently, products that have just been listed are receiving dozens of 5-star reviews within hours or days of being launched on the site, which is virtually impossible, since there is a ramp up time for the product to start showing up on customers' search, for them to buy, use and take the time to go back to the website to review it. And, truth be told, the number of customers that go back to review a bad product is infinitely higher than the number of customers who are happy enough with a product that does what it is supposed to do, and who takes the time to sit and write a review. So, what is going on with the fake reviews?

Well, as we all know, Amazon is a huge marketplace with millions of sellers trying to reach millions of customers. Even though sellers who want to build a name and a brand for themselves may offer original products (doing what we call private label), usually we have many different offers for the same generic product, thus the competition is fierce. So, what makes one seller show earlier on the search page than another? There is a number of factors that Amazon considers, including the traffic that your product page has, whether you are advertising it with Amazon or not, and the number of reviews the product has. The thing is that, while buying ads with Amazon increases traffic, and traffic increases visibility (which will eventually increase organic page views), nothing is likely to happen if the product doesn’t have reviews to show for when the potential customer visits the page, which means that any money spent on building traffic (and any organic page visits you have) is virtually useless.

Now let’s look at another side of the equation: Sellers trying to make a profit on Amazon will have better chances of selling more if they offer the free 2-day Prime delivery. To do that they have to have inventory and they preferably should fulfill it via Amazon. Building inventory upfront requires the mobilization of money, that sometimes may come from personal savings, other from loans (in the case of beginners or small sellers). And inventory stored at Amazon’s warehouses will, eventually, incur fees. So there is a considerable pressure on the Seller to turn that inventory as fast as possible, which won’t happen without reviews. But organic reviews take time to happen.

Until last October, Amazon permitted so-called "incentivized reviews," whereby reviewers were given free or discounted products in return for reviews, so long as the reviewer made the arrangement clear in the review post itself. However, after incentivized reviews started flooding the site, many clearly fraudulent, Amazon banned them for the vast majority of products. And sellers had to become more creative on getting their product to some audience that could try it and review it. How did they start doing it? Offering full refunds via PayPal for products purchased through social media groups created with the sole purpose of launching new products and obtaining reviews. When the product is purchased at its full price and a review is left, Amazon labels it as a "Verified Purchase", which is nothing short of what any Seller who wants to perform well wants to see on their products.

Even though Amazon claims that these reviews make up a tiny percentage of all reviews, as a customer myself, I can see how fake reviews hurt my interests, especially because I do base most of my purchasing decisions on the reviews I see for the products I want to buy. Their spokesperson claims that they are bringing lawsuits against over 1000 defendants for reviews abuse, and will continue to pursue legal action against sellers and manufacturers who create the demand for these types of reviews. This is great! But if offering the product for free, which used to be allowed in exchange for review, is now forbidden, and if they are bringing lawsuits against anyone who may be encouraging the "purchasing" of reviews, how are sellers supposed to build traffic and sales to their products?

Amazon is a marketplace focused on customer satisfaction, which is in fact what converted me into a loyal customer in the first place. But since it has decided to open its platform for Sellers all over the world, haven’t them also become customers ever since? And, as such, shouldn’t there be programs in place that allow Sellers to offer their best products at the best possible price to Amazon’s large audience? Increasing the controls in place meets the needs of part of their customers, but what about the other part?

Even though Amazon is any seller’s marketplace dream, because of the number of people it reaches, it is not a place for everyone. Small sellers get swallowed by the competition, unfortunately, and because it is true that once you have your business set up (with reviews and all) the organic sales can keep you going with little effort or money spending, it is not easy to let go of the idea that there is room for you too, no matter how small you are. But today, sadly, that is not true.

So, if Amazon still wants to serve this large audience of smaller sellers, I wonder how could they create room for the advertising of new products and the earning reviews in an honest way. Maybe creating a “new and noteworthy” section in the home page to drive customers to less expensive products, with a strongest encouragement for reviews on those who take a chance on purchasing the product? I am not sure this is the best answer, but something should be done. It is not about making the controls for offering products looser, but making the rules “follow-able”. Because, the way I see it, the higher the standards required on Sellers to sell their products, the better for Customers. But when Sellers are left without options, they will find workarounds, that won't always be honest or in the Customers best interest, and the Customers will also lose. In other words, by improving quality standards for Customers while not creating options to Sellers, the problem is just being shifted from one part of the equation to the other, without any solution being actually brought up to the highest good of all parties involved. Everybody loses.

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