Since mid-2015, Amazon has been taking it to the courts, so to speak. For over two years, they have been pursuing legal remedies to a growing cancer in their otherwise healthy operation: fake reviews. According to a press release, their legal strategy seeks to eliminate “the ecosystem around fraudulent reviews in exchange for compensation,” and vows to “continue to taking enforcement and legal action…as long as this type of abuse exists.”
In addition to legal action, they are also developing algorithms to analyze reviews, eliminate the potentially false and highlight the verifiably true, and have also forbidden incentivized reviews on their platform wherein “influencers” were given free products in a wink-wink exchange for a favorable review.
This Javert-like pursuit of fake online reviews makes sense when you consider just how important they have become to online commerce. According to Pew Research, 82% of online shoppers at least occasionally check them before purchase, and 40% do so religiously. Yet, the review bubble is slowly bursting, as the same survey found that roughly half of online shoppers also suspect that at least some of these reviews are fraudulent. Marketing think pieces are mourning the death of consumer confidence, and there are even behind-the-scenes and how-to guides for writing and profiting from fake Amazon reviews (polarities—always giving zero and five stars—are a huge giveaway).
***** for $$$$$
The most recent suit targets companies buying fake reviews for their products, but Amazon has also gone after writers and peddlers as well. This go round, they’re targeting one company in particular, of whose 2,000+ reviews, Amazon claims over half are fraudulent.
Here’s how it works: manufacturers solicit people through websites like CraigsList and independent contracting websites, offering between $10 and $25 per review. The applicants must have a visible presence on the targeted platform (say a minimum number of already-posted Amazon reviews), and social media influence is a plus.
Generally, they are paid to write glowing reviews of the manufacturer’s products and services, though occasionally they are asked for a hit piece that will take out the competition. With sellers engaged in a war against one another, and against Amazon, the authenticity and accuracy of reviews is called into question.
Amazon’s Name is Amazon’s Name
Plain and simple: this cannot stand. The mere suggestion that reviews (or, heaven forbid, actual products!) are fake stands to destroy their reputation— to borrow from a great urban thinker, that’s their name out there in the street. For Amazon, there is nothing more important than consumer confidence. This is why they attack fake merchandise like Brady attacks a weak-side blitz, and why even fake words about genuine merchandise cannot be tolerated.
Right now, Amazon specifically, and the internet more broadly, feel like a digital Harrod’s for the masses, a place you can safely get whatever you want. They may not have an elephant waiting in their warehouse, but if you really need one, I bet they could get it for you (though shipping it would be a problem). But if they couldn’t, you can rest assured they wouldn’t try to tape together two pigs and call it an elephant. That combination—the certainty that they can get almost anything you want, and the certainty that they will not pass along fake, defective, or fraudulent merchandise—isn’t just Amazon’s winning formula, it is its single greatest differentiator and raison d’etre.
If it loses half of that equation, it will start to feel more like an online swap meet, ripe with fakes and charlatans where “buyer beware” is the operating ethos (or as some people call it, eBay). And Amazon cannot exist in a buyer beware world. The global supply chains underpinning the operation mean that goods literally come from all over the world—trusting Amazon as a reliable steward and clearinghouse for the global, online economy is what keeps that steady stream of smiley-faced boxes coming.
And that’s why reviews are important, not just for Amazon, but for anybody operating in e-commerce. Without consumer confidence, you are just an online peddler for items of questionable province...and if that sounds familiar, recall eBay. If you can.
Again, this is a global issue, not just one confined to the Amazon region. Samsung was caught red handed trying to scuttle the competition by outsourcing poor reviews, and more and more companies are employing entire teams to manage their review profiles.
Don't Gamble, Don't Cheat
So how can manufacturers solicit honest, positive feedback while also protecting themselves against hit pieces from the competition? The first thing to do is ensure that customers like your product to begin with—you aren’t getting five stars for a three-star product, so know what you have in the stable before you let it out into the wild. That’s where Voice of the Customer Market Research (VOC) comes in. This will give you access to your customers’ perspective in a discreet, controlled setting while you still have time to make some changes.
You could also run customer surveys or ethnographies, and then ask your most favorable reviewers to post their review publicly. That removes the shady cash for reviews feeling, but ensures that actual, verifiable customers review your product favorably.