Blind Trust: How True Are Amazon Reviews?

The internet gets credit for a lot of things – good and bad. One of which, is the idea it’s given everyone a voice. The internet can’t take credit for that. What it can take credit for, however, is the potential for amplification. To have one’s voice heard – not solely by those within earshot – but by the masses.  

One of the easiest ways an opinion gets amplified is via online reviews. Retailers in particular have embraced this process. They know highly rated products entice consumers to purchase. Consumer reviews can also help them gauge potential long-term success before product-level sales velocity hits high gear thanks to said reviews.

The Typical Reviewer

Certain types of reviewers make up the predominance of reviews. They fall into three main buckets:

  • Consumers who had an amazing experience
  • Consumers who had a terrible experience
  • Consumers who simply enjoy reviewing

Consumers who had an amazing experience are the ones with the best intentions. They want to buoy the brand and let as many people as possible know how great it is because of their own positive engagement.

Consumers who had a terrible experience have a mix of good/bad intentions. They want to ensure no one else finds themselves in the position they’re in, but may also want to inflict online vengeance on a brand that has wronged them (yikes).

Consumers who simply enjoy reviewing are the wild card. Sometimes they have a true opinion. Other times, not so much. In their case, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes along with influencing the decisions of others. The idea of having your opinion heard and validated. They’re the type that will take the time to submit a review of “average,” as opposed to not leaving a review at all.

These are the archetypes that populate most review totals. The hope is that these three subsets of the population somehow provide a consensus for the product or service in question, seeing as so many people use them as a pre-purchase heat check. But what if those reviews – the ones everyone relies on – weren’t authentic? In that case – for the sake of the consumer – shouldn’t the retailer be motivated to thoroughly vet the process?

Amazon’s Reviews

Amazon knows reviews are one of the main cogs in the online decision-making process. They also know their reviews specifically help inform consumer decisions. Via Amazon:

  • 50% cite positive product reviews as the primary factor that influences their purchases
  • 90% would not consider purchasing a product that received fewer than three stars

In a world where people often can’t physically examine products before purchase, a trusted opinion means everything. The problem is, sellers know this as well.

For a reputable seller (and vendor) on amazon, this means ensuring their products meet the highest standards. From the moment of purchase all the way through to end-of-life, the highest level of quality is expected. It also means steadfast reputation management in those less-than-often instances where the highest standards aren’t met.

For a less-than-reputable seller, this means working the system to the best of their abilities. They know reviews are of the utmost importance. To buoy their overall rating – and counteract the effect of any anticipated negativity – they’ll sometimes flood their product detail pages (PDPs) with fake reviews. These counterfeit assessments will:

  • Appear in droves within a few days/weeks of the product appearing on Amazon
  • Have a similar tone and length, often brief and vaguely positive
  • Debunk common complaints found in the more critical 1 or 2-star reviews

These products also tend to have very polarizing reviews i.e. majority are either 5-star or 1-star. They will lack the natural disbursement from 5-star to 1-star of more reputable products.

Reputable Product:

Disreputable Product:

Mislabeled Reviews

Even when nothing strange is afoot within the review section, the issue of mislabeled reviews still exists. There are countless examples of products throughout Amazon that have amassed a large number of reviews that are a.) attributed to their product while at the same time b.) not at all associated with their product. Take the following example:

This particular WiFi extender is listed on Amazon and has – at the time of this writing – accumulated 157 reviews. All 157 of those reviews are 5-star rated. One would think, based on the positivity surrounding this product, that it’s a must have and from a highly reputable seller. But digging a little deeper reveals the majority of these reviews are tainted. They’re for completely different products, despite being attributed to the above product. Below are a few examples of reviews credited to the above WiFi extender:

Each instance is a 5-star review for a completely different product. In certain cases, other consumers were compelled to comment on the reviews themselves, noting they were, in fact, not for the WiFi extender in question. In total, there were reviews for: a phone charger, a phone case, San Antonio Spurs memorabilia, a pacifier, a women’s jacket, a magnet, a bracelet, a moccasin, a shelving unit – and that was just after sifting through the first four pages of reviews.

All of these reviews were interspersed along with reviews for the actual WiFi extender in question, while also being considered part of the WiFi extender’s overall star rating. The other issue; none of these mislabeled reviews appear on the first page. They all exist beyond the point where most consumers end their search. This buries them beyond their field of vision, while still making them a contributing part of the purchase decision (i.e. they factor into the overall star rating).

Checks and Balances Exist Though, Right?

One would think, with a retailer as large as Amazon, there would be safeguards against faulty reviews, inaccurate claims and overall deception. There would be some type of automation or machine learning that could pick up on the character length, timeliness, or general tone consistent with counterfeit reviews. But the reality is, everything Amazon does is based on sales velocity. The more units sold, the more Amazon profits. Until that product begins to see returns/refund requests, there isn’t incentive for them to dig deeper.

Amazon does provide guidance via their Amazon’s Choice, Verified Purchase and Expert Recommendations. But again, there are inherent flaws in these labels.   

Amazon’s Choice

The Amazon’s Choice designation represents products Amazon identifies as their choice within a specific category. Amazon identifies the classification as, “a way to simplify shopping for customers by highlighting highly rated, well-priced products ready to ship immediately for the most popular searches on Amazon.” Makes sense, but the problem lies in the exact criteria used to define their “choice”. There is no visibility into how this decision is gauged. It’s likely algorithm driven – based on a mix of sales velocity, review ratings and shipping options as noted. But how much do reviews really weigh on this type of classification? And if reviews are so easily manipulated, can a choice like this truly be trusted?

Verified Purchase

Amazon’s Verified Purchase badge is designed to highlight reviews made by actual purchasers of the product in question. It’s a simple linking process. A consumer leaves a review, then Amazon verifies whether the item was legitimately purchased via the account owner leaving the review. But what’s to stop a disreputable seller from ordering their own items prior to leaving a 5-star review to ensure the “verified purchase” badge is applied? Also, what does this say for the validity of reviews without the Verified Purchase seal?

Amazon Expert Recommendations

Amazon Expert Recommendations are banners shown within the product listings that display third-party product reviews via Amazon Verified Experts. These experts include review sites such as BGR, Reviewed, Wirecutter and more. They’re available for certain product categories. And often, the product chosen by the independent reviewer doesn’t mesh with Amazon’s review ratings – leaving the consumer without as clear a path as intended.

Where to Find an Honest Assessment

For Amazon consumers in search of review verification, they need to look beyond Amazon. Fakespot is an example of a tool designed to help consumers wade through the fiction found in most review sections. It works as both a plug-in and a URL checker. Consumers can simply copy/paste the URL and Fakespot will do the rest. It assesses product reviews (and product reviewers) by scanning them for common practices associated with forged reviews. After analyzing, the tool provides a letter grade based on how unreliable the reviews were for a specific product, along with a revised star rating. This new star rating provides an honest assessment of the product minus the misleading reviews.

For example, in the case of the aforementioned wireless router, that same router with 157 solely five-star reviews ended up getting a D overall, with an adjusted rating of roughly 2.5 stars.

How Can Amazon Clean Up Reviews?

Flag/Remove Products with a Certain Percentage of 1-Star Reviews

These tend to be products that are not-as-advertised. They possess inherent flaws that lead consumers to cry wolf. Another route would be flagging products that have a certain percentage of sales returned. Amazon already does this on the vendor/seller side by penalizing sellers when too much merchandise is returned. They could use this same logic to shield consumers.

Incorporate More Reviews via Third Party

Their Expert Recommendations widget is a great start, but bringing more reputable, outside review sources to provide reviews for even more product categories could improve trustworthiness. Amazon could go so far as to fund additional product reviews for categories without a clear review source.

Enable Counterfeit Review Checks via Automation

If outside sources can provide the technology needed to police these reviews, Amazon can easily do it as well. Building logic designed to sniff out reviews that are obviously forged would go a long way towards ensuring unscrupulous sellers aren’t beating the system

Clean Up Mismatched Reviews

This would seem common sense, but it’s more rampant than people think. Ensuring the right reviews are attributed to the right products should be table stakes.

Punish Disreputable Sellers

In the world of online commerce giants, Alibaba tends to get pegged as the clearinghouse for counterfeit and shoddy merchandise. Similar, poorly crafted products make their way onto Amazon. There are thousands of examples of electronics, leather goods and other products sold on Amazon by foreign manufacturers that – based on the reviews – could only be described as shoddy, poorly manufactured products. Removing products (and sellers) like these from Amazon would go a long way towards improving the overall experience.

Will Consumers Ever Be Able to Trust Reviews?

Earlier this year, the FTC brought its first successful case against a weight-loss supplement provider on Amazon who had been paying for fake reviews. In 2016, Amazon promised to go after sellers pushing incentivized reviews, attempting to rid the platform of reviews posted in exchange for discounts or free merchandise. The year before that, they sued more than one thousand writers providing counterfeit review writing services via Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services. Steps are being taken by both Amazon and outside sources to clean up the review environment. But is it enough? 

91% of 18-34 year-olds trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Ninety-one percent. Call it review forging, call it disreputable reputation management, call it black hat SEO for Amazon. Call it whatever you want. It’s not going away as long as such heavy emphasis is placed on reviews.

Disreputable sellers are always going to look for angles to game the system. It’s the only way for them to continue placing their products in front of potential consumers on Amazon. It should be up to the platform to find ways to eradicate this type of behavior. The problem is, it isn’t going to be eliminated until it affects enough Amazon consumers for the retailer to take notice. A dip in consumer confidence (i.e. can we really trust everything Amazon is selling?) is the type of shift in thinking that could change Amazon’s approach.

59% of U.S. households have an Amazon Prime membership. People trust them – to the point of literally providing them access to their household (see Alexa, In-Home Delivery, etc.). But what if a decent percentage of that population requested a little more in exchange for their trust? Would Amazon make the effort needed to tidy up a not-so-clean corner of their own household? That’s the question.

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