Retailers don’t like to admit it, but we’ve all see people checking Amazon reviews in store aisles as they decide whether or not to buy.
Nielsen reported last year that 85% of consumers trust and are influenced by expert reviews of products. The year before, they found that consumer reviews had the highest trust value — equal to recommendations from friends and family — and their study last year confirmed that reviews by people who actually used the product were still highly trusted.
Shopping online means making decisions based on how an item looks in a photo and how the company describes it. In-store shopping may rely only on packaging; reviews are usually the best and least biased source of information a shopper can find.
But there have been changes in the world of online reviews. Reviews can be bought very cheaply now. And while paid-for reviews are often like those shown above — “Nice.” — that doesn’t stop brands from buying them. The result can be a flood of worthless reviews that prevent consumers from seeing more useful and honest reviews even as they drive the average closer to five stars.
The process of seeking out qualified reviewers, providing them with product and information, and making sure that their review gets written and promoted is time consuming and expensive. Happening upon an excellent unsolicited review can be a matter of chance (and having a great product). The temptation to game the system is understandable. But successful review cheats can make reviews less valuable to consumers and therefore to brands.
I’m an Amazon Vine Voice. Amazon has the most-trusted and most-used CPG reviews and the Vine Voice program is made up of the most-trusted reviewers at Amazon. In the Vine forum recently, there have been Vine Voices expressing concern that the whole system of consumer reviews is falling apart. “I got a request today to review a charger cable. The message states they want positive reviews,” one member wrote.
Others responded that they had received emails asking what they charged for a review — obviously an insult as well as an invitation to cheat. The primary concern, however, was that spates of poor-quality reviews would cause shoppers to lose faith in the entire system of reviews. If we’re getting requests to cheat the review system by writing only positive reviews or accepting money for reviews (a practice which will certainly affect the ratings of products), then we can assume that other people are getting and accepting those requests.
Amazon is currently suing a fake review monger and a number of individuals who have posted fake reviews. They’ve been quoted as saying that “an unhealthy ecosystem is developing outside of Amazon to supply inauthentic reviews,” and that “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.”
Just as Google changes its search algorithm to slap down efforts to game their system, Amazon is also making changes. Their algorithm is changing, and that will affect the star rating system as well as the placement of reviews.
Amazon rule changes
Amazon is also making changes outside of the algorithm. Here are a few:
- Reviewers are now often required to fill out a form before writing their opinion, presumably catching machines and people who haven’t actually tried the product as well as feeding more data to the algorithm:
- The value of Vine product is reported to the IRS. There is extensive speculation in the Vine Voices forum on how this is supposed to improve reviews, but I will admit that I am glad I received that Swiss grill before the change of policy.
- Amazon is adding “customer ratings” of specific aspects of products to review options. This lets reviewers rate a product’s battery life, for example, separately from the overall value or quality of the product.
- The latest update to the rules is that sellers are no longer allowed to provide free products for review. Books are an exception here, but most products can’t send free samples to reviewers any more in exchange for reviews. Companies wanting to work with influencers will have to ask for reviews at their own websites or at the influencers’ websites, not at Amazon.
Something that hasn’t changed is the fact that fake reviews can lead to reviewers being kicked off of Amazon, products being removed from the website, and companies being prosecuted. Here’s an example of the kind of message sponsored reviewers (or people who are perceived as sponsored reviewers) receive:
Your previous review of this product did not comply with our Customer Reviews Guidelines. Amazon does not permit reviews from customers whose relationship to the product or seller may be perceived as biased.
Like Google, Amazon is showing that it is willing to protect the value of what is, after all, one of the largest search engines around.
That means that real Amazon reviews will continue to have value. But it also means that influencer campaigns focused on Amazon will be more complicated.