Don’t trust that online product review!

May 11, 2018

Do you habitually check Amazon’s product reviews before you place your orders? If so, BuzzFeed has a cautionary tale to tell—and although the names have been changed, the alleged “fraud” is all too real, the website claims.

It involves manufacturers/merchants that will pay for five-star ratings—and sellers such as Amazon that cannot root out or thwart fake product evaluations.

As BuzzFeed reports, one morning in late January, “Jake” picked up a shipping box, tore through the packaging, found the enclosed iPhone case, snapped a photo, and uploaded it to an Amazon review he was busy composing.

The review raved about the case’s sleek design and cool, clear volume buttons. He finished it off with a glowing title (“The perfect case!!”) and rated the product a perfect five stars. Click. Submitted.

There’s just one problem: Jake had never tried the case. He doesn’t even have an iPhone, BuzzFeed notes.

He then copied the link to his review and pasted it into an invite-only Slack channel for paid Amazon reviewers. A day later, he received a notification from PayPal, alerting him to a new credit in his account: A $10 refund for the phone case he will never use, along with $3 for his efforts.

“Jake” and four other reviewers who spoke to BuzzFeed for the story asked to remain anonymous for fear Amazon would ban their accounts.

They are part of an underground network—a complicated web of subreddits, invite-only Slack channels, private Discord servers, and closed Facebook groups—and, according to BuzzFeed, the incentives are simple: Being a five-star product is crucial to selling inventory at scale in the intensely competitive online marketplace — so important that manufacturers and merchants are willing to pay thousands of people to review their products positively.

And it works, time after time: In a 2011 Cone survey, 87% of consumers said that a positive review confirmed their decision to purchase a product; online customer reviews are the second most trusted source of product information, behind recommendations from family and friends. But only 3% to 10% of “real” customers leave reviews.

It’s not that Amazon and other marketplaces haven’t tried: In October 2016, Amazon banned free items or steep discounts in exchange for reviews facilitated by third parties.

But , already, they are back. Tommy Noonan, CEO of ReviewMeta, a site that analyzes Amazon product ratings, said what he calls “unnatural reviews —that is, reviews, that his algorithm indicates might be fake—have returned to the platform. In June 2017, Noonan noticed an uptick in unnatural reviews along with an increase in the average rating of products, and the rate of growth hasn’t slowed since.

Amazon won’t reveal how many reviews—fraudulent or tota—it has, BuzzFeed says. But based on his analysis of Amazon data, Noonan estimates that Amazon hosts around 250 million reviews. Noonan’s website has collected 58.5 million of those reviews, and the ReviewMeta algorithm labeled 9.1%, or 5.3 million of the dataset’s reviews, as “unnatural.”

A word to the wise: An unnatural review doesn’t necessarily mean a product is substandard. But the problem with paid-for reviews is that they make it difficult for consumers—even savvy ones (and we know you are)—to determine whether what they’re buying is actually good or bad.

Research contact: nicole.nguyen@buzzfeed.com

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