You can trust Amazon reviews, right? It’s almost a default assumption at this point: you open Amazon, search for your chosen product, sort by star rating, and then start shopping. It’s a tried and true method that has probably netted you some great items.
But in the last few years, you may have experienced a few duds. And it looks like there’s a reason for that.
NPR spoke to Travis (his last name was withheld), a frequent Amazon customer who had a bad experience purchasing a trigger lock for his gun that was highly reviewed, but turned out to be low-quality. He suspected that people had been paid to boost the lock’s rating on Amazon.
So, what did he do? He became a paid reviewer himself.
As NPR discovered, an underground world exists solely to buy and sell fake Amazon reviews.
Amazon is aware that some reviews are “inauthentic,” but claims that it’s approximately 1%. However, auditors aren’t so sure. They claim that half the reviews for some products are bought.
How Ratings Work
Those stars aren’t as cut and dry as we might think. Vice President of Community Shopping at Amazon, Sharon Chiarella, told NPR, “The star rating, a lot of people think that’s an average … it’s actually much more intelligent. It’s a weighted calculation that gives more weight to reviews we trust more and less to reviews we trust less.”
In order to become a trusted reviewer (and one who doesn’t get caught), people like Travis work closely with sellers to fool Amazon’s fraud algorithm. This includes using specific links, dodging discount codes, and building in a delay between receiving the product actually posting a review. Review too quickly, and Amazon will think it’s fake.
Real World Application
I decided to investigate this myself. I’ve had my eye on investing in some metal straws, since plastic straws have been banned in Canadian cities like Vancouver, and many restaurants in Toronto have also vowed to do away with them.
Since I’m all about sipping in luxury, I hit up Amazon for some gold metal ones. My eye was immediately drawn to the second result (past the sponsored ones, which I automatically glaze over, anyway.) Amazon labelled these LANIAKEA straws their #1 Bestseller. No-brainer. I clicked it.
178 glowing reviews couldn’t be wrong, especially for that price. I scrolled down to the review section…and found something odd. While I don’t have the expertise to sort out the paid reviews from the free ones, I do have eyes.
As you can see, half of those images are decidedly not straws. The ranch gets a pass – the reviewer was helpfully using it as a size comparison next to the straws’ handy carrying case. However, the door and the animal objects are definitely not straws.
Of the reviews, 2 full pages were dedicated to what turned out to be plastic door stoppers. 10 of the 12 were 4 stars or higher, which sure is helpful if you want to boost your review rating up on Amazon for your product without having to start from scratch. As it turns out, I had stumbled into another aspect of the ratings game that the paid reviewers like Travis are participating in.
If the reviews aren’t bought, they’re stolen from other products, as Business Insider reported.
Listers take old products and poach the listings for their own, new products, making it look like they’re tried and trusted items with solid reputations.
Remember the phrase, “Buyer beware”? It may have felt like Amazon had helped do away with that particular worry, but maybe, just maybe, it might be time to start sticking to that mantra again.
Featured image: Instagram/ @journeyofphood
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