Reviews can be a crucial part of the process of buying and selling goods online, especially on sites like Amazon. They provide insight into how a product works out of the box, and in some cases, how a product works over time. When you’re trying to purchase your next PC part, phone case, or accessory, how can you trust that the reviews you read are portraying an honest opinion of the product?
It seems that Amazon shares this concern and its business model increasingly relies on reviews for their ability to move product. Because of this, Amazon is taking the unprecedented step of suing 1,000 individuals over faked reviews. The lawsuit, which was filed on October 16th in Washington state court, alleges that these reviewers were leaving fake reviews for products, sometimes for as little as $5 per post.
A New Trend in Business
The practice of paying for reviews, known as “astroturfing,” is beginning to look like a common business practice at this point. Yelp’s sting operation caught reviewers and businesses engaging in this practice, and now Amazon aims to do the same. The difference is that Amazon is taking the legal approach.
The repercussions of this case are far reaching.
There are actually multiple regulations and laws that are potentially being violated when a fake review is written. First off, Amazon’s Terms of Service explicitly prohibits fake reviews because it is seen as a method of manipulating the market in favor of the vendor. Secondly, federal law prohibits vendors from engaging in “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce”. In addition to federal law, nearly every state in North America has a provision that echoes the sentiments of FTC section 5.
This is important because it’s difficult for the average consumer to understand how a fake review actually breaks laws. The fact is that fake reviews, negative or positive, manipulate market conditions. They are a form of advertising, and they work both to promote a product and take competitors down a notch.
They are also old news for anyone who closely follows market conditions online. Faked reviews aren’t just a problem for Yelp and Amazon, they are a problem for nearly any service that offers the ability to post reviews of a product or service. TripAdvisor, for instance, has fielded accusations that fake reviews target the hotels they list in order to artificially inflate how users feel about a particular destination.
Amazon’s legal offensive is one of the most aggressive moves to put a stop to this practice, but will it actually work?
The answer to the question of how to shut these reviewers down is complicated. Amazon might be able to develop a system that would be harder to game than Yelp or Trip Advisor, but the practice of faking reviews will very much continue. This is like damming the river. It will help the problem, and deal with the immediate consequences, but it doesn’t exactly send a long-term message to those who get paid to write the reviews.
Amazon is taking a clear stance that they want to eliminate this problem, and they are probably one of the few companies in a good position to do so. Their verified review system already helps add clout to certain reviews, and their “Top Reviewers” program recognizes outstanding reviewers and incentivizes them to continue their honest work.
Both Amazon and Yelp also have a complicated algorithm in place that detects when a review is faked, which triggers an automatic action to flag and remove the review in question. According to Nielsen, an increasing number of users are relying on reviews from websites like Amazon to tell them which products are worth buying. Roughly two-thirds of shoppers consider consumer opinions online, which makes this a market in and of itself.
The Market for Reviews and Reviewers
There is also another facet to this problem, which is the fact that people don’t normally leave reviews. Marketers already know it’s important to send a follow-up email if they want to accumulate positive reviews. In fact, that service has become so lucrative that it’s often cheaper for a small business to pay for fake reviews than it is to spend marketing dollars in an attempt to earn real ones.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where reviews are only left by users who are verified, which is a shame. That will undoubtedly reduce the number of users leaving authentic reviews even more, because verification is another step in the process of praising a company for its actions. Still, the time and financial costs will far outweigh the risks of doing nothing at all.
Reviews are becoming an increasingly important metric for online retailers, but authentic ones are proving hard to come by. That hurts consumers and businesses alike.
Screenshots taken and edited by author, November 2015.