Amazon reviews: the good, the bad and the ugly
Many of those who write here have commented in the past about the problem of “fake” reviews, or “buying” reviews, of books on Amazon.com. It’s grown to be an enormous problem across that site, not just with books, but with anything where there’s an opportunity to con the consumer by making them think that a product is better than it really is.
A number of surveys have highlighted the problem in general. Which? magazine in the UK said:
Of the hundreds of products analysed, many have a raft of five star customer ratings and thousands of glowing reviews, and many of these are from unverified purchasers – all telltale signs of ‘fake’ reviews. We found:
- ‘Unknown’ brands dominating search results for popular tech
- Tens of thousands of positive, unverified reviews
- Hundreds of five-star, unverified reviews arriving on a product in a single day.
- Products loaded with positive reviews for different items.
97% of shoppers rely on online customer reviews to help make a purchase, according to a survey we conducted in September 2018 of more than 2,000 adults. The CMA estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews.
Among others, the magazine advises these steps to see whether product reviews seem too good to be true:
- Be suspicious of mostly large numbers of positive feedback;
- Filter out unverified reviews (i.e. where no purchase is confirmed);
- Look out for large numbers of reviews posted on the same day or in a short period of time.
Those three checks can affect us as writers, because of the nature of our product.
- We often ask our readers and beta readers to provide Amazon reviews, to help boost sales when we launch a new book. If a lot of them do so within the first few days of a launch, our review “pattern” might look suspicious. (This has happened to me once before; within days of the launch of “The Stones of Silence” last year, all its reviews “disappeared”. They’d been removed for checking, because so many positive reviews appearing so quickly made it look like I’d been paying for them. Within a day, after checking, they reappeared, so kudos to Amazon for that.)
- Those who read our books via Kindle Unlimited (KU), Amazon’s subscription library, don’t actually buy them: so, if they leave a review, it’s not tagged by Amazon as being from a verified purchaser. If there are a lot more reviews from KU readers than from purchasers, this might seem suspicious.
The Hustle points out that the underground market for positive reviews on Amazon is alive and well, despite Amazon’s attempts to crack down.
The fake Amazon review economy is a thriving market, ripe with underground forums, “How To Game The Rankings!” tutorials, and websites with names like (now-defunct) “amazonverifiedreviews.com.”
But the favored hunting grounds for sellers on the prowl is Amazon’s fellow tech behemoth, Facebook.
In a recent two-week period, I identified more than 150 private Facebook groups where sellers openly exchange free products (and, in many cases, commissions) for 5-star reviews, sans disclosures.
. . .
Here’s how the process generally works:
- A seller posts an item to the discussion board with a message like, “FREE. refund + $5 commission for 5 STAR. PM for details.”
- An interested buyer sends the seller a private message.
- The seller directs the buyer to the product on Amazon using keywords.
- The buyer purchases the product and leaves a 5-star review.
- The seller sends the buyer a refund via PayPal, plus a commission (usually in the form of a $5-10 gift card).
. . .
Most reviewers stick to 3 or fewer positive reviews per week to avoid suspicion from Amazon. By exercising caution, some users have been able to make a consistent side income from the commissions.
“Make sure your reviews don’t sound overly fake and make sure you review other items too, not just from Chinese sellers,” cautioned Araceli Morales, who has left 112 5-star reviews for Amazon sellers through Facebook listings. “Never write ‘love.’”
One stay-at-home mom from Kentucky told me she makes $200-300 per month leaving positive reviews for things like sleep masks, light bulbs, and AV cables.
“Do you actually like the products?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she wrote. “I never use them.”
I’m sure that a similar dynamic applies to fake reviews for books. Most of us, being indie authors with relatively low incomes, can’t afford to pay that much for fake reviews; but I know it’s been done, and by some relatively well-known writers, too, some of whom have been unmasked and penalized by Amazon for doing so. Other indie writers have been known to solicit favorable reviews from each other (“You give me a 5-star review, and I’ll give you a 5-star review”). This is also illegal under Amazon’s terms of service, yet it’s pretty common. Also common are the screams of outrage when the guilty parties are caught and punished!
I use the Fakespot Web site to analyze Amazon reviews. It helps determine which products’ reviews are trustworthy, and which should be viewed with suspicion at best. I’ve run my own books through it, and been gratified that it grades my reviews as trustworthy. (Thanks, readers!) To analyze your own books’ reviews, enter the Amazon URL for each book in Fakespot, and let it crunch the numbers. I use Fakespot when buying other products, too, because I value user feedback as part of my selection criteria. If a product looks good, I ask Fakespot how trustworthy its reviews are. If they’re not A- or B-grade, I tend to leave it out of consideration.
It’s a sad world when cheating one’s way to success becomes the norm, rather than the exception . . . but I fear the world of e-commerce sees such cut-throat competition that cheating is becoming far too common, and far too widely accepted. It’s up to us to remain honest, and to look for – indeed, demand – honesty from other sellers. If we don’t, nobody else will do it for us!