Amazon Bans Providing Items for Review (Except Books)

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The development of reviews on Amazon is a mini-history of the internet, in a way. At first, it allowed you to hear from people who’d already had experience with something you were interested in buying. Then it became a way to create memes (with goofy reviews of simple pens) or gang up on people whose ideas you disagreed with (as when people downvoted Raina Telgemeier’s Drama graphic novel just because it included happy teen gay characters).

Soon, it became a business. People were “reviewing” tons of products, giving them five stars just because they got them for free. Online groups and “review clubs” sprung up, charging to put vendors in touch with these promoters, and unethical businesses found that buying hundreds of five-star reviews helped them get their products in front of more customers, as Amazon took rankings into account when deciding what to show in search results. Some of these clubs promised “Let us show you how easy it is to get amazing AMZ products.”

Some of the worst examples of these “reviewers” were thrown off of Amazon earlier this year, but the damage had been done. Customers were seen commenting that they wouldn’t buy a product with too many five-star “I received this product at a discount for an honest review” disclaimers, and truly honest reactions were getting lost in the flood, making the reviews irrelevant. (There’s data about the warping effects in this article.) Crowd-sourcing fails when confronted with too many manipulators and bad actors.

Plus, some third-party sellers were getting annoyed by the solicit emails they got going the other way, from people wanting stuff for free in return for a review.

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So Amazon took a drastic step this morning. Sellers were notified on their dashboard that “Amazon no longer permits providing free or discounted products in exchange for reviews.” Companies that make such offers risk being banned from selling on Amazon. The Community Guidelines were similarly updated under the “Promotions and Commercial Solicitations” section. (Another interesting fact is that at some point in the past, they also added the detail that you have to have spent $50 at Amazon to be able to leave reviews at all.) There is an exception:

Book authors and publishers may continue to provide free or discounted copies of their books to readers, as long as the author or publisher does not require a review in exchange or attempt to influence the review.

Amazon commented in its blog post on the change that this exception was due to it being an “age-old practice”.

Oh, and there’s another exception: a company can use their Vine program to allow Amazon to distribute review products for it. Those reviewers are selected by Amazon, using secret criteria. As Amazon says,

Here’s how Vine works: Amazon – not the vendor or seller – identifies and invites trusted and helpful reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release products; we do not incentivize positive star ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews, or even require a review to be written; and we limit the total number of Vine reviews that we display for each product.

So those who were enjoying free or discounted cellphone cases or electronic cables or supplements (yuck – talk about a product line where you really want to have faith in the seller!) or similar products, the gravy train just came to an abrupt stop. As an Amazon reviewer with a ranking higher than 10,000, I would get solicitations for cheap or free items of that kind, mostly from Chinese manufacturers. I did try out a few, but I got tired of the harassing email if I didn’t give the product five stars (which I rarely did, since I wasn’t worried about continuing to get those kinds of offers).

The whack-a-mole won’t stop, though. One review club is now selling its former reviewers as purchasers to allow a company to increase sales velocity, sending shills to game that metric, and moving reviews to Facebook, YouTube, and other outlets. Another is pushing email followup with organic buyers to drive reviews. (Personally, if I buy something on Amazon, and the seller hassles me to review it, they may not like the rating they get.)

Some are simply saying that their members that get coupons and discounts now aren’t required to leave a review, although it’s unclear whether that will pass Amazon’s test. I suspect the more unethical “reviewers” will just stop saying they got the product at a discount. Grumpy people no longer getting things for free have started a petition to change Amazon’s mind (not likely) because they think Vine is a “monopoly”.

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