The secrets of Amazon reviews: Feedback, fakes, and the unwritten rules of online commerce

Customer reviews have become central to online commerce, playing a huge role in determining which products succeed or fail on Amazon and other sites. A study by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center found that nearly 95% of shoppers read online reviews before making a purchase.

But the authenticity of some Amazon customer reviews is coming under new scrutiny after a data leak exposed unidentified sellers coordinating to pay customers for fraudulent reviews. Products from device makers Aukey, Mpow and Tomtop were removed from Amazon after these reports surfaced.

“One of my complaints about Amazon is their inconsistency in enforcing their own terms of service. So I was really happy about the news,” said former Amazon seller Jason Boyce, founder and CEO of Avenue7Media, co-author of the “The Amazon Jungle,” and resident expert on GeekWire’s Day 2 podcast.

“If they’re not cleaning up bad behavior, violations of terms of service, it has a negative impact on the Amazon shopper,” Boyce said. “If the shopper is reading and relying on reviews, and two-thirds of them are fake five-star reviews or even a third of them and they get this product and it’s bad, that’s bad for the Amazon customer.”

Jeff Cohen, Seller Labs

Amazon “has proven over and over again” that they will go after people and companies behind pay-for-review systems, said Jeff Cohen, vice president of Marketing for Seller Labs, a company that offers software, tools and services for Amazon sellers to market their products and communicate with customers.

“Offering incentives for reviews is not something new or exclusive to Amazon,” Cohen said. “But Amazon has to protect itself in a different way because it’s looked at in a different way than others are in the space.”

Amazon declined to comment on the specifics of the story involving Aukey and others, but said it’s “relentless” in its efforts to police customer reviews, with “long-standing policies to protect the integrity of our store, including product authenticity, genuine reviews, and products meeting the expectations of our customers.”

“To do this, we use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyze over 10 million review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published,” an Amazon spokesperson said via email.

Amazon said it takes “swift action” against violators, including suspending or removing selling privileges: “We take this responsibility seriously, monitor our decision accuracy and maintain a high bar.”

We’re tracking the latest twists in the world of Amazon reviews on this episode of Day 2, GeekWire’s podcast about everything Amazon, with Cohen and Boyce.

Listen above, keep reading for edited highlights, and subscribe to Day 2.

The importance of reviews for Amazon sellers

Reviews are clearly very important. However, the degree depends on factors including the type of product, and the stage of its rollout.

Jeff Cohen: “The way I describe it is an X-Y axis. The higher authority that your brand has, the less important the review is because people are having affinity to your brand. The more complex your product is, the more important a review is because people want to understand. And complexity could either be cost or it could be just the complexity of using the products.”

However, reviews are just one of a number of factors that determine a product’s success or failure on Amazon.

Jason Boyce, Avenue7Media

Jason Boyce: “A lot of new sellers think that everything is about the reviews. If you could just get more reviews, more four and five-star reviews, it’s going to change your life and it’s going to change your business. But I really think that reviews are a part of the buying algorithm. They’re an important element of the organic search results ranking system because they directly affect the conversion rate. … But it’s just one piece, one slice of the pie.”

The ingredients of success for sellers

The number of reviews is important at different stages of a product rollout.

Cohen: “Amazon has multiple levers that need to be pulled, and some levers need to be pulled harder than others. You need about five reviews to launch a product.

“That’s why Amazon has the Vine program and they used to have the Early Reviewer program. It’s why Amazon is now starting to create the Follow program, where when you launch new products, they’re pushed out to the people who follow you. People who have affinity for your brand will be more apt to buy your product without those reviews, and they’ll also leave you the reviews.

“Once you get about five reviews, you can start advertising a lot better. Conversion rates of ads really improve when you get between 5 and 10 reviews. … Once you get over 10 to 15, you have enough social proof that you can start to run ads. And then I think the number is dependent on what the category is.”

Timing and frequency are also important.

Cohen: “Amazon is about recency. And so, if you have 5,000 reviews but you haven’t gotten any reviews in the last two to three months, that speaks a totally different message than the company that has 200 reviews but they’ve been coming in on a more consistent basis.”

“Amazon wants to see that you have a search term. You’re looking for something, you get to search results and you pick a product. You land on the product detail page, and you buy it. That’s a conversion. And then you left a review. That means you liked it. In Amazon’s terms, that’s a flywheel. And the flywheel then is telling Amazon when this keyword is searched and this product is bought, people are happy. That’s ultimately what Amazon wants.”

“If you remember the Amazon principles, you can’t go wrong. And the number one Amazon principle is the customer comes first. And that’s what Amazon wants — they want happy customers.”

To put it another way, cheating doesn’t pay for sellers in the long run.

Boyce: “Build a brand. Put in the work. Do the hard work. Get good reviews because you are listening to the customer. You are iterating on your product. You’re making it better. You’re building a brand and you’re providing a valuable need in the marketplace.

“If you’re doing these little tricks of the trade, don’t. You’re just not going to win. I think that’s the end of story. And that’s why I love seeing the story. Sorry, Mpow, I love seeing the story that they took your ass down because you were cheating. I want to see Amazon take more cheaters down.”

Cohen: “Bad reviews are not bad. A bad review is an opportunity to improve your product… Every time you remanufacture your product, you should be looking at your reviews and your customer’s reviews and identifying ways to make your product that much better. Give yourself more of a competitive edge. If you do those things, you get better reviews because you have a better product.”

What Amazon allows and prohibits

Amazon’s policies for customer reviews boil down to a basic principle: “Customer Reviews should give customers genuine product feedback from fellow shoppers. We have a zero tolerance policy for any review designed to mislead or manipulate customers.”

Can sellers request reviews from customers? Yes, but they need to follow specific rules to avoid running afoul of Amazon’s policies. Here’s the company’s list of things not to do.

  • A review by someone who has a direct or indirect financial interest in the product.
  • A review by someone perceived to have a close personal relationship with the product’s owner, author, or artist.
  • A review by the product manufacturer, posing as an unbiased shopper.
  • Multiple negative reviews for the same product from one customer.
  • A review in exchange for monetary reward.
  • A review of a game in exchange for bonus in-game credits.
  • A negative review from a seller on a competitor’s product.
  • A positive review from an artist on a peer’s album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them.

“Make it really simple,” Cohen said. “If you are offering any type of incentive for a review, you’re violating Amazon’s terms of service.”

“There’s a lot that you have to do to ask for reviews correctly,” he said. “You can’t use any if-then language, ‘If this was a good product, then please leave me a review.’ That language is all considered illegal now. It’s considered suggestive language.”

From Amazon’s perspective, sellers “do not need to request reviews because our systems already do that on their behalf at no cost,” a company spokesperson says. “However, if a seller wishes to request a review on a specific order, they can use the request a review feature on the Order Details page or through Buyer-Seller Messaging. The reviews request would need to follow our community guidelines and cannot attempt to influence the content of the review – whether positive or negative.”

The problem with Buyer-Seller Messaging is that Amazon “does not guarantee that they will send a message,” Cohen says. “Amazon either does or doesn’t send a message but you have no visibility into that.”

That’s one of the areas where Seller Labs, eComEngine, Feedback Express, Feedback Whiz and others offer value, with messaging tools that flag potential violations.

“A lot of sellers have had success with ‘request a review’ so I don’t have anything against it,” Cohen says. However, he adds, “It’s blind and it doesn’t have any of your brand associated with it. If you’re using buyer-seller messaging, you have more rules that you need to follow.”

Tips for Amazon customers

That’s all well and good for sellers. But what about the rest of us? Cohen and Boyce explained how they look at reviews as Amazon customers themselves.

Cohen’s approach depends on the value and nature of the product he is buying.

  • When he was looking for a probiotic, cognizant of the fact that he would be ingesting it, he first Googled probiotics to understand what he should be buying. Then, on Amazon, he started reading with the negative reviews first.
  • When he was buying a ping-pong table, he was looking for one that would be easy to assemble, so he looked specifically for reviews discussing that aspect of the product.
  • In general, he also looks for the most recent reviews. In addition, he goes through the pictures to see how other people are using that product. He likes to add photos himself when he writes reviews.
  • He also likes to go to the website of the brand or seller, looking for connections. “You can learn a lot by going to their website as to how serious of a business they are, or what they’re trying to do as a business,” Cohen said.

Boyce is also a “downside buyer,” looking first at the negative reviews.

  • If he sees a negative review in a one-star rating over a specific aspect of the product, he goes back to the listing to see if the product was updated to address the complaint. “Maybe that bad review was left a year ago, and the company’s playing the Amazon game in the right way, and they’ve updated their product and it’s no longer a concern,” Boyce explains.
  • He also regularly uses Fakespot, which he describes as useful, even if it’s not perfect.

Listen above, and subscribe to GeekWire’s Day 2 podcast for more.

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Amazon Day 2 Podcasts Aukey Customer reviews Mpow Tomtop