Amazon Slams The Lid On Hyped-Up Incentivized Reviews

In an effort to ensure that customers aren't mislead about items they're researching, online retailer Amazon is somewhat banning the practice known as incentivized reviews, which is when a reviewer posts an evaluation of a product in exchange for receiving it for free or at a discount. We say "somewhat" because Amazon will still allow such evaluations, but only when it's the one setting them up.

"Today, we updated the community guidelines to prohibit incentivized reviews unless they are facilitated through the Amazon Vine program. We launched Vine several years ago to carefully facilitate these kinds of reviews and have been happy with feedback from customers and vendors," Amazon said. "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."

Amazon has always prohibited compensation for reviews, with the sole exception of allowing people to post evaluations of products in exchange for receiving them for free or at a discount, and as long as the nature of the review was disclosed. According to Amazon, those types of reviews only made up a "tiny fraction" of the millions of evaluations on its site, but they're no longer allowed outside of Amazon's Vine program.

The controversial practice of incentivized reviews on Amazon was the topic of a YouTube video by ReviewMeta, a website that lets you plug in product URLs from Amazon for an a free analysis of the user reviews. In the video, ReviewMeta provided some interesting data showing that incentivized reviews tended to be more favorable that regular user reviews.

One explanation is that vendors sending out products for evaluation might only be sending higher end gear, but even in those cases, those reviewing the product in exchange for receiving it for free still gave it a higher rating than those who purchased the product.

According to ReviewMeta, part of the problem is that vendors would select reviewers based on their review history, a practice that encouraged users to leave positive evaluations if they wanted to receive free products. This gave rise to "mega reviewers" with thousands of evaluations. In one case, a reviewer who was receiving products for free or a discount gave out 5-star reviews to all but one of his more than 1,600 evaluations.

Now that Amazon is banning the practice, save for its Vine program, is ReviewMeta's service obsolete?

"Absolutely not! We believe this is an excellent step for Amazon since readers seemed to be getting more and more turned off by the massive amount of incentivized reviews they were reading. However checking for incentivized reviews is only one of the twelve things we test every product for," ReviewMeta says. "There’s a lot of other ways that sellers manufacture reviews aside from just getting incentivized ones. Furthermore, we believe that because this popular loophole has been closed, sellers will just find another to exploit. And when they do, we’ll be there to find it and call them out on it."

There are a lot of downsides to user reviews, though there are situations where they can be useful. Our advice when scanning user reviews is to look at the negative evaluations and see if there are several people complaining about the same issue. For example, if a dozens of people point out that a particular laptop has poor battery life, it probably does.

Thumbnail Image Source: Flickr (Zhao !)