It might be wise to take Amazon reviews with a grain of salt, even if the internet giant claims that 99 percent of them are legitimate. On Facebook, dozens of groups — many of them with tens of thousands of members — promise free or discounted products to users in exchange for five-star reviews, which sellers use to game the retailer’s algorithm, boosting their product rankings so they get in front of more customers.
While Amazon banned incentivized reviews in October 2016 and has since taken selective action against accounts suspected of abusing the system, online review watchdogs contend the problem is only getting worse as competition on the platform intensifies.
A new analysis from The Washington Post and review audit site ReviewMeta found that certain categories like Bluetooth speakers and headphones were especially suspicious, with more than half the reviews for the top 10 products exhibiting red flags that might indicate fraudulent activity, like repetitive phrases and reviewers with overlapping purchase histories.
A survey of several of the top Facebook groups shows that footwear, too, is a popular category for sellers looking to trade free or heavily discounted product for glowing reviews. Posts for knitted sneakers, LED kids’ shoes and platform stilettos have racked up dozens of comments from interested users, while sellers link to products that earn failing grades from sites like ReviewMeta and Fakespot.
Policing the sketchy transactions is no easy feat, either, since the deals are struck off of Amazon’s platform and sellers often reimburse reviewers via PayPal. This month, the company closed thousands of Prime accounts suspected of posting paid-for reviews but in the process swept up a significant number of users who claim they never violated the terms (at press time, one Facebook group created to discuss the closures had nearly 5,000 members).
Still, Amazon will have to find a way to maintain trust for both shoppers and sellers, particularly at the rate merchants are joining the platform: In 2017, CEO Jeff Bezos disclosed in a letter to shareholders that third-party sellers accounted for more than half of all items sold on Amazon.