Do you trust every online product review you read? Including those glowing five-star reviews? What about the angry one-star reviews? 

Or perhaps only verified purchases are credible? The reality is, deciding which consumer reviews to trust or not trust has become so difficult for shoppers, new websites have popped up to help reviewers… review the reviews! Fakespot.com, Reviewskeptic.com, and Reviewmeta.com are just a few. They are a symptom of an imminent crisis of confidence in online product reviews – a key factor in the decision-making process for both ecommerce and omnichannel shoppers. Amazon takes this threat so seriously that they announced a ban on all incentivized reviews; the exception being reviews from Amazon’s own Vine program.

Product Reviews Empower Consumers

But Amazon and other online retailers certainly don’t want to curb reviews altogether. Ratings and reviews have been heralded as one of the primary consumer benefits of the open online economy. Growing out of the message boards of the 90s before taking on new forms such as blogs and then social media, online communities have helped consumers get the information they need (minus the spin) for more than two decades. From AirBnB to TripAdvisor to Amazon, consumers continue to turn to ratings and reviews to get (supposedly) unbiased opinions on experiences with goods and services from people just like them. Consumers have more trust in the perspective of an everyday person (whom they’ve never met) than in a brand’s marketing and advertising claims. According to BazaarVoice, online shoppers trust reviews up to 3x more than advertising, and more than half of them read reviews before purchasing, Furthermore, reviews can add as much as a 44% sales lift.

When it comes to Amazon, there are more than 100 million product reviews on the site. Recognizing the value of these reviews, Amazon launched its Vine program in 2007 to offer manufacturers a way to get their products into the hands of the most highly-rated reviewers. But don’t mistake them for simple product evaluations. They’re key factors for seller and product rankings in on-site search, and in turn affect search results on Google, Bing, and elsewhere. Clavis analyses have confirmed repeatedly that Vine programs consistently boost search results, hence delivering tremendous value to brands. This gives user-generated content serious play in ecommerce.

Product Reviews: Not as Unbiased as You Think

So what, exactly, is threatening this essential peer-to-peer ecosystem? Enter review clubs and farms: services that mimic Amazon Vine, and range from incenting shoppers to leave reviews by offering discounted product, all the way through to services that offer to write outright fake and fraudulent reviews. They trade in the appearance of authenticity, but in reality their motives are definitely transactional. If shoppers can’t trust reviews, then they might not trust the product or even the brand.

These clubs don’t all operate the same way, but the general model is simple: in exchange for reviews, a seller pays the club to get a product in front of prospective reviewers. The club offers the product online at a discount or for free, and the reviewer receives it in exchange for an online review. Amazon encourages transparency from its sellers and buyers, and demands that reviewers must state whether or not the product was offered for free or at a discount in exchange for the review.

The prospect of free or discounted products attracts more reviewers. Sellers have always solicited consumers for post-purchase evaluations, of course, and Amazon follows theirs up with frequent and direct requests for them. But this pay-for-play model adds to the already-substantial demand and competition for four- and five-star Amazon reviews. The result is a jungle of an exchange that’s constantly trading, buying, and selling reviews and reviewers. In this overgrowth, the buyer can hardly be aware, much less beware.

And if incentivized reviews make some consumers feel uneasy, then outright fraudulent reviews (people writing a review for a product they never used, or in some cases, made-up people full stop) most definitely erodes consumer trust. Amazon has been aggressively pursuing and suing such services, even before their recent announcement. As early as April of 2015, Amazon started suing both sites and sellers peddling fake reviews and their pursuit has become more aggressive.

Read part two, Amazon Vine Seeks to Restore Trust in Online Reviews.

by Danny Silverman
CMO

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