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Amazon Review Bundling Leads to Outcry

April 8, 2019

The Amazon Review Which? Hunt

UK consumer rights magazine Which? has turned its attention to customer reviews on Amazon and how they affect sales.

We recently looked at how the retail giant is taking on counterfeit products, but reporting from multiple sources indicates that review manipulation may be just as big a problem – and some of it appears to be done by Amazon’s own automation.

Are Amazon reviews as trustworthy as they should be? As fake reviews are being produced at scale, it seems like there are issues to watch for.

Seller-Driven Fake Reviews

In our industry, we’re very aware of the brisk (and extremely dubious) trade in reviews for full refunds. Unfortunately, many customers aren’t – at least until someone pushes it even further.

Take this Which? investigation from January. A company successfully gamed Amazon’s ‘variations’ feature, which is designed to allow sellers to easily list versions of the same product in different colours, sizes, etc.

By removing variations with negative reviews against them and by adding hundreds of ‘artificial’ variations which could be individually reviewed (‘review bundling’), they were able to replace negative reviews with around 700 5-star reviews.

And from there, the product gained Amazon’s Choice status, making it even more likely to be bought – despite having serious flaws compared to other products in the category.

Another Amazon’s Choice product is the Fusion5 T90 laptop – with over 250 5-star reviews, that status seems fair. But those 250 reviews are about half of the total reviews, and 10% of reviews are 1-star. That’s far more than you’d expect from disgruntled customers – and the professional testers at Which? describe it as ‘the worst laptop we’d tested for over a year’.

The Amazon Variations Problem

Variations is a great system. It lets sellers easily list plenty of options. It should make it easy for customers to find the specific version of a product they want. And the basic idea of showing reviews for different variations across a product line is a good one.

But the examples above aren’t the only problems. The five-star system shows the average for all reviews. So, if a shoddy product links to a great one, it benefits from those great reviews.

And if it’s the cheapest offering in the variation you’re looking for, it may well be the one you see.

There’s a direct comparison here to the Fulfilment by Amazon counterfeit problem. If you allow co-mingling of your inventory with other, supposedly identical products, counterfeit goods can appear to be ‘from’ your seller account. Therefore, you’ll take the hit for the refund and also the negatives to your customer metrics.

But you can run into the same kind of negatives if someone with a shoddy product can connect it to yours via Variations.

Amazon is trying to fight this – a spokesperson notes that “we’ve filed lawsuits against more than 1,000 defendants for reviews abuse” – but the scale of the problem makes that difficult to do.

The lesson here for Amazon sellers comes in two parts – first, watch your reviews carefully. Second, ‘buying’ reviews with refunded products is something that will, eventually, come back to bite the sellers that do it.

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