A couple of weeks ago, Amazon sued over 1,000 people for posting fake reviews on its site. The defendants in question had offered their services on fiverr.com.

But is Amazon addressing the symptoms, not the cause?

Let’s go back to the future for a second. In 2012, Gartner said that by 2014, 10-15% of social media reviews would be fakes, paid for by companies. According to the BBC program Rip Off Britain this year, it’s been estimated that as many as one in five reviews online might be fake.

It's a big problem with even bigger ramifications for those playing by the rules.

62% of people would rely on user-generated content over information provided by the company to inform a purchase decision, according to FlyResearch stats from 2015. Does it have to be the case that the more people rely on reviews, the higher percentage are fake? Surely not.

The Amazons of the world shouldn't need to take action. There are rules about misleading advertising in just about any country. Two years ago New York State prosecutors caught 19 so-called reputation management companies. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has released, with a stern warning, a report on the review industry for which I on behalf of Reevoo provided verbal and written input.

My key message to the CMA was that all systems should employ the "verified only" approach: only those reviews that can be tied back to a transaction should be shown - or at the very least, verified and unverified reviews should be clearly labelled as such.

For the 10 years Reevoo has been in business, we’ve only ever had a verified approach - But we're not a lone voice. Several other companies do “verified only” as well. eBay, Airbnb, Uber, and review platforms for small businesses Feefo and eKomi to name a few.

In the travel space, dominated by regular court visitor TripAdvisor, companies like Expedia and Booking.com are good examples. 

Booking.com only shows reviews from people who have booked through them.

 

Expedia.co.uk shows first a rating of their own verified customers, and then a TripAdvisor rating.

In groceries, Ocado is a good example.

Who would leave fake reviews of a cucumber? The answer is simple: why would suppliers of cucumbers behave any different from restaurant dinersSamsung or foolish Fiverr users? For each of these it holds true that a) a lot of money is at stake; b) consumer behaviour shows they need reviews.

I certainly did not argue to the CMA that verification alone is sufficient. Fraud detection tech is needed as well. For low priced items, it still pays off for a bad guy to orchestrate an army of fake consumers “buying” the product.

We've had fraud detection in place for years, but I won't disclose what it does, and neither would Ocado, Booking.com or Expedia - we’re in an arms race with the bad guys. Amazon did disclose a little bit of their fraud detection tech over the summer. As we have said before, tech is not enough.

Letting consumer trust in their peers' opinions dwindle is such a big waste. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. We are all consumers. 

Edwin Bos

Published 29 October, 2015 by Edwin Bos

Edwin Bos is VP Innovation at Reevoo and a contributor to Econsultancy.. 

8 more posts from this author

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Comments (4)

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Richie Jones, Head of Digital & Marketing at Saltrock

This is clearly the social proof industries’ version of click fraud. The verified approach is certainly the way to go ahead of the tech algorithms catching up. We’ve nearly fixed spam so hopefully we can fix this one to a point the ‘bad guys’ go find something else to high jack.

Ultimately any brand that ‘buys’ reviews, likes, follows, high fives etc is asking for some form of penalty in the future. Just like buying stolen bikes, don’t do it guys.

over 2 years ago

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Michael Perry, editor at Inkling Books

These lawsuits are typical Amazon behavior—bullying people who aren't behaving in a way that serves Amazon's interests. While keeping its 'nice face' oriented toward customers, it's too much stick and too little carrot for everyone else, including reviewers, who must now fear a letter from Amazon's lawyers.

Some background. About four years ago I was a well-rated Amazon reviewer and a Vine member, meaning Amazon gave me stuff in return for reviewing it. And yes, in that Amazon is behaving exactly like those it's suing. I got the impression that companies actually pay them to do that. "Do as we say and not as we do."

But I was also having my doubts. Since I typically buy books and other items that I like, most of my reviews were positive, with only a caveat or two. They were honest because I wasn't even touching products I wouldn't like. That, in turn, left me feeling guilty. Was I helping Amazon in its drive to dominate the market, particularly that for books? It certainly looked like I was.

Then Amazon's not-so-nice face appeared. Teleread had reported that a top Amazon executive had said that authors could mention and even link to their books in reviews. Unfortunately, not everyone at Amazon had gotten that word—probably because of the company's high turnover rate. I got a call from an unfortunate woman, nice herself, who was tasked with telling me rather nastily that if I didn't remove all references to books I'd written, I wouldn't be allowed to review on Amazon.

I don't take to bullying, particularly bullying this stupid, so I told her to get lost. I actually liked the result. Limiting my reviewing rights on Amazon U.S. removed the temptation to say good things about products I liked.

Interesting, Amazon didn't yank my review rights in any other country. In fact, while I've not reviewed a single item in about four years, I'm still a top-rated reviewer in Canada in the UK. On Amazon UK, my review of Tolkien's Histories of Middle-Earth heads the list of reviews, with 139 positives. That one detailed, helpful review has probably earned Amazon thousands of dollars in sales.

It also illustrates where Amazon is failing. If you look it up, you'll see that I spent a lot of time researching and writing it. For that, Amazon paid me not a penny. That's why the ability to link to my Lord of the Rings reference book in a description of such books mattered. It was the only way I benefited from my labor. And nutty as it sounds, at the same time the Amazon U.S. was getting hot and testy about my mention of Untangling Tolkien, Amazon U.K. was, and still does, allow that mention of and link to my book remain. Even Amazon's bullying is inconsistent.

Amazon is also playing a rather futile game with its search and destroy missions against paid reviews. Amazon itself apparently supplies enough information for pay-for-review outfits to track down reviewers. About once a week I get an email from such a company. I ignore them, but it's Amazon's fault I'm on their list top reviewers in such a way that I can be tracked down.

Amazon needs to adopt a more balanced approach. Rather than simply beat up on these dishonest paid-by-others reviews, it needs to pay those who are rated by customers as providing helpful reviews. And by helpful, I don't just mean positive reviews. I mean providing useful, well-research information that helps customers make decisions. You can look at my UK review of The Histories of Middle-Earth for an example. And since that review has probably resulted in Amazon making thousands of additional sales, why aren't people like me getting even a tiny slice of those additional sales? With me, Amazon brandished a ineffective stick—I was doing nothing wrong—but not offered any carrots.

In this area, like many others, Amazon needs to change its attitude. Contrary to what it thinks, the world doesn't exist of, by and for Amazon's benefit. If it wants to be treated well, with useful reviews, it needs to treat reviewers well.

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

@Micheal Perry: I review about 50% of the things I buy online, including on Amazon. Unlike you, I don't see why I should be paid for this, nobody ever gave me free stuff, and I don't bear a grudge.

I also don't see reviewing as mainly benefiting the website - it's more about helping good restaurants, hotels, manufacturers etc. reach more customers, and worse competitors on the same website reach less customers.

over 2 years ago

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Michael Perry, editor at Inkling Books

That's fine Pete. Different strokes for different folks. I like to review too and only fretted that by doing so I might be aiding and abetting Amazon scheme to dominate the print and digital book markets. That's not healthy for authors or publishers.

I was not concerned about not being paid. At the time I was getting hundreds of dollars worth of free stuff through Amazon's Vine program.

My criticism is directed at Amazon's inconsistent policy about posting links to books, as well as their authoritarian, punitive behavior. Amazon was treating me as badly—gasp—as if I were one of their employees. It is bad enough to treat your employees poorly. They need that paycheck. It's even more foolish to do that to people who can drop their dealings with you in an instant.

My suggestion about paying those who research and post top-notch reviews (like mine on The Histories of Middle-Earth) was to point out a fallacy in Amazon's policies. If Amazon wants good reviews, it would be better advised to reward those who write them than to sic their lawyers on those who publish dubious reviews. The latter will drive away some of those who write honest reviews.

"Too much stick. Too little carrot," is a good summary of Amazon's review woes.

over 2 years ago

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