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Amazon Reviews and the Social Dilemma

While Amazon has sought to reverse perceptions that it doesn’t do enough to counteract “bad actors” that may sell counterfeit goods on its marketplace, it is also battling to overcome another problem on its platform: fake or incentivized reviews.

In a recent blog post, Amazon said it was “imperative” for social media companies to invest adequately in proactive controls to detect fake reviews before Amazon reports the issue to them.

Amazon said that the company regularly reports fake reviews that may have been created outside the platform, noting that in the first three months of 2020 it reported more than 300 groups to social media companies. The social media firms then took a median time of 45 days to shut down those groups, according to Amazon.

In the first three months of 2021, both Amazon and the social media companies improved on these marks, with the tech titan reporting 1,000 groups and the social networks taking a median of only five days to remove them.

“We need social media companies whose services are being used to facilitate fake reviews to proactively invest in fraud and fake review controls, partner with us to stop these bad actors, and help consumers shop with confidence,” Amazon  wrote. “It will take constant innovation and partnership across industries and law enforcement to fully protect consumers and our honest selling partners.”

Consumers still overwhelmingly trust Amazon reviews

With Prime Day set for June 21-22, consumers are almost guaranteed to be drawn to reviews of various products offered across Amazon’s own first-party and third-party sales channels. According to a Bazaarvoice’s Review Criteria survey, 89 percent of consumers “always” or “mostly” rely on or consult ratings and reviews before making a purchase.

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Consumers by and large still appear to trust the e-commerce giant, as 91 percent of the more than 21,000 global consumers surveyed said they trust reviews on Amazon, even in the face of recent criticisms.

Unfortunately, quantity really does seem to be preferred over quality in the consumers’ eyes, which can play into the hands of sellers or groups that want to drive up fake or incentivized reviews. The survey said that 93 percent of respondents would rather purchase a product with both a lot of positive and a lot of negative reviews over a product with no reviews.

Consumers can be fickle however in regards to the quantity versus quality debate, with the total number meaning less if the reviews are not as positive. Eighty-nine percent of respondents would rather purchase a product with 50 reviews and a 4.5-5 star rating over a product with 200 reviews that has a three-star rating or below, surveys by Bazaarvoice‘s Influenster Community said.

In fact, positive reviews are incredibly important to a sale, with 82 percent of respondents saying that a product needs to have an average of between four to five stars before they would consider purchasing it.

Facebook groups give rise to reviews, but Amazon is late to the punch

Amazon did not identify any social media platform by name in its critical blog post, but one platform typically comes to mind when referencing product reviews. In April, following a U.K. investigation, Facebook removed 16,000 groups related to facilitating fake reviews.

A study from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California that was published in August tracked 1,500 products on Amazon with reviews solicited from Facebook groups.

The researchers found that for sellers that inflate their listings with paid-for reviews the added benefit wears off after nearly a month—when unhappy purchasers start countering the high scores with low ratings—and because Amazon’s algorithms appear to put more weight on recent reviews.

The researchers said Amazon eventually did act—purging roughly one-third of the observed fake reviews about 100 days, on average, after they appeared. But given its own criticisms of social media platforms, the 100-day delay gives a hint that Amazon itself still isn’t being as proactive in discarding the fake reviews as it could be.

One of the researchers in the study, UCLA assistant professor Brent Hollenbeck, bluntly said in a tweet referencing Amazon’s blog post, “In our research on fake reviews we find [Facebook] is more diligent about the issue than Amazon is. [Facebook] regularly deletes the groups where reviews are bought and sold, whereas Amazon is very slow to delete the fake reviews themselves and almost never punishes the sellers who buy them.”

WSJ column brings added attention to the process

Amazon’s blog post was curiously timed, coming three days after Wall Street Journal personal tech columnist Nicole Nguyen wrote about her recent experiences shopping with the e-commerce giant. The stark headline of the piece summed up her opinions on the experience succinctly: “Fake Reviews and Inflated Ratings Are Still a Problem for Amazon.”

The reviews impact products that Amazon itself sells, and not just third-party products, according to Nguyen. After buying an iPhone charger on Amazon, Nguyen found that the box included a $35 gift card from the product’s brand manufacturer, RAVPower. This card could be redeemed in exchange for a product review—all despite Amazon banning sellers from offering a financial reward for reviews.

Since the compensation is coordinated through email, with shoppers giving the seller screenshots of their order ID and review URL, it circumvents Amazon’s process of detecting and reporting reviews.

The two-port fast charger that Nguyen purchased had five stars with over 9,800 ratings, she said. The product appears to have been taken down from Amazon since the article was published on June 13.

Nguyen also pointed out Facebook’s instances of review manipulation, in which people post images of sellers’ products within the social network’s groups feature to incentivize reviews. To qualify for a rebate, reviewers pick a product to buy and follow instructions intended to boost a product’s ranking, which typically include the search keywords for the product. After the review is complete on Amazon, the kickback is instead handled on third-party payment services like PayPal.

Despite criticisms, Amazon defends review enforcement

Across its own platform, Amazon said it stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews in 2020 before they were ever seen by a customer.

The company said it also shut down and stopped review submissions from the accounts contributing the fake reviews and to enforce the bad actors’ selling accounts trying to artificially benefit from this abuse.

“We do not take any enforcement decision lightly and maintain a very high bar for our accuracy in identifying fake reviews,” Amazon said in the post. “We know that the vast majority of our sellers work hard every day to create a great shopping experience for our customers, that they are operating businesses, and that they often have many employees to support.”

Amazon recently made changes to its product listings, such as adding one-tap ratings and including scores from around the world. While the intent of the changes was to increase the quantity of legitimate ratings, these changes can make it harder for shoppers to tell authentic reviews from inauthentic ones. For one, the one-tap reviews allow customers to submit a star rating without accompanying text.

Amazon said it currently uses a combination of machine learning technology and human moderators to determine fake reviews. Since the review problem originates partly on social media sites outside of Amazon’s control, the company said it also uses the machine-learning technology and other techniques to detect groups of connected entities such as customer accounts, selling accounts, products, brands and more.

The online giant also provides customers and selling partners with the ability to report fake reviews that it may have missed.