Amazon’s wave of account closures due to purchased reviews has customers in a social media frenzy. Users took to Twitter and Facebook to report getting locked out of their accounts without explanation. Amazon responded with a mass email, citing either review policy or account misuse violations.
As we know, compiling reviews on an Amazon product does wonders for conversion rates and ranking in search results. The importance of these reviews have contributed to a rise in using prohibited tactics to collect them. This includes offering discounted or free products in exchange for positive reviews, a tactic which was banned by Amazon in 2016.
Evolving guidelines to eliminate bias
This practice was once so popular that companies were born from it. iLoveToReview, connected sellers with buyers who would leave reviews for items they received for free.
Before October 2016, reviewers could post a review in exchange for a free or discounted product as long as they disclosed that fact. These “incentivized” reviews, “can be helpful to customers by providing a foundation of reviews for new or less well-known products,” according to Amazon’s official blog.
Since the update, Amazon’s Community Guidelines state that “creating, modifying, or posting content in exchange for compensation of any kind (including free or discounted products, refunds, or reimbursements) or on behalf of anyone else” is prohibited.
This meant iLoveToReview, whose client base of sellers had been doing approximately $500 million in Amazon sales, was shut down immediately.
Amazon’s motivation for banning these practices is due to the biased reviews that they generate. Receiving an incentive creates a more biased experience for the customer, corrupting the nature of a review system.
The emergence of Amazon Vine
To take back control and regulate the review process, Amazon created the Amazon Vine program. A small, exclusive, invite-only program for elite reviewers that Amazon selects.
They were sent products from sellers who have paid to take part in the program in exchange for honest feedback. This eliminated direct contact between seller and reviewer. Vine reviews include the disclaimer: “Vine Customer Review of Free Product.”
An Amazon spokesperson cites the Vine program as helpful in the same way that incentivized reviews once were:
“…valuable for getting early reviews on new products that have not yet been able to generate enough sales to have significant numbers of organic reviews.”
The difference is that Vine is controlled and regulated by Amazon to ensure no underhanded practices are occurring. Sellers enrolled in Vine must pay a per-product enrollment fee estimated between $1,000 to $2,500, as well as providing the free products.
To protect the exclusivity of the program, only sellers with quality products are likely to make the significant investment.
Bringing backhanded tactics to light
Black hat methods have increased in response to the banning of incentivized reviews. Amazon customers have reported being asked to buy a product and told that they will receive a refund via PayPal.
This preserves the valuable “Amazon Verified Purchase” tag that will appear on their review. Sellers unwilling to abide with Amazon’s terms of service are often equally dishonest to their customers.
A private Facebook group called Amazon Blacklist has emerged, compiling hundreds of stories from customers who never received reimbursement for their purchase.
Those who have engaged in successful review exchange deals aren’t safe from account closure. Paypal states on its website that it can share customers’ information with Amazon. This means that Amazon can track Paypal refunds and use that data to guide account closure decisions.
The latest development – package deals?
Since February, people in the US and Canada have been reporting receiving Amazon packages of items that they had not ordered.
According to experts, this may be the result of a new backhanded method to collect positive reviews. Sellers may be creating fake customer accounts, sending products to random addresses, then writing themselves positive reviews.
Amazon disagrees with this theory, responding:
“we have found very few reviews written on these shipments and we remove any reviews that we do find immediately. Only the sender can write a verified purchase review and still must meet the minimum requirements. The sender cannot write a review on behalf of the receiver. Our review detection systems are trained to catch this type of behavior and we will continue our ongoing efforts to detect and prevent abuse.”