Are consumers losing

faith in product reviews

As seen on The Future of Commerce Blog:

There are many occasions where we will all rely on reviews to help us distinguish between products or services; especially when they have many different choices. 

I recently bought a digital thermometer on Amazon where I had the choice of many hundreds of devices so I relied on the reviews to help me make the decision.  Each time I used it, I would get completely random results and it was clear that the device was not as reliable as the reviews had led me to believe.  A few days later I received the normal email from Amazon asking me to review it so I posted an accurate and honest negative review.  I often review my Amazon purchases as I know that I tend to rely on them myself when buying from the website.  Like many customers, I tend to review the items I really like and those that I really don’t.

What happened next was quite an eye opener into the world of Amazon reviews.  Over the following few weeks, I received many emails from different addresses, all offering me money to remove the negative review.  They even provided a link with instructions on how to do it.  Despite me replying stating that I was unwilling to do this, the emails continued.  It only stopped once I reported it to Amazon, who, to their credit, took it quite seriously.

This got me thinking. If this has happened to me, how many other people are tempted by the offer of money and go ahead and remove a negative review?  How about the positive reviews; do Amazon sellers pay people to post them?  Can we even really trust reviews at all?

Countless studies have shown that user-generated reviews can have a big impact on your conversion rates, although, admittedly, many of these studies have been published by companies that sell review management services.  It completely stands to reason that user-generated reviews can be very powerful tools in influencing a buying decision; especially with something technical or expensive such as a new TV or a holiday.  I would expect that almost everyone reading this post has viewed Amazon, Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews at some point and these have influenced their buying choices.  With many marketplaces that are flooded with different product options, many at a similar price, reviews can be a key differentiator.  But is the race to win on reviews damaging the trust customers have in them and will this, ultimately, dilute their importance and the impact they have on conversion rates?

Bulk-buying reviews

A recent investigation and report by Which? detailed how easy it is for Amazon sellers to buy verified reviews in bulk.  Just a simple Google search finds a number of companies offering a review generation service.  They use techniques to get around the Amazon guidelines and to ensure that the reviews appear to be genuine.  Most of the time the process involves providing your product to reviewers for free or at a discounted rate but, for an additional fee, some services will guarantee that your product is returned once the review is submitted.  As well as product reviews on marketplaces such as Amazon or Walmart, sellers can also purchase seller feedback and even votes to push positive reviews upThe prices for these services start from around $10 per review but can be much higher for certain categories of products which highlights how valuable genuine-looking reviews can be.

During their study, the Which? researchers posed as an Amazon seller to speak to AMZTigers, a company based in Germany, which claims to have over 60,000 reviewers worldwide to gain an understanding of what their service offers.  As well as offering to generate product reviews, the AMZTigers account manager claimed that they can even help a seller gain ‘Amazon Choice’ status within 2 weeks.  This is a big consideration as the Amazon Choice label is another big differentiator and it can possibly give the impression that the product is endorsed by Amazon.  While Amazon won’t say exactly how an item is awarded ‘Amazon Choice’ status, it has said that the item has to be highly rated, well-priced and available to ship immediately.

The fact that sellers are willing to pay large sums of money and give away free products in exchange for positive reviews is a good indication of how powerful positive reviews are.  If not, companies like AMZTigers would not exist.

Amazon’s review policies

Amazon has strict policies aimed at protecting the integrity of reviews.  They claim to analyse over 10m reviews every week and to regularly ban, suspend or even take legal action against those that violate those policies.  In my own case, as soon as I reported the seller to Amazon, the emails offering to pay me to remove the negative review immediately stopped so I am assuming that Amazon did something about it – although the product is still for sale on Amazon from the same seller.

But is Amazon doing enough?  Are they protecting the buyers they rely upon?  Companies offering these services can be easily found on search engines so it is hardly a clandestine underground service. I suspect many of us have previously read reviews for an Amazon product that are clearly for a different product or just don’t appear real to know that Amazon’s policies are not preventing this issue from happening.  While the problem is not entirely limited to Amazon, it is one of the biggest marketplaces in the world so deserves a lot of scrutiny.

What you can do to spot the fakes

So how can users trust reviews they see on websites like Amazon, eBay or Walmart?  We know that reviews can have a high impact on a user’s purchase decision so when a merchant has gamed the system and generated a lot of suspect reviews, the customer is the one that loses out.

The key to weeding out suspect reviews is learning how to recognise reviews that are likely to be fake.  Red flags include products that have a lot of very recent positive reviews, a large number of reviews that have photos attached to the review (how many people really do that?), overly detailed reviews for products that really don’t deserve such a write up, reviews that state that the reviewer was given the product free of charge and reviews that are clearly for a different but related product; known as review merging.

Another option is to use a tool such as Fakespot or ReviewMeta.  These are both very useful tools that use multiple algorithms to analyse reviews for products to provide the user with an overall score for their accuracy and reliability as well as providing more detailed insight into the patterns that they have discovered.  They can even provide an adjusted review rating, which often remove approximately 1 star from the rating.    The tools look for patterns which indicate suspect reviews without the user having to trawl through thousands of reviews.  Some of these tools even provide a browser plugin that overlay the review score on Amazon product listing and display pages which can be extremely useful.  While these tools will not be foolproof, the score and insight they provide should be taken into consideration when making a purchase decision.

The very fact that these tools exist, illustrates that there is a widespread issue with sellers gaming reviews.

The Fakespot Chrome plugin altering the review score from 4.5 to 3 on Amazon
Detailed analysis provided by Fakespot for reviews of a product on Amazon

The future of reviews

So will mistrust in reviews start to erode their value and will customers stop using them as part of their purchase decisions?  Without action, I think the answer is: Yes.  While this is unlikely to be a sudden change, the slow erosion in trust will continue to lessen the impact that reviews have on conversion rates and their value. Trust is such an important aspect in customer experience.  It takes a long time to gain and a short time to lose. Perversely, as the value of gaming the system reduces, sellers will be less likely to pay money to obtain fake positive reviews and therefore they may become more trustworthy again but this would be hard to predict.

Ultimately, the solution is for the marketplace platforms to do much more to prevent this happening.  I do not believe that my experience was unique and the fact that companies like AMZTigers, Fakespot and ReviewMeta even exist and openly advertise their services tells us that a problem exists.  As trust in marketplace reviews diminishes, this will have a knock-on impact on consumer trust in the marketplace itself.  If I can’t trust reviews on Amazon, I am less likely to buy from them so resolving this issue is not just the right thing to do, but it could have a long-term commercial impact.

Marketplaces should dedicate more resources to preventing the gaming of their review programmes as well as making the consequences for breaching the terms more severe.  In my case, the seller clearly and brazenly breached the terms but is still selling the same product on the platform. Only where the cost and consequences of gaming the system outweigh the benefits will sellers stop.

Branwell Moffat

Director of CX Consulting

Branwell Moffat is the Director of CX Consulting at KPS Digital in the UK; an award-winning SAP partner and SAP CX SI in London, UK. He’s a highly technical, strategic and business-focused e-commerce consultant and business leader with over 20 years experience helping companies grow their digital businesses to levels of individual revenues in excess of $500 million per year.

During this time he has been the co-founder / manager of Envoy Digital, a successful digital and e-commerce agency and Gold SAP and Hybris Partner based in SW London, UK which was acquired by KPS in early 2018.

His career has been spent consulting on, architecting and sponsoring the development of a large number of enterprise e-commerce solutions for a range of global brands, online and high street retailers, Premier League football clubs, financial organisations as well as a number of other vertical industries.

This experience has given him a unique understanding of not only the commercial and strategic aspects of growing an omni-commerce business, but also the technical, tactical and practical aspects of doing so.  His experience encompasses everything within the sphere of omni-commerce from user experience through to supply chain and ERP.

Branwell is often asked to talk on the subject of customer experience and, as a thought-leader, looks to write articles that, not only get people thinking, but contain real and practical advice.