Amazon Cracks Down on Review Freebies

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In a bid to help bolster trust in its customer ratings, Amazon on Monday announced that it no longer would allow most incentivized reviews -- that is, reviews written in exchange for receiving products free or at a discount.

Such reviews comprise only a small percentage of the tens of millions of reviews of products sold on the site, maintained Amazon Vice President of Customer Experience Chee Chew, who announced the new policy.

The company recently introduced a machine learning algorithm that gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews, he noted. It also has applied stricter guidelines for qualifying for the Amazon verified purchase badge. Further, it has suspended, banned or sued thousands of people who engaged in placing fraudulent reviews.

The updated community guidelines provide a limited exception for reviews generated through the Amazon Vine program, which provides strict guidelines that are designed to ensure the integrity of the product review process.

"We launched Vine several years ago to carefully facilitate these kinds of reviews, and have been happy with feedback from customers and vendors," Chew said.

Through the Vine program, Amazon will invite trusted and helpful reviewers to post opinions about new and prerelease products on the site, adding that it will not try to influence positive star ratings or the content of reviews -- or even require a review to be written.

The company will limit the total number of Vine reviews written about a given product, Chew said.

Amazon has important controls in place to get quality reviews of products that don't have enough sales to justify organic reviews, he pointed out.

The new policy does not apply to books, which may be provided free for review, noted Chew.

Amazon apparently saw a need to retool its policy to regain the trust of customers who felt the review process had become a gimmick.

"There is a substantial problem with false reviews, and Amazon recognizes that if customers stop trusting Amazon they are likely to buy from someone else," noted Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"Lack of trust could have adverse impacts on AWS as well, because the brands cover both," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"I think it's about regaining lost credibility," observed Paula Rosenblum, managing director of RSR Research.

"That's a good idea, frankly. The strategy is always about gaining and retaining customer trust," she told the E-Commerce Times.

Regaining that trust also will help make customers less sensitive to price as a factor when ordering products from the site, Rosenblum suggested.

Amazon did not address why it chose to make the policy change at this time, but the company last year went on the offensive in its efforts to clean up its reviews, filing a lawsuit against 1,114 "John Does" who allegedly placed fake reviews in exchange for cash.

The problem of fake reviews goes well beyond Amazon and even well beyond online retailing, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

The problem has been around in other industries as well -- for example, with respect to movie releases -- and done damage to brand credibility.

For example, "the recent dustup over the tens of thousands of negative reviews of the new Ghostbusters movie that appeared days before the film's actual release," he told the E-Commerce Times, "demonstrated how system reviews can be gamed by people with a specific agenda."

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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