While Amazon has long looked down on reviews that were written in exchange for free or deeply discounted items, these write-ups were allowed so long as they followed the rules: The review must be honest, and the compensation must be fully disclosed. But as we showed earlier this year, a number of compensated reviewers were gaming the system — posting hundreds of reviews a month, almost universally positive, and for products they sometimes couldn’t possibly have used. Now Amazon has announced a nearly full ban on compensated reviews.
There are a number of sites and social media groups that promote these free and discounted items, with the condition that the person receiving the product write an Amazon review within a given timeframe.
Yesterday, Chee Chew, Amazon’s VP of Customer Experience, explained that the reason the company had previously tolerated these incentivized reviews is that they were seen as a way for little-known products to build up a base of customer feedback.
However, as we demonstrated in our Feb. 2016 story, some reviewers were leaving very questionable reviews. For example, we found multiple reviews for a phone case for a Lumia 650 — all of them positive and many of them referencing how well the case fit onto their device. Problem was, that phone had not yet been released.
Additionally, a look at other reviews written by these same users often turned up multiple cases for a variety of smartphones (some of which hadn’t even been announced, let alone released), again with nearly universal 5-star reviews. We found one reviewer, “Andrea,” who posted 5-star write-ups for accessories for at least 14 different models of smartphone — all in just one month.
Chew also contends that these incentivized were a very small portion of the site’s overall reviewer base, which is likely true. The issue we found in our research was that these paid-for reviewers were all piling on to the same products. So while the overall concentration of dubious reviews may have been low site-wide, it could be as high as 100% on some items.
This was apparently enough for Amazon, which has updated its Community Guidelines to ban all incentivized reviews that are not part of the Amazon Vine program (which we’ll get to momentarily).
The Guidelines now make it clear that “posting content in exchange for compensation of any kind (including free or discounted products) or on behalf of anyone else” is not allowed. Likewise, for sellers, manufacturers, distributors, and marketers, “Offering compensation or requesting compensation (including free or discounted products) in exchange for creating, modifying, or posting content.”
While users are barred from writing reviews of products they received as compensation, Amazon will allow them to respond to questions asked through the Questions and Answers feature — on the the condition that they disclose their connection.
So what is this about Amazon Vine?
For those that aren’t familiar, Vine (not the social media video platform) is a long-running Amazon program that allows select customers to get pre-release access to certain products. These customers can review that item, but they are not required to; nor does Amazon encourage them to only leave positive feedback.
Amazon also knows who Vine members are and what they’ve received through the program. In contrast, the company has no idea which users are getting free stuff from third-party marketers. There are still concerns about the program — there is arguably a built-in bias to liking something when you get it for free and before everyone else — but the restrictions in place on the program mean a Vine member can’t vomit out 950 reviews in a single month like one of the fake fans we found.
“Vine has important controls in place and has proven to be especially 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,” says Chew. “We also have ideas for how to continue to make Vine an even more useful program going forward.”
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.