There continues to be much discussion of last week’s New York Times article that drew attention to the world of paid-for reviews. Now Forbes has a piece titled Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core that argues something has to be done to ensure that the flood of fake reviews on Amazon is stopped. But are such arguments missing the point, and is it time for Amazon to do something radical to overhaul its reviews system?
Fake consumer reviews and testimonials are nothing new. They’ve existed for as long as products have been advertised. Why? Because they work. We all like to think that we’re immune to conventional advertising, which is why conventional advertising constantly changes its approach. The ideal, from an advertiser’s point of view, is to generate word of mouth buzz; this way, consumers think that their friends are recommending something because they genuinely like it, rather than because someone put up money for a bunch of adverts.
These fake reviews work, partly because they’re much easier to obtain than ‘real’ reviews. If they seem genuine, they persuade other consumers that they’re ‘from the heart’ and that they’re motivated by nothing more than a positive impression of a product. They really, really work. When we look at reviews of a product at Amazon, most of us disregard any that look obviously fake, but we still zero in on the ones that we think are genuine. That’s because we still believe that non-commercially motivated reviews by ‘ordinary’ fellow consumers are worth reading. The aim of fake reviewers is to be convincingly ‘ordinary’, and if they can do that, they can undoubtedly increase sales for a product.
Amazon’s reviewing system is a mess. Most people don’t bother to review things they’ve bought (I know I don’t, usually), which means that the people who do leave reviews are motivated by one of two things: either they have a strong and passionate view of a product (which means either five stars or one star), or they’re trying to become a professional reviewer and earn money. The motivation for the average consumer to go back and review a product after they’ve tried it out just isn’t there. If I was Amazon, I’d offer people a 0.1 cent credit for every verified review they leave. It would undoubtedly help the review ecosystem, and it would diminish the impact of paid reviews. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a start.