I’m a frequent shopper on Amazon and I value the product reviews that appear with most items. These are user-generated reviews, so everyday folks get to give their two cents about products, and it really does make a difference. When I buy an item with which I don’t have any prior experience, I look to these reviews to get all sorts of information. How does it work? Are its features any good? Can I use it for a specific purpose? What should I know about it that I can’t learn from the product packaging? Reviews are crucial in making purchasing decisions, particularly when a brand is unfamiliar.
Amazon’s reviews are particularly powerful since the five-star rating system is prominently displayed in search results on the site. To help me narrow my search results, I often filter based upon the number of stars received. I think it’s safe to say that good reviews generate sales, whereas bad reviews reduce sales. Reviews, then, are a form of word-of-mouth marketing.
The problem with compensated reviews
There’s a problem, however, with Amazon reviews. It’s a growing problem that I don’t think really existed five years ago, and it’s gotten to the point that some Amazon reviews are kind of silly.
The problem is the growth of compensated, or “honest and unbiased” reviews. These are compensated reviews given by product users who received their products for free or for a discount in exchange for reviews. You can easily spot these reviews because they (hopefully) have a line somewhere in their text about the quid pro quo that resulted in the creation of the review. Some people seem to make a hobby (maybe even a living?) out of giving these reviews in exchange for discounts or freebies.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go to Amazon and search for products that have numerous reviews, and you’re likely to see at least a few that were written in exchange for the product or a lower price on the product.
Why these are silly
The reason I think these are getting silly is because they tend to give overwhelmingly positive reviews when the products themselves don’t merit that kind of praise. I don’t have anything but anecdotal evidence to back me up, but I suspect that “honest and unbiased” reviews tend to be significantly higher, on average, than non-compensated reviews. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they average over a full star higher.
Just today I was reading an in-depth, 5-star Amazon review by a glowing mother who bought an electronic item for her son. Then I got to the end of the review and saw the “honest and unbiased” (paraphrasing here) qualifier at the end. I had to take that review with a grain of salt.
Too much praise of a product is not good if it’s not merited. In that case, it becomes artificial praise. The people who lose out are prospective customers who use those reviews when making purchasing decisions and don’t stop to consider the biases involved.
Compensated reviewers have reason to give positive reviews
The reason these reviews are higher is likely due to reviewers’ feelings that they owe something to the vendor. It’s only natural that if you get something for free or a big discount, you express your gratitude. Therefore, it’s natural that if you get a free coffee pot, make-up kit, or bag of cough drops, you will have positive feelings toward the company that gave it to you. Although you will not read any rule that says these reviewers need to give highly positive reviews, that is what seems to happen. Vendors probably recognize this very fact, which is why they offer free or discounted products in the first place.
Another potential reason for higher reviews may be that compensated reviewers don’t undergo the same buying process as the rest of us. Although technically they review the same products that everyone else sees, they don’t have to pay the same price, which no doubt causes a huge change of perception about the product. You can guarantee that my review of a new, $100,000 sports car would change if I only had to fork over $18,000 for it. Heck, I’m giddy at the very thought of it, because I would be getting such a huge value. But this doesn’t mean that the product itself is any better; rather, my feelings toward the product are better. Now if I had to pay the full $100,000 for the car, my perception of the product would undoubtedly be different. At some level, I would judge it based upon alternative uses of that $100,000 – perhaps a different car at that price, or perhaps something else entirely. The point is that unless a customer is wealthy enough to be indifferent to variations in product pricing, his or her perception of that product may very well change based on the purchase price.
How can Amazon improve its reviews?
If I were to summarize the essence of the problem, it would be this: potential buyers typically expect user reviews to be spontaneously-generated by past customers, and compensated reviews are not. Instead, they are a form of marketing. Even though reviewers disclose the quid pro quo, the disclosure is normally buried at the end, and the Amazon rating system does not seem to differentiate between compensated and non-compensated reviews (there is no request for this information when you begin to review a product on Amazon). This means that when I glance at a product that received 4.5/5 stars, I have to wonder how many stars were the result of inflation. This is not good for consumers.
Now I don’t think that all compensated reviews are all bad. In fact, often times they give a lot of good information, and I’ve seen several that contain great photos or video that really helps me make a prudent decision about a purchase. I don’t think that Amazon needs to segregate them entirely from non-compensated review, but it really should discount these reviews as far as their star ratings are concerned. Perhaps if a compensated reviewer gives a five-star rating along with written text about the benefits of a product, Amazon will not use that star rating in the rating average that it shows to other customers. Regular prospective customers could still read what the compensated reviewer had to say but would not be as swayed by artificially-high star ratings when searching for products.
I can’t imagine this would be difficult to implement, and I think it would curb at least some of the silliness that compensated reviews create.