E-commerce giant Amazon announced changes to its Community Guidelines that prohibit incentivized reviews unless they are facilitated through the retailer’s Vine program, which is designed to provide information on new products ahead of a sufficient number of reviews or feedback provided by users.
Through Vine, Amazon — and neither the vendor nor the seller — “identifies and invites trusted and helpful reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release products,” adding "We do not incentivize positive star ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews, or even require a review to be written; and we limit the total number of Vine reviews that we display for each product."
Amazon previously allowed reviews written by customers who had received a product in exchange for their honest feedback, on the condition that the reviewer disclosed his or her relationship with the seller or manufacturer. Reviewers were generally offered the product for free or at a discounted price in exchange for their critique.
Amazon has become increasingly more vigilant about ensuring that reviews of products offered on its site (including its Marketplace) are trustworthy. In recent years, the retailer has taken reviewers and sellers to court over what it alleges are false or misleading testimonies about products for sale. Protecting the authenticity of reviews is important because user-generated feedback is one of the few ways that e-commerce retailers can combat the “touch and feel” advantage that brick-and-mortar retailers offer shoppers in store.
“Our goal is to eliminate the incentives for sellers to engage in review abuse and shut down this ecosystem around fraudulent reviews in exchange for compensation,” Amazon said in June.
Research shows that consumers use product reviews to help them make decisions and that they favor online retailers that include reviews. In fact, a survey by PowerReviews asking 800 U.S. consumers how ratings and reviews impact their decision-making, where they look for information and how it affects their purchase behavior found that consumers want to see reviews, both positive and negative, and expect to access them in every channel.
“It’s become the proxy for the in-person shopping experience,” Matt Krebsbach, then at user-generated content solutions firm Bazaarvoice, told Retail Dive last year. “Think back to the days when you’d talk to the sales clerk, hold the product in your hands. Now you rely on the experiences of other people with that product. Reviews have enormous currency with businesses — they provide visibility in the marketplace and drive conversation.”
More specifically, Bazaarvoice’s research shows that larger numbers of reviews lead to improved search results and conversation rates. “That’s why so many companies are using this content and why there’s so much enthusiasm on the part of ‘bad actors’” generating inauthentic positive reviews, Krebsbach said.
As it has grown and attracted more sellers on its Marketplace, Amazon has increasingly faced the trouble that comes from offering fakes, and misleading reviews threaten to further undermine the retailer’s trustworthiness.
In August, Amazon rolled out new rules designed to curb the availability of counterfeit name-brand merchandise on its Marketplace, though it’s exempting existing sellers from paying its new non-refundable “brand gating” fees of up to $1,500 per brand. That announcement came on the heels of popular sandal maker Birkenstock pulling its goods from Amazon’s entire site, saying that was the only way to ensure that customers didn’t end up buying fakes.