I recently learned that Amazon reviews are not the idyllic community of engaged shoppers that I had subconsciously assumed. Naive me.
It all started with headphones.
I got a pair of earbuds as a Christmas present this year. In the box there was a little piece of paper with the typical “register for extended warranty” type stuff. It also said there were other perks for registering.
I usually throw those things right in the recycle bin. But on a whim I went to the website.
I couldn’t register for the extended warranty (since it was a gift I didn’t have the order number). I could, however, indicate interest in reviewing future products. I figured, why not?
A few days later I got an email saying they would like a new product reviewed, offering to refund the purchase price of a new pair of over-the-ear Bluetooth headphones. The email didn’t say anything about the review needing to be positive, or even that it needed to happen to get the refund.
So I took a chance and bought the headphones, thinking I could just return them if I didn’t get the refund (I don’t need another pair of headphones).
But to my shock the refund showed up in my PayPal account within hours of me submitting proof of purchase. Wow.
I used the headphones for a week or so and then wrote a review. I did give them 5 stars, which to me means a product I’m happy with and is a good value for the price, with no significant deficiencies (again given the price context). I think I was pretty balanced in the review text and I did my best to review as if I had paid for them.
I disclosed in the review that I had gotten a refund for the headphones.
What I did not know is that Amazon does not currently allow compensated reviews of any kind.
Here’s Amazon’s policy, including a prohibition on the following:
Offering compensation or requesting compensation (including free or discounted products) in exchange for creating, modifying, or posting content.
Here I was thinking I was doing the right thing by acknowledging that I had received compensation for writing the review. Turns out I was breaking the rules already anyway.
The company that asked me to do the review actually reached out and let me know about the policy – and they asked me to take out the disclosure.
So I deleted the review and offered to send back the headphones (they declined and said to just keep them).
I tried to let Amazon know what happened. The representative I chatted with didn’t seem too interested, but thanked me nonetheless.
I was honestly shocked that this company was so brazenly trying to undermine the review system. I was very naive – apparently this is a thriving industry.
I don’t have a problem with compensated reviews (clearly). Reviews take time, especially decent ones that say more than “nice product” and I don’t have an issue with someone getting compensated for their time.
But the compensation needs to be disclosed. Then people can make of it what they want, and everything is in the open. Incentivizing people to hide their compensation sucks.
Amazon isn’t helping things here. Apparently compensated reviews used to be allowed, as long as they were disclosed. I think by forcing this underground they’ve made the situation worse. Data from this article in Forbes about “Amazon’s Fake Review Problem” supports my gut reaction here:
Since the announcement [that compensated reviews would be banned], though, there’s been no improvement. Indeed, ReviewMeta’s data indicates that the average review weight – the measure of how trustworthy reviews are overall – has almost halved since Amazon announced its strategy for dealing with the problem.
In any case, my overall trust in Amazon reviews is way down.
Having said that, though, I’ve rarely bought a well-reviewed product and found it to be lacking. It’s even true with my infamous headphones – they’re a legitimately good product.
Anyway, I’m done with compensated Amazon reviews.
But I am going to try to review more products that I buy for myself – do my part to counterbalance the system of undisclosed compensated reviews.
Overall the experience felt gross and I didn’t like it at all. I should have been more skeptical and checked the rules first.
Actually, there is a bigger take away:
Had I recognize fully that I didn’t need the headphones, and therefore getting them at no cost represented minimal, if any value, I would have ignored the offer. I wouldn’t have missed out on any happiness (the headphones didn’t solve any problem I had) but would have avoided the trouble and anxiety that resulted from the experience.