The compensated-review process is simple: Businesses paid to create dummy accounts purchase products from Amazon and write four- and five-star reviews. Buying the product makes it tougher for Amazon to police the reviews, because the reviews are in fact based on verified purchases. The dummy accounts buy and review all sorts of things, and some of the more savvy pay-for-review sites even have their faux reviewers pepper in a few negative reviews of products made and sold by brands that aren’t clients to create a sense of “authenticity.” In fact, for extra cash, a company can pay one of these firms to write negative reviews of a competitor’s product. Wirecutter contributor Brent Butterworth has written about this practice as well.
Super shady, we know. And Amazon has a history of trying hard to deal with offenders and shut them down. In fact, in April, Amazon sued another round of companies that are accused of selling fraudulent reviews. But by the time those companies are caught, their clients have already made a bunch of sales, and the fraudulent reviewers will likely pop up again under new names to repeat the process.
How to avoid getting scammed
You have a few ways to suss out what may be a fake review. The easiest way is to use Fakespot. This site allows you to paste the link to any Amazon product and receive a score regarding the likelihood of fake reviews.
For example, we ran an analysis on some diet supplement we found during a recent research sweep for our guide about diet supplements. You can see from the results above that the supplements reviews didn’t score so well.
The likelihood of knowing for certain if a review is fake
To get some perspective, we spoke with a professor in the department of computer science at our local University, whose focuses include sentiment analysis, opinion mining, and lifelong machine learning. He has written textbooks on the subjects. We wanted to know his opinion on whether it is possible for a program or group of programs to evaluate reviews and correctly determine their validity. His thoughts:
“It is hard to say without knowing their techniques. The problem with this task is that there is often no hard proof that the detection is actually correct unless the author of the actual fake reviews (not made up fake reviews) from a review hosting site confirms it. Of course, it is easier if the company actually hosts reviews (e.g., Amazon or Yelp) because they can analyze the public information that the general public can see and also (more importantly) their internal data which tracks all the activities after a person comes to the website. A lot of unusual behaviors can be detected. Unfortunately, such data is not available to people outside the site.”
In other words: Unless you have a way to confirm with the person (or company) writing the review, or you are Amazon, it’s all conjecture. Keep in mind that these analyses are based on Fakespot’s techniques, so we have to take their word for it. We don’t have a way to verify how precise they are. However, you can make educated guesses. And if you’re in a hurry or in need of a second opinion, Fakespot can be a useful tool when you’re considering a purchase.
The Vine program
The Vine program, and similar methods of eliciting feedback, give away products for free (or sell them at a deep discount) to potential customers vetted (by Amazon in the case of the Vine program) for the helpfulness of their reviews, in exchange for an “honest review.” While these sorts of reviews are far more ethical than paid-for reviews, they can also be a little problematic. Even if the way the review was obtained is disclosed on product pages, several aspects of the purchasing process don’t get considered as part of these programs.
For example, returns and long-term use aren’t part of the evaluation. When you get something for free, you’re less likely to follow up on breakage concerns or customer service issues. Additionally, if the reviewer didn’t actually buy the product, that person doesn’t take the purchase and shipping processes into consideration.
But most important, receiving something for free or nearly free can greatly affect one’s opinions. You might notice how few of the reviews through Vine and similar programs are negative or even critical. This isn’t a case of reviewers intentionally being dishonest, but rather the result of unconscious positive bias. Not paying for an item can make difficulties with that item seem less irritating.
Additionally, reviewers may give their opinions on items for which they have no expertise or real experience and therefore have no frame of reference about how well something works by comparison. It’s hard to say how good something is if you don’t know what else is out there.
So, just know that you can’t always believe what you see when it comes to five-star reviews. While some overnight successes do exist, often a four-star product with authentic reviews and a proven track record is a better buy. Look beyond the overall star rating and read with a critical eye, and you’ll be in good shape.