Are fake product reviews finally coming to an end?

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced steps to crack down on fake product reviews online. But will this really improve review quality on Amazon? And even more importantly, will it level the playing field for Amazon sellers?

The proposed rules would impose a fine of up to $50,000 for each time a consumer sees a fake review. The fine would be paid by the brand that obtained the false review – not by the platform on which the review appeared.

This could flat-out bankrupt online sellers caught violating the rules.

Fake reviews are a tremendous problem online. PIRG, a U.S. consumer advocacy group, told the FTC earlier this year that as many as 40 percent of online reviews are deceptive or totally fake.

Amazon fake product reviews

But these FTC rules are unlikely to change things on Amazon, for a lot of reasons. First, let’s talk about Amazon’s attitude toward fake reviews.

Platform manipulation is growing

Certain categories on Amazon are virtually saturated with fake reviews. For example, search the term “meat thermometers.” You’ll see a mess of clearly bought-and-paid-for product reviews, as well as hijacked reviews (more on those later). Another particularly fraught category is supplements, where Black Hat sellers make a mess of the platform with all kinds of platform manipulation.

Amazon has been enforcing against sellers for review manipulation and platform manipulation for years. In some cases, seller accounts are suspended – and it’s “two strikes and you’re out.” In other words, if a seller is caught for platform manipulation twice, there is no coming back to Amazon. In other cases, the discoverability of ASINs is reduced, if Amazon suspects fake reviews. And sometimes, Amazon eliminates the ability for an ASIN or brand to receive reviews at all.

What counts as platform manipulation on Amazon?

  • Asking for a 5-star review
  • Offering compensation or a free product for a review
  • Offering deep discounts for a review
  • Using chatbots to encourage reviews in return for compensation or discounts
  • Cherry-picking, which means asking only happy customers for reviews (such as those who provided positive store feedback)
  • Asking friends, family or employees for reviews
  • Upvoting your own reviews, or downvoting competitors’ reviews
  • Leaving bad reviews on competitors’ products

… and so much more

It’s so wrong yet so true

Unfortunately, Amazon isn’t great at catching fake reviews. Nor is it good at helping sellers who are attacked by Black Hats with fake bad reviews.

It’s an unfortunate truth. There are moles working at Amazon. These in-house bad guys take bribes to provide information. Report a competitor for fake reviews, and suddenly the Black Hat seller knows who you are and has a list of your top ASINs. Then the Black Hat goes on attack. So that begs the question. What are sellers to do when their competitors are not playing by the rules?

We know sellers who have reported fake reviews with their seller accounts, reported fake reviews with their buyer accounts, and escalated fake reviews to executives at Amazon. Sometimes, the fake reviews or bad ASINs come down. Most of the time, they don’t. But the worst is when an account or ASIN is attacked with fake positive reviews and then taken down. Then, Amazon expects the innocent seller to prove they didn’t do it. It can be almost impossible to prove a negative!

Hijacked! Have you checked your listings and reviews lately?

Review hijacking is a tremendous problem on Amazon. What is review hijacking? Imagine you’re shopping for black markers. When you look through the reviews on the listing detail page, the reviews are clearly about pencils. How did this happen?

Black Hat sellers made this happen. They changed the listing detail page so that it would be about a different product – but still retain a large number of positive reviews.

The next time you’re shopping on Amazon, read the reviews. Make sure the products you’re buying have real reviews about the correct items. As a seller, make sure your ASINs haven’t been hijacked. Check the reviews. It happens more often than you think.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t detect a huge number of hijacked reviews. And they don’t always act to take down these reviews, even when notified about them by customers and sellers.

Will the FTC’s proposed regulations change this? I wonder.

If Amazon won’t enforce, what’s a seller to do?

But here is the ultimate problem with the FTC’s new rules – and Amazon’s potential reaction to them. The FTC can’t effectively enforce against international sellers.

Once again, sellers from China, Russia and other nations will be able to act as Black Hats with no threat of recourse – especially those with a stable of hundreds (or thousands) of Amazon seller accounts? The flood of fake reviews from overseas sellers will continue, while U.S. sellers face bankruptcy for breaking the rules. The only solution? Better detection and enforcement by Amazon. Yet after years and years, the e-commerce giant still hasn’t figured out how to solve this problem. What’s a seller to do?

All we can do is follow the rules. Build a better mousetrap. Stay on the lookout for nefarious players and competitors, and dutifully manage your ASINs and reviews.

Until Amazon catches up and enforces fairly, we have few options beyond product superiority, better marketing of our products and being intensely diligent with every detail page and their reviews.

So, are fake reviews coming to an end? It’s unlikely in the short term. The encouraging truth is that Amazon tends to act – and act quickly – when facing public pressure, potential litigation and government intervention.

We can only hope.

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