July 15, 2016

Whether I’m searching for cheap shampoo, an expensive computer, or a spot-on Christmas present, I go straight to Amazon to compare my options and read the reviews. The more reviews I see, the more likely I am to trust the stars. Sure, some business owners may skew ratings by adding positive reviews, but I figure they can do little to overshadow negative opinions.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to see an irritating trend that compromises the value of product reviews (and my ability to find top notch gifts). Companies, especially unfamiliar, foreign-based ones are unethically pumping up their search visibility by offering individuals free or discounted products in exchange for written reviews on popular marketplace sites such as Amazon. Unsurprisingly, those reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Since the number of reviews contributes to a product’s result rank, businesses can significantly increase both rankings and ratings by giving away free products in exchange for stars. This disingenuous practice misrepresents feedback from traditional reviewers who consider both quality and bang for their buck. But until the government deems such marketing practices deceitful by outlawing them, businesses can treat critiques of their approach as a matter of opinion. Seeing as the Federal Trade Commission is only beginning to regulate this evolving form of promotion and Amazon struggles to cope with biased feedback, forthcoming change is unlikely.

For years, the Federal Trade Commission has dedicated resources to protecting buyers from unethical and deceptive advertising tactics. The FTC Act prohibits businesses from misrepresenting or omitting information in a way that can mislead potential consumers. The Act states that the misrepresentation should be material enough to warrant action, “if it is likely to affect consumers’ choices or conduct regarding an advertised product or the advertising for the product.” By this definition, promotion campaigns that induce biased reviews cross the line. But the FTC Act has only recently addressed the growing trend of trading products for reviews. When it comes to reviews – especially ones associated with unfamiliar brands – the law has not kept up with evolving marketing trends.

The FTC Act was developed to single out and punish businesses, advertising agencies and catalog marketers who mislead the public, but there is insufficient precedent to legally classify reviewers on third-party websites as any of these entities. It is unclear whether reviewers fall under the umbrella of advertisers when they publish biased reviews. Nor is it clear how much responsibility businesses should take for reviewers who do not reveal their connection with businesses by failing to mention information about free products.

Concerns about the legality of promotional reviews have led the FTC to add a 2015 Endorsement Guide Q&A to its Act. Echoing the FTC’s general theme of transparency, the guide instructs businesses who offer perks to disclose their offers because: “Knowing that reviewers got the product they reviewed for free would probably affect the weight [the] customers give to the reviews, even if you didn’t intend for that to happen … [the] customers have the right to know which reviewers were given products for free.” Considering Amazon sellers offering samples cannot disclose information about perks in product descriptions, it is safe to say a degree of deception by omission is taking place.

What isn’t clear is how much blame businesses should take for such omissions. Marketplace platforms on Amazon don’t set aside a place for information about perks, instead asking reviewers to disclose such information within their comments. The FTC Guide – which does not have the force of law – recommends that bloggers who review free products mention benefits using clear language that stands out within their comments. But on Amazon, disclosures often get lost in a sea of reviews, especially in cases where businesses give away hundreds of samples. Even though companies often contact bloggers in their search for Amazon reviews, these reviewers do not adopt the role of bloggers on Amazon, and they do not have the same opportunities to make disclosures stand out. It is hard to blame bloggers for this FTC and Amazon oversight. At the moment, buyers bear the responsibility for seeking out biased reviews and must hope that, at the very least, commenters are honest about receiving free products when they post.

Since Amazon filters have not rid the site of biased reviews, you may be comically surprised by the high rankings and bulk reviews of unknown brands. In a recent Amazon search for the keyword ‘shampoo’ I found myself on a landing page where an ArtNaturals shampoo topped the list. Although I was not familiar with the brand, it received 4.5 out of 5 stars based on 4,407 reviews – and it had the blue #1 Best Seller Ribbon! I was intrigued. It showed up ahead of obvious results, such as TRESemmé and Pantene, which paled in comparison with a scant 519 ratings. After glancing at a few reviews, it became clear that many of the ratings were not written by typical consumers. Of the 10 most recent reviews, eight mentioned the shampoo was free or purchased at a discounted rate. None of those reviewers gave the product fewer than four stars. Quickly irritated, I looked at what unsatisfied commenters had to say – they were also aggravated. “I am so upset at both this product and the other reviews for this product, that I'm questioning the entire Amazon review process. I paid full price for this shampoo … and the product is awful,” wrote Lillian A.

Aware that misleading reviews mar their reputation, but unwilling to eliminate third-party review systems, Amazon took steps to minimize the most biased of reviews. It went after companies and affiliates who did not just manipulate reviews, they outright purchased them. The marketplace giant filed two lawsuits in 2015, one against businesses and one against fraudulent reviewers.

In its first lawsuit, Amazon filed charges against several websites for selling fake reviews, later claiming that some of those sites were forced to shut down. In the second, the company sued 1,000 individuals who used the service exchange platform Fiverr.com to sell five-star reviews for $5 each. This was the first time Amazon went after reviewers themselves, taking a bottom-up approach not yet standardized by the FTC. According to Amazon’s complaint: “An unhealthy ecosystem developed outside of Amazon to supply reviews in exchange for payment … This action is then next step in a long-term effort to ensure these providers of fraudulent reviews do not offer their illicit services…”

Amazon and the FTC have a long way to go before they can curb misleading review solicitation. That being said, not everyone agrees that exchanging products for reviews is something they should be worrying about in the first place. Some have suggested that small businesses need a place to start, and establishing a consumer base by incentivizing reviews is an effective, commonsense way of building brand visibility.

Numerous bloggers contacted by businesses in need of Amazon reviews stressed that free samples did not play into their feedback. In a 2015 Amazon discussion thread about free samples, one user wrote: “There's a lot of fakers out there but it runs us real reviewers good name through the mud. I have received item discount [sic] and free … And yet according to this post I've been bribed? The seller offers me the discount as an incentive to write the review so he or she can see how their product is performing because most folks who buy stuff online do not take the time to come back and review the item.” Another agreed, adding that, “the impulse to be ‘nice’ is stronger” when products are free, but she was conscious of the pressure, and ultimately submitted honest reviews.

Not everyone will agree that offering free products results in overwhelmingly biased reviews, or that the process is unethical on the part of businesses, but most shoppers will agree that it misleads unsuspecting buyers. So is there a quick fix on the consumer end? Aside from digging deeper before clicking on the ‘Proceed to checkout’ button, not really. But there are interesting developments that may evolve into promising tools for the future. For example, Fakespot.com, a free, no-frills website launched in 2015 claims that it can detect the authenticity of Amazon reviews by looking for patterns in the comment sections. Assessments of its effectiveness have been mixed, but the prospect of new algorithms that can detect bias (and apply to sites beyond Amazon) are worth researching. If you were wondering, the website gave ArtNaturals a 55.2 percent ‘low quality review’ rating. Then again, the shampoo producer had long lost me at, “I got this product free in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.”

Paulina Haselhorst 
was a writer and editor for AnswersMedia and the director of content for Scholarships.com. She received her MA in history from Loyola University Chicago and a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can contact Paulina at PaulinaHaselhorst@gmail.com.