What Sellers Should Know About the Amazon Incentivized Review Ban, by CJ Rosenbaum from the AmazonSellersLawyer.com. Amazon Sellers Lawyer is a legal team that is dedicated to defending sellers’ rights by applying legal strategies to protect their accounts and handle account suspensions, complaints and policy violations. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author only.
Successful Amazon sellers know how important reviews are to selling products.
Not only do shoppers rely on customer reviews to make crucial buying decisions, but good reviews–and lots of them–can directly affect a seller’s product ranking and sales.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get tons of these great reviews when your products aren’t selling, and it’s hard to sell them if you don’t have reviews.
That Catch-22 led to many sellers using “incentivized Amazon review” services such as iLoveToReview, where buyers could get products at a deeply discounted rate (or for free) in exchange for a review on Amazon.
On October 3, 2016, Amazon announced that paid-for or “incentivized” Amazon reviews were banned, and sellers using these types of reviews are liable for suspension or worse.
Here’s what you need to know.
Why are Incentivized Amazon Reviews Banned?
Amazon formerly accepted incentivized reviews in their Community Guidelines, but with one caveat: incentivized reviewers must disclose the fact that they received this product in exchange for an “unbiased” review.
Unfortunately, there are a few things that have happened since then that indicated Amazon’s mind was changing.
Incentivized Amazon Reviews are Actually Biased
First, a recent study by Review Meta of 7 million Amazon reviews shed light on the fact that these “unbiased” Amazon reviews were in fact quite biased, and that consumers were less likely to trust them compared to a review by a regular buyer. Take a look at the findings below:
It may not seem like it’s a significant amount, but those shifts do play a major role in a seller’s product ranking, the researchers point out.
And the bigger problem is this.
According to Review Meta, “Incentivized reviewers are 12 times less likely to give a 1-star rating than non-incentivized reviews, and almost 4 times less likely to leave a critical review in general.”
Incentivized Amazon reviews may come from real people who have used a product, but those “unbiased” claims turned out to be false.
Incentivized Amazon Reviews Have Increased at Lightning Speed
In the second part of Amazon’s announcement, they state the following:
These so-called ‘incentivized reviews’ make up only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of reviews on Amazon…
But the Review Meta study doesn’t exactly line up with that statement.
Amazon incentivized reviews have risen at a rapid rate–from 2% of all Amazon reviews in 2014 to the majority of all reviews in 2016.
Amazon Vine, Amazon’s own incentivized review system, launched in 2015.
It’s possible Amazon strategically put Vine in place that year to eventually phase out growing outside incentivized review platforms, which are less easy to vet and police. (More on Vine later.)
Shoppers Don’t Trust Incentivized Reviews
At the end of the day, the biggest issue of all is the fact that shoppers don’t trust incentivized reviews (and the Review Meta study confirmed this).
This is likely the biggest reason Amazon took drastic action. Because if there’s anything we know about Amazon, it’s that the customer truly is first. And if incentivized reviews are undermining the authority of Amazon’s review system and decreasing customer trust–needless to say, it’s a huge problem.
Notice the tone of the second paragraph of the announcement post:
Customer reviews are one of the most valuable tools we offer customers for making informed purchase decisions, and we work hard to make sure they are doing their job. In just the past year, we’ve improved review ratings by introducing a machine learned algorithm that gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews; applying stricter criteria to qualify for the Amazon verified purchase badge; and suspending, banning or suing thousands of individuals for attempting to manipulate reviews. [emphasis mine]
The announcement focuses on reviews effects for shoppers, not for sellers. This is true to form for Amazon, and the best sellers keep this mantra at the forefront of all selling practices.
Will Amazon Take Action Against Pre-Ban Incentivized Reviews?
One thing we should mention now is the fact that books are exempt from this policy, as Amazon will continue to allow important pre-release copies to be shared in exchange for a review. However, everything else is now subject to Amazon’s new review requirements.
If you’re wondering if Amazon will be taking action against your pre-ban incentivized reviews, the answer is maybe. If your reviews are fake, it’s likely Amazon’s algorithm will pick up on that. It’s growing and becoming more sophisticated every day.
If your reviews are incentivized–but not fake–there’s still a possibility Amazon will penalize you. In fact, several sellers have reported losing reviews overnight.
What Should Sellers Do Now to Get Amazon Reviews?
Reviews are still an important factor in shoppers’ decisions, and just as important for an Amazon seller to sell products.
However, we don’t recommend sellers work around the problem by selling products in exchange for a review and asking reviewers to leave out the disclaimer. (If you need a reminder why this is a bad idea, see the above section.)
There are two options for sellers who are seeking reviews:
- Continue to Give Products Away Without Requiring Reviews (risky)
- Opting into Amazon’s Vine Program (or Amazon Vendor Express)
The first option may cost a lot up front, and there’s no guarantee that reviewers wouldn’t simply buy your products at a deep discount (or for free) and opt of of reviewing it. In addition, this could still be a problem.
After all, if you do provide a product to a shopper–even without asking for a review–Amazon’s algorithm may detect this and either go after the reviewer (who is likely doing it for other sellers) or you.
According to TechCrunch, “[Amazon] is also working to develop algorithms to detect fake reviews and prevent them from appearing at all. Last summer, it started ranking trusted reviews so that shoppers would see those first.”
The second option, Amazon Vine, is a much safer–if more expensive–option. Here’s how Amazon describes Vine in their announcement:
Here’s how Vine works: Amazon – not the vendor or seller – identifies and invites trusted and helpful reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release products; 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.
Once a Vine reviewer leaves a review (and yes, Vine reviewers must be invited to join the program after being vetted by the Amazon team) then that Vine review is marked by a “Vine” badge.
Keep in mind at this point you cannot opt into Amazon Vine–you must be a Vendor and you must be invited. If you are not a vendor, you can choose to apply for Amazon Vendor Express, which is a self-service platform unlike the usual Vendor relationship.
The Amazon Vine program may be expensive to start (compared to other 3rd party review services), but if you are invited as a Vendor or using Vendor Express, it could be well worth the investment.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, this is technically a good move by Amazon to protect their shoppers and increase trust in the platform. As a seller, you rely on the Amazon platform to reach millions of people with your products.
Amazon shoppers, in turn, rely on Amazon to provide a consistently excellent shopping experience.
If the platform loses its credibility, and Amazon shoppers take their business elsewhere, you as a seller are losing customers.
No matter what happens in this scenario, continue to put the customer first, stay in line with Amazon’s policies, and you’ll continue to be rewarded with access to the world’s 8th largest retailer–which could soon be #1.
If you need some help deciphering what a good relationship with Amazon should look like, feel free to reach out to our team.