The Fake Amazon Review Invasion (Part 1)

Uncovering the ways some sellers manipulate the review system and rank their products on Amazon.

As anyone who has ever bought anything off Amazon knows, product reviews are very important. As buyers — after the product photos and the product title — reviews have the biggest influence on our purchasing decision. Providing us with supposedly honest opinions of previous purchasers.

But, for sellers, the importance of reviews takes on a whole different dimension. Whereas, for buyers, it’s simply a question of whether or not to buy a particular product (one you know you can easily get a refund for), for a seller the stakes are far higher. The number of reviews and the average star rating can be the difference between success and failure for a product that has usually had thousands of dollars invested in it.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The problem is that, on average, only 1–2% of all purchasers actually leave feedback for a product. And many of those that do end up posting their product review as feedback on the seller so it doesn’t even appear on the product itself. Then there’s the catch 22 in that if your product is new on the market, it has no reviews. No reviews means no (or at least very few) sales. And no sales means no reviews.

Unless your new product is something that doesn’t already exist on Amazon (therefore having several existing and more established competitors), the only ways of giving it a fighting chance are to have a) amazing persuasive copy, b) beautiful product photos, c) an improved/slightly different offer or d) a lower price. As any successful Amazon seller will tell you, the first three of these are imperative. The fourth is a simple race to the bottom that’s fantastic for Amazon (they still take their cut) but the kiss of death for your product and Amazon career.

So it’s hardly surprising that sellers will try various methods to ‘game the system’, ‘beat the algorithm’ and get around the ever more stringent Amazon policies regarding buyer-seller interactions.

When I first started selling on Amazon in mid-2018, the latest strategy was to use what are called ‘launch services’. This would essentially involve giving your product away for free by creating 99% off coupons that these services would then distribute to their long list of willing Amazon customers. But Amazon cottoned on and updated the algorithm to spot these heavily discounted purchases and give them less weight to the overall ‘score’ of the product.

Photo by David Ballew on Unsplash

Since then there has been a plethora of various schemes and methods for both ranking your product in the search results and gaining reviews. In fact, I could write a whole series of articles on these different methods (maybe I will) but I’m getting slightly sidetracked from the reason for this article. That’s to say, the particular iteration of non-white hat tactics that is, at least on the surface, infesting and making an absolute mockery of the Amazon marketplace. It’s just one part of what I like to call, ‘The great big Amazon review racket’. Let me explain.

A while back a Facebook ad popped up on my feed by a page that was asking whether I’d like to ‘test’ products for free. In the copy above the ad it stipulated that you would need an Amazon account and a PayPal account. Having been in the Amazon game for a while, alarm bells started ringing that got me intrigued to know what the scheme was. So I clicked.

Not the first ad I clicked but an example of a page asking for product “testers”.

It took me through to the page’s Messenger where a chatbot asked me if I was interested in finding out how to ‘test’ and review Amazon products for a full PayPal refund. I would, however, first have to send them my Amazon profile link in order to “protect both sides”, as one page put it, and check whether my account qualified to be able to leave reviews. Ignoring their request, instead I inquired whether “I would need to leave a positive review in order to get my full refund?”. After a brief pause, a real human joined the chat and told me simply, “yes”.

The problem here, apart from the obvious dishonesty of it, is that Amazon’s terms of service expressly forbid any attempt to incentivise product reviews. You are allowed to ask for an “honest” review but never for a positive one (4 or 5 stars).

wherever possible I tried to get the to confirm that a positive review was needed to get a refund

At first I thought the whole thing quite brazen. Surely this wasn’t a “thing” now? Surely Amazon’s online detectives would easily spot this ruse (so blatantly out in the open) quick sharp and shut it down just as quickly? After all, a tech company as large and as powerful as Amazon must be able to trawl Facebook for the keywords “Amazon”, “free”, “test” and “refund” (all of which often appeared in the copy of the ad itself). The answer to these questions soon became fairly obvious.

All in all, over the course of a few weeks, I clicked on and interacted with sponsored posts from 73 different pages, thanks to the Facebook algorithm (some saying they had over 2,000 different products to ‘test’). All advertising very similar variations on the same theme. Some would require a positive review, some expressly required a 5 star review and some didn’t require a review at all. But all would give a full refund for buying the product on offer. 73! And this is for someone who lives in France (therefore targeting the french market), not the States.

The initial chatbot responses — although not perfect english or french — were correct enough. The ones in french used almost identical wording across different pages. Once I started asking off-script questions in Messenger and got talking to real people, however, I soon realised that english or french was not the interlocutor’s native tongue. I began to suspect that either all of these pages were run by the same entity or that there was some kind of training programme that taught these players a system and script for this kind of scheme.

Now, as a rule, I hate to generalise. I find it to be lazy and often ignorant. That being said, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that most of the people I interacted with were Chinese. I obviously cannot be certain. Except for the time when I flat out asked someone on one page, “are you Chinese?”. They confirmed they were. I have worked with many Chinese suppliers over the last few years and some of the phrasing used seemed familiar. Just a hunch but I’m fully prepared to admit that I’m wrong if indeed I am.

the language used made it obvious that english was not their native tongue

On the whole, the pages started off not giving too much away. Most wouldn’t tell you which product to buy and review until you had supplied your Amazon profile link. One of the first pages I interacted with sent me a link as an example which I then proceeded to supply to other pages. This was generally enough to get past this first level of ‘security’.

It soon became clear that the scheme they were employing involved not only incentivising reviews but also a method known in Amazon seller circles as “search, find, buy” (SFB). It is a method that’s used to trick the Amazon algorithm into ranking your product at the top of the search results for specific high volume keywords. For most of the 73 pages, I was given a specific keyword to type into the Amazon search bar. Then I was told to go through the pages of the search results and find a product that matched the brand name, seller and image I was given. I was then told to click on the product and order it. Once I had, I would then need to supply an order number and review the product to receive a full refund.

An example of the Search, Find, Buy method

Overall, a very simple but effective way of pushing a product up to the top of page one, past which 70% of Amazon shoppers never venture*. Amazon’s algorithm thinks that most people who search for the keyword then go on to buy the product. There’s no money off coupon or other associated deal on the Amazon marketplace that would explain to the algorithm why it was purchased more than other similar products. It must be the best ergo up to the first page it goes. Once there, all of the glowing 5 star reviews should help maintain its ranking position for a while and make the seller some serious money.

Now, as an Amazon seller myself who has always played by the rules, these schemes make me angry. So, while interacting with some of the pages I must admit I had a little fun at their expense. The times when I managed to get them to confirm that they were asking for a positive review in return for the refund, I pretended to work for Amazon and that their product would soon be removed and their account suspended. Sometimes I even said I was from the “Amazon Review Manipulation Taskforce” (I’m not sure that even exists, but it should). For some, this caused enough panic to get them to close down their Facebook page. One was even taken offline within 5 minutes.

However, unfortunately, most of them simply shrugged off my false pretence and are still up and running to this day. I just counted and out of the 73 pages I interacted with, 51 of them are still online.

So why haven’t I reported them to Amazon? Actually, I have. Well, I reported the first 10 and then just gave up once I realised that Amazon’s systems weren’t actually set up to deal with this kind of thing. I first did a Google search for “how to report review manipulation” and followed the instructions.

I even included screenshots of the Messenger chats I’d had telling me I would need to give a positive review. So what happened then? Well, I got an email back saying that they couldn’t accept ‘my’ review because it violated their terms of service for manipulation of reviews. They suggested I report the sellers via a different email address, which I did. The reply back told me that they couldn’t find a seller account associated with the email address I sent the report from. I gave up.

So what is the overall impact and result of all this tomfoolery for Amazon customers? Well, that much seems obvious. Product reviews cannot be trusted. How can you spot the inauthentic ones? Well, considering what I said earlier that only 1–2% of all purchasers leave a review, you shouldn’t expect to see many reviews within a short span of time. If you do and then nothing for a week or 2 then that’s probably a warning sign that there has been a “push” for reviews. After that, if a review reads too much like an advertisement for the product rather than a genuine experience then that should also ring alarm bells.

So, what is the scale of the problem? Surely just a few bad apples? Probably true. But, if some of these Facebook pages have over 2000 products available for review, how long until the whole of the Amazon review system is rotten to the core?

In part 2 I’ll reveal an even more organised community of “review for refund”ers. They even have their own code!

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I’ve been working with data for around 25 years, a BI professional for the past 10. Nerd and proud, I want to help you do more with data.

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