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Compensated Amazon Reviewers Can’t Help Bias

Few will be surprised at how a basic tenet of human nature carries over into the ecommerce world. People feel inclined to treat more favorably those who give them things they want or need. The incredible value of reviews perceived as unbiased isn’t lost on companies like online retail giant Amazon, but that business can’t escape human nature.

Over at ReviewMeta researchers looked into the phenomenon of the “incentivized review” and whether or not compensation led to better reviews. They compared reviews listing notes that the reviewer received a product for free or at a discount in exchange for a review, with ones that lacked such language.

As one might have guessed, reviewers who were compensated for the reviews they posted were slightly more positive than those not listing any form of incentive received in kind. ReviewMeta wrote they looked at more than seven million reviews for their analysis.

The difference between “incentivized” and “non-incentivized” looks negligible, with compensated reviews averaging a mere 0.38 stars higher than the others. But ReviewMeta claimed this isn’t the case.

“Considering that the average product on Amazon is rated around 4.4 stars, a boost from 4.36 to 4.74 stars can mean the difference between a mediocre product and a top rated product,” the report said. ReportMeta noted that the lower rating corresponded to a middle-of-the-pack 54 percentile rating, while the higher rating means reviews in the 94th percentile.

That incredible leap from the teeming masses to the heights of the ratings demonstrates why Amazon has been keen to combat illicit reviews. It is likely if this kind of data can be assessed outside Amazon, the company certainly has the ability to reach even more detailed conclusions.

At least one Amazon seller seems to question the effectiveness of incentivized reviews. Seller “brokemarys” made this observation on the Amazon Seller Forums:

“OMG! So, I checked out B01IFSZQ5W because Amazon made the suggestion in “growth opportunities” for my inventory section of seller central. 32 customer reviews all within the last 2 1/2 weeks! All given for “free or discounted product”.

Don’t most buyers simply walk away when they see a pile of basically paid for reviews? I do.

And to top it all off, the last picture in the listing features a knitter who is photoshopped into the picture, and not even using the bag as intended… If she was using it the bag, the yarn would be coming out of the top. And if she’d even been in the picture, her reflection would show on the table. Good JellyBeans. Talk about false advertising.

Thanks for the suggestion Amazon, but I think I’ll pass.

Amazon has in the recent past sued reviewers who accepted payment in exchange for posting positive reviews. And more recently, Amazon sued a trio of review-buying sellers, claiming breach of contract and violation of various consumer protection laws due to the practice of purchasing fake reviews.

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David A Utter
David A Utter
David A. Utter is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. He has covered technology topics from search to security to online business and has been quoted in places like ZDNet and BusinessWeek. He considers his appearance on NPR's "All Things Considered" with long-time host Robert Siegel a delightful highlight. You can find him on Twitter @davidautter and on LinkedIn.