We might have made a big deal out of the FTC’s guidelines for review blogs back when the commission imposed them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary. The New York Times reports that one vendor gamed Amazon’s review system by offering customers full refunds if they posted reviews of its products—including a case for the Kindle e-reader. While it didn’t specifically demand 5-star reviews, there was a strong five-star subtext in the offer letter.
By the time VIP Deals ended its rebate on Amazon.com late last month, its leather case for the Kindle Fire was receiving the sort of acclaim once reserved for the likes of Kim Jong-il. Hundreds of reviewers proclaimed the case a marvel, a delight, exactly what they needed to achieve bliss. And definitely worth five stars.
Amazon has since pulled the reviews and all VIP Deals’s products. It told the New York Times that its guidelines specifically prohibit compensation for customer reviews.
As the Times points out, as popular as the Kindle is, there are enough cases on the market to make it hard for any particular one to stand out from the rest. But there are plenty of other products that also feature that kind of competition, and since a lot of customers make their decisions on the basis of user reviews there is growing incentive for merchants to cheat.
Researchers are working on ways to detect fake reviews, but for now the best philosophy might be caveat emptor—pay attention to the contents of reviews, not just the star ratings. A number of the reviewers of VIP Deals’s products did note the compensation in their reviews. (Amazon declined to comment why it nonetheless took a query from the New York Times to get them to act on the matter.)
Of course, this isn’t the first time fake reviews have come to light on Amazon. Earlier this month we posted about a book that had been salted with 250 fake reviews by its author, and I seem to recall seeing reports of similar “astroturfing” scandals in years gone by.