Home » A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

When I first started blogging, back in September 2011, there were almost no restrictions to reviewing on Amazon. Someone could create a buyer account on Amazon, buy something, and 24 hours later they could review any product on any Amazon site.

Yes, any product. On any site. Amazon has never placed any restriction on who can review what. You don’t have to have purchased the product on Amazon to review that product—which is good news for book bloggers. Bloggers often receive free copies from authors or publishers, from book tour companies, from reviewing sites such as NetGalley, or from sources such as the library.

Amazon allow customers to review whether or not they have experienced the product (i.e. read the book). However, Amazon also recognise that potential customers place more trust in reviews where the reviewer has experienced the product. Amazon acknowledged this by introducing the Amazon Verified Purchase badge, and AVP reviews are now shown ahead of non-AVP reviews.

But as Amazon gained a reputation as the powerhouse of online shopping, sellers attempted to game the reviewing system by posting fake reviews. Amazon responded by tightening and clarifying the reviewing guidelines—an ongoing process.

In this post, I’m going to highlight some of the background to these changes.

Spoiler: Amazon isn’t out to get honest authors. Only the dishonest ones.

Friends and Family Reviews

Amazon’s fake review problem first came to my attention several years ago. Savvy reviewers noticed an oddity: a self-published book from an unknown author had somehow managed to garner over 350 five-star reviews. It also had a handful of one-star reviews. The five-star reviews were all from new accounts that had only reviewed this one book. The reviews were all short, and expressed similar sentiments: the book was amazing. A must-read thriller.

The one-star reviews told a different story: this was a novel in dire need of editing. They questioned the authenticity of the five-star reviews.

Amazon investigated, and the five-star reviews disappeared.

Amazon tightened their reviewing guidelines to prohibit “promotional” reviews (including reviews from friends and family). A lot of authors have lost reviews in this way, as Amazon has (rightly or wrongly) tied them to a reviewer through common IP addresses or gifted books. There is a concern that Amazon may monitor social media relationships e.g. Facebook friends, although this is merely supposition. Amazon says they do not monitor social media.

The investigation was expanded across the store, and Amazon deleted many reviews. They also introduced a new requirement to the US Amazon Reviewing Guidelines, and clarified their definition of promotional content.

Customers now had to make a minimum purchase of $5 before they could review. But this didn’t stop the fake reviews.

As well as deleting reviews, Amazon began prohibiting reviewers from posting reviews if they believed there was a relationship between the reviewer and the seller. For example, in mid-2017, Amazon Australia refused to allow one of my reviews to post because they had determined I knew the (Australian) author. I did, although I don’t believe that affected my review and I had disclosed I’d received a free book from the author. Ironically, Amazon US posted my review of the same title with no question.

Buying Reviews

Now deceitful sellers looking for fake reviews had to become world-class hackers in order to deceive the hacker hunters at Amazon. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there was an almost endless supply of ethically challenged “reviewers” who would post a fake review in exchange for a buck or five … which was against Amazon’s guidelines. Websites with convenient names like “Buy Amazon Reviews” sprang up to connect the two groups.

Creative sellers could write their own reviews for the company to post on “genuine” accounts, and for a small premium some reviewers would offer to buy the ebook so the review would carry the AVP tag. I guess they forgot that Amazon can and do track our Kindle reading habits, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for them to tell that the writers of these glowing five-star AVP reviews hadn’t even opened the ebook in question.

Amazon soon caught on, and filed suit against the websites in question.

This was followed by additional lawsuits against Fiverr reviewers offering a similar “service”.

Coupon Clubs

Then came the coupon clubs. Sellers would offer product discount coupons to Amazon Prime members, offering them products at a 99% or 100% discounts. Facebook groups sprang up, connecting people who were happy to receive free products through Amazon (with the shipping paid by Amazon through Prime) in exchange for a five-star review. This left Amazon paying to ship hundreds of dollars of free product to customers who didn’t spend any money at Amazon except for their Prime membership.

Amazon started deleting reviews, and reviewers appeared in the Amazon Discussion Forums.They complained their reviews had disappeared, and that was awful because now they weren’t going to get any more free products (it was apparently a condition of membership to the coupon clubs that reviewers had to post a five-star review within a narrow timeframe to get more products, despite this being against Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines).

Other reviewers investigated, and called out the coupon club reviewers for their bad behaviour—for knowingly or unknowingly breaking Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines by posting multiple reviews for products without adequately testing those products. The discussions are gone now, but the ones I remember reading showed wilful ignorance from the coupon club reviewers. They refused to believe what they were doing was in any way misleading or unethical, or that it contravened Amazon’s guidelines.

Amazon Increases the Purchase Requirement

Amazon responded by introducing a $50 purchase requirement.

In order to review products on Amazon, a potential reviewer had to have spent $50 on the site, excluding any Amazon Prime membership.

Initially, the increased purchase requirement only applied at Amazon US. In late 2017, I noticed Amazon had introduced a $50 purchase requirement in in Australia and Canada, and a GBP 40 purchase requirement in the UK. But it appeared that if you were eligible to review on Amazon US (as I am), you were eligible to review on any other Amazon site. The reverse may also have been true.

I have personally purchased dead tree books from Amazon US and UK, and ebooks from Amazon US and Australia (one of the quirks of living in New Zealand is that I must purchase physical products from the US store, but can choose to purchase Kindle books from the US or Australia).

I’ve been actively reviewing since 2011, and have always posted my reviews on Amazon US and UK. When Amazon introduced the Australian store, I started adding my reviews there as well. Anyway, despite the increase in the purchase requirement, I was still able to post reviews at all three Amazon sites. I then tried posting a review at Amazon Canada, a store where I have never spent as much as a cent. My review was accepted. This showed me the $50 purchase requirement was at a single store.

This has now changed:

  • The purchase requirement is now per year, not a once-for-all-time.
  • The purchases must be made at the store in question.

The requirements differ by geography:

  • Amazon US says reviewers must have spent $50 in the last year at Amazon.com.
  • Amazon Canada says reviewers must have spent $50 at Amazon.ca within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon UK says reviewers must have spent GBP 40 at Amazon.co.uk within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon Australia says reviewers have spent $50 at Amazon.com.au, but there is no timeframe mentioned. Yet.

I tested this. My results:

  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Canada (no purchases ever).
  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Australia (lifetime purchases: <$20). I am still in the Top 100 Reviewers at Amazon Australia.
  • I was able to post at Amazon UK (no purchases in the last ten years).
  • I was able to post at Amazon US (purchases: >$50 in the last year).

I suspect Amazon UK will catch up with me soon, and veto further reviews. However, the UK site displays the top three or top five reviews from Amazon.com, so some of my reviews will continue to show on the UK site, even though they were posted at the US site.

I don’t know what is behind this latest change. It could be that sites like Buy Amazon Reviews sprang up offshore to sell fake reviews from non-US reviewers who had spent the equivalent of $50 in their home store. Non-US sites are harder for Amazon to track and sue. The easy solution is to only allow US customers to review in the US store.

Update: Amazon Limits non-AVP Reviews

The latest news is that Amazon is limiting the number of non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews on books. This may extend to other products. There is a view that Amazon Verified Reviews are somehow more reliable than non-AVP reviews. The default is to show AVP reviews, and many Amazon users won’t even know they can adjust their filter to show all reviews. From Amazon’s perspective, it makes sense to attempt to control the ratio of AVP to non-AVP reviews if:

  • They believe their customers place more trust in AVP reviews, or
  • They suspect some non-AVP reviews are flouting their Reviewing Guidelines and are actually Promotional Content.

Amazon also say:

We may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behavior, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience.

My feeling is this may be a result of two separate issues:

  • The growing number of authors with significant and active street teams, all trying to post reviews on or close to release day. If this is the case, I’d suggest authors ask their street teams to stagger their reviews (e.g. by batching the email reminders so different people receive the reminder on different days).
  • Coupon clubs and other ethically challenged sellers are still giving away free products in exchange for reviews (probably five-star reviews).

Either way, we can only hope it will eliminate some of the fake reviews (and sellers) without hurting genuine reviewers (and authors).

Conclusion

I know authors find it hard to get reviews. I know authors find it frustrating when they lose reviews, or when reviewers can’t post for whatever reason. Often, it’s the honest sellers, honest authors, and honest reviewers who miss out.

But I also know Amazon customers need to be able to trust the Amazon review system

Amazon want that as well. Without trustworthy reviews, Amazon is just another online retailer.

Years of observation has shown me that every rule Amazon have introduced, every review they have deleted, has been an attempt (successful or otherwise) to protect their review system.

Amazon could get harsher. They could only allow people to have purchased a product from Amazon to review that product on Amazon. Many other retailers do. They could correlate our Kindle pages read with the books we are permitted to review. After all, they already collect that information.

We don’t want that. So we need to be ethical customers, sellers, and reviewers. And we need to encourage others to be the same. Anything else hurts us all.

This post is the background to a series I’m planning for later in the year. What questions do you have about reviews that you’d like me to address? Let me know in the comments.

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25 comments

  1. Fascinating, Iola! Amazon UK shows the review total at Amazon.com until someone reviews it at Amazon.co.UK. Then the counter resets to the much lower UK review number. A friend with a book with middle-double-digit reviews at Amazon.com reset to 1 review when a UK buyer reviewed it. So maybe it’s a good thing that it’s harder for a UK buyer to be allowed to post a review, from the author’s perspective anyway.

    I have no UK reviews, so it shows my US review numbers. I’m not sure how they decide which to select, but it’s not the top ones. It seems to be a random mix spread out over 15 months (not in chronological order) and ranging in number of stars. For example, one of my novels has 34 reviews. I ask fewer than 5 people to review ARCs because I think the organic reviews from people who actually decided to buy the book and cared enough to post a review mean much more. I can often tell the difference between spontaneous reviews and what ARC readers post, and I discount the latter when deciding whether to buy. That book has 73% 5 stars, 21% 4 stars, and 6% 3 stars (nothing less than 3-stars has been given) for a 4.7/5 rating, but the UK site shows 40% 5-star, 40% 4-star, and 20% 3-star, and they aren’t only the ones with the most people who found them helpful. But there is an obvious link to click so a UK buyer can go see all the reviews at Amazon.com. That’s helpful for both buyer and author.

    • Iola says:

      Interesting! I always thought Amazon UK showed the top three or five reviews off the Amazon US page, but never actually checked. Amazon is definitely a puzzle!

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.

  2. Hi Iola – a fascinating and very comprehensive article, thank you. When they culled the reviews – must have been around the time of the fiverr purge, I lost some verified reviews. Did not understand why, but I know better than to argue with Amazon.
    I review my purchases on Amazon.com and can review (at the moment) on Amazon Australia.
    Because I know the importance of reviews I do review the books I read. Currently I must be puzzling Amazon though because I am in a bookclub and review some that are not my usual genres at all.

    • Iola says:

      You’re not the only person I’ve heard say that. I have no proof, but I suspect Amazon culled some genuine reviewers with the fiverr reviewers. I also wonder if some of the fiverr reviewers also posted some genuine reviews (to make themselves look less scammy, perhaps), so honest authors lost reviews when the dishonest reviewers were culled.

  3. Carolyn Miller says:

    Thanks for sharing this Iola, interesting information as always. Re a future reviews post – I’d love to know some tips to finding legitimate influencers/ reviewers who love your work who aren’t really busy loving fifty + other authors works, too. Not that they can’t like and promote other authors, but if they want an ARC, then I want them busy being excited about MY book. Maybe this is the million dollar question, but I’d love to know- as it gets a little discouraging sometimes!

    • Iola says:

      Great question, Carolyn. The bloggers who post four or five reviews a week get the most traffic and the most attention, but they aren’t as active in promoting for each individual author (well, except for the ones who also organise paid blog tours … so they’re paid to be enthusiastic!). This is one of the reasons I’ve cut back on my own reviewing activities this year. Instead, I’m posting more social media memes from the books I have read (evergreen promotion), and reposting older reviews.

      This was perhaps less of a problem when each author only published a book every 12-18 months. It gets harder for authors and reviewers as everyone is pushing to write and publish more. It’s something I’ll muse on, so thanks for the suggestion!

  4. Mike Mikelson says:

    The fake review system has evolved. There are now hundreds of Facebook Amazon review groups all over the world for all Amazon global sites where Chinese sellers ask buyers to buy their items on Amazon and pay for it, leave a 5-star review, and get a refund of purchase price via PayPal instead, plus any PayPal fees. Some of them even offer $3 or $5 bonus on top of it. Chinese scam artists are very active and they keep evolving.

    • Iola says:

      I know – I receive several of these requests each month, although I didn’t know their origin (although I had noted their bad English and their unwillingness to follow Amazon’s reviewing guidelines). It’s obviously a numbers game – I don’t live in the US, so couldn’t participate in their scam even if I was ethically challenged enough to want their junk.

      The ones who are stupid enough to email I forward to Amazon. I block the ones who contact me via social media.

  5. Fatlady says:

    I’ve had Amazon disallow a review of a random set of pillowcases because supposedly I was “related” to [WOW!!!!!!!!!!! — that is the single MOST annoying pop-up I’ve ever encountered on a website. Sorry…that thing interrupted my train of thought. Please don’t do that to your readers! If you are a “Christian,” maybe you’ve heard the old chestnut about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you??? Moving on…promptly!]

    And no, I do not agree with unspecified “storage and handling of your data by this website”…the only reason I’m checking that is so that you will get this message.

    • Iola says:

      You had a review for pillowcases disallowed? That’s bizarre. There is no logic to their decisions sometimes!

      Sorry you don’t like the popup – it is customisable, so are you able to tell me exactly what you didn’t like so I can change it?

      The “storage and handling of data” is related to GDPR. It’s kind of like paying tax. We don’t have to like it, but there are penalties if we don’t do it.

  6. IJMOToday says:

    Good post.
    Just read the reviews for “50 Shades of Gray” – what a load of malarkey!
    Most of the 5-star reviews are the same words just rearranged. (and rather hilarious and illiterate at times). They don’t even try to cover up the fakeness.
    The one star reviews tell the real story (and may also be hilarious). (Spoiler: I didn’t read the book. just the reviews. Much more entertaining.)

    • Iola says:

      I read a lot of the early 50SOG reviews, and had the same thought. It didn’t speak well for the book that the most intelligent reviews were also the most critical. No, I’ve never been tempted to read the books or see the movies.

  7. philip mann says:

    I’ve given up on the review game. Look at some author sites, and it’s all about gaming Amazon, getting mailing lists and showing some value that readers actually want. I saw one author who had written a fantasy novel and yes, the first page showed poor editing. But somehow she had 150 reviews, all by certified purchasers, and all five star. And they all were about the same length, and said the same things.

    I’ll take my chances with print media for reviews, and invest in a first class cover. the rest is just a scam.

    • Iola says:

      As a long-time reviewer, I hate that Amazon reviewing seems to have turned into a game, and I fully support Amazon’s efforts to purge reviewers like the 150 on the book you saw. Remember, not all Amazon reviews are a scam – I wouldn’t want authors (or readers, or reviewers) to think that.

      But your approach isn’t wrong. Invest is a first class cover. Invest in the best editing you can (I’m a freelance editor so I have to say that!). Ask print media for reviews. But investigate genuine and reliable bloggers in your genre – the ones who like the books you like, and who don’t give false praise when a book shows poor editing on the first page. And ask them for a review. Maybe only a few will review, but at least you’ll know they are reviews worth having.

  8. My friends in the U.K. have screamed the loudest about the lost reviews. I was wondering why reviews I did on the U. S. were not showing on other Amazon sites. It seems people that read my books don’t review like others. I know that many have sold, and people will tell me (if I see them) or on some Facebook site say what a wonderful read it was. I have not paid for reviews. Maybe that was my error in the early days. Amazon’s review thing can be weird. It left one review on my science fiction Western that talked about Shrek and gave it a one Star review. Since neither Shrek, ogres, dragons, or fantasy is part of the book it has left me puzzled. I complained. Amazon removed it and then put it back. Oh well. I will share this article, however. Thanks for the research.

    • Iola says:

      Each Amazon review site is different. If a book has been reviewed on Amazon US but not on (say) Amazon UK, then Amazon will show the top 3 reviews from the US site. Sometimes these disappear if people then review on the local site, but not always. But the reverse isn’t true – a review on Amazon UK will never show up on Amazon US unless the reviewer is actually allowed to review on both sites, and does.

      A lot of readers don’t understand the importance of even short reviews. The best thing to do is to ask for reviews, either approaching reviewers directly, or placing a request at the back of the book.

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. Many years ago when I first started reviewing and was a member of Vine, I soon saw the dilemma of product review versus book reviews…I suggested that books be done separately since to provide a review, it required a full knowledge of the book…LOL Much to my chagrin, this soon proved not to be true… A thought just popped into my mind…how about “registering regular book reviewers?” What do you think? When you lump books into the whole product line, yes, even pillow cases, becomes a competition for voting…Now really, reviewing a book should take hours and some professional expertise to be effective…yet there is no recognition for buying a box of candy versus a book… I do think Amazon has to keep trying, but I’ve given up on doing anything but posting on Amazon, because authors need reviews…But there is really no way to evaluate quality of one review toward another by voting ranking when all products are included…I’ve been successfully blogging reviews on books for many years and enjoy that activity. Once established as an ethical reviewer, I have never had any problems posting or getting them deleted…Enjoyed your wonderful research effort and look forward to ongoing thoughts…

  10. Mili says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

    $50/year at a specific site might be harsh. I do not see how that is fair, because you do not have to purchase books from every site to read them. It’s a ridiculous rule. What I would love to see Amazon do is aggregate all the reviews and display them in every store (country) that sells the product. I tend to buy physical products from a Canadian store (as a Canadian) and Kindles from a US store. I also listen to a lot of audiobooks using OverDrive. I do not need to buy a book to read and review a book. My reviews are always honest. I also think that Amazon should not punish ARC. It’s their algorithm that forces authors to find advanced readers, because only continuous reviews during a month help the ranking system on Amazon. If it was not for ARC, there is no way an unknown author can compete with famous authors and trade publishers. The reason I loved Amazon is because they were levelling the field, so that great new voices can be heard. I think they should keep that in mind when they change the rules.

    • Iola says:

      I can see why long-time customers are annoyed by the $50 rule, but I can also see why Amazon does it.

      Think of it this way: you want to set up a scammy review service. You hire a bunch of people in a foreign country (say, India), have them set up an account and buy a cheap PC or tablet on that account (so they’ve spent $50) and then have them review hundreds of products on Amazon US – products they’ve never bought or used. Hundreds of five-star reviews that Amazon US customers believe are honest, and therefore trust when buying shoddy second-rate products.

      Amazon could set up one bunch of rules (and algorithms) for books and one for other products, but then we’d find the book pages being overrun by shoddy non-book merchandise so the scammers could get their reviews. The one thing I’ve learned in my years of observing Amazon is that for every rule they introduce, a bunch of scammers emerge with an unethical “hack” to get around that rule. Until that stops, Amazon is going to keep cracking down.

  11. Lawrence Ambrose says:

    Despite all of Amazon’s seemingly strict controls, fake reviews and purchases of books continue to be endemic. Recently, they wouldn’t permit an honest review by a fan, and are constantly picking away at my other legitimate reviews. And I don’t have that many reviews! But while Amazon fusses over my small number of reviews, I can’t help noticing how many novels have hundreds if not thousands of suspect if not clearly fake reviews.

    So what gives, I wonder?

    • Iola says:

      It’s certainly a mystery.

      There are various reasons why Amazon won’t permit reviews, but the main one is someone has not met the spending requirement. I know a lot of reviewers have been caught out by that (and the spending requirement is now per site, so you have to have spent $50 on Amazon US to review on Amazon US etc. etc.)

  12. As usual, Iola, very informative. So much for me to learn by the time I get my memoir about attending college with 5 kids in tow finished. I realize I can always turn to your blog to find out the latest information about social media. Thanks, Iola!

    • Iola says:

      Thank you! I review and update my reviewing posts every so often, and one of my projects for the New Year is a Resources page where I can include links to the most up-to-date versions of posts like this.

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