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KOUTOULAS: Amazon’s fake user review problem

I frequently make purchases online, usually from Amazon. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still a big believer in keeping my money local, and I do buy as much from local merchants as possible. But sometimes, online is the only way to go.

Anyone who’s spent much time looking for products online knows that user reviews can be an excellent guide to the best products. At least, they used to be.

Back in the day, Amazon was a pioneer in so many ways. They practically invented online retail, which means they had to develop or perfect new ways of doing business.

They had to work out the most mundane details of purchasing, storing and distributing merchandise of every kind.

Then there was the website itself — not to mention the unprecedented scale of their data centers that power it.

But I believe the most impactful and vital innovation is something that might not seem so groundbreaking at first blush: user reviews.

Some people probably thought Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was crazy when he introduced the feature that allowed his customers to post honest reviews of Amazon products.

How many companies did anything like publishing both positive and negative comments about the company’s products?

It was perhaps this feature — along with competitive pricing and fast, reliable delivery — that propelled Amazon to dizzying heights of success in this new market.

As a consumer, I found it incredibly helpful to read about the experiences of others who had already bought and used the products.

I used to pore over reviews compulsively, especially when preparing to make a significant purchase.

Sadly, Amazon has allowed one of its best features to become pretty much useless.

The biggest problem with these reviews is that many of them are fake.

For some categories of products, including cheap consumer electronics, nearly all “five-star” reviews are probably fake.

When I say the reviews are fake, I don’t necessarily mean they are entirely made up. More often, real people did write them — but there’s a lot more to the story.

There are at least two ways sellers game the system of reviews.

One way is to incentivize random people to submit fake reviews by providing free products or cash incentives.

Another is to use automated scripts — known as “bots” — to flood top reviews for its products with the “helpful” tag.

Both of these practices have the effect of moving their products higher up in Amazon’s listing order and influencing consumers to purchase them.

The practice of incentivized reviews is not only unethical, it is illegal in the U.S.

I’ve thought about this problem from time to time, but it was something that happened to me last week that was the impetus for this column.

I had a personal encounter with the ugly side of Amazon reviews.

I had previously bought several Bluetooth earbuds from a company called Mpow.

Their products are reasonably priced and reliable.

I’ve been a satisfied customer for years. But after my experience last week, I will not be buying anything from them again.

It started with an email invitation from the company asking if I’d be interested in a “free testing program” for a new product.

I’ve done similar things with other companies. It generally involves receiving a free product and providing honest feedback.

When it’s done aboveboard, there is nothing nefarious about it. Because of my previous positive experience with Mpow’s products, I was not at all suspicious.

But when I indicated I was interested in the program, the next email I received from them set off alarm bells.

It explained that I would need to purchase the earbuds first. Then, “after receiving the product, please share your ★★★★★ review with 3 pictures & send a screenshot of the review.”

Then, the message continued, I would be eligible for a full refund — meaning I would have gotten the earbuds free.

What did this mean? Could it be they were implying that only “five-star” reviews qualified for the refund?

I didn’t want to believe that this company that I had enthusiastically patronized and recommended to friends was actually a scammy abuser of the system.

So I asked for clarification: would any honest review qualify for the refund or only a five-star review?

The next email I received left no room for misunderstanding. Here is the reply, verbatim — grammar, spelling and all.

“Thanks for your getting back. Only for  5-star reviews. Have a nice day.”

Needless to say, I did not respond. Nor will I be patronizing Mpow in the future. And I am incredibly frustrated by the whole experience.

I did find a feedback form on Amazon.com and have reported the company, but I don’t expect anything to come of it.

Amazon doesn’t have much of an incentive to invest time and resources in seriously policing their reviews, much less kicking a company off its platform.

The review system is badly broken, and Amazon doesn’t seem to have made any serious attempt to fix it.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Facebook at fb.me/PeteTheSun.