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Amazon is cracking down on biased customer reviews

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By banning incentivized reviews of free or discounted products

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Amazon updated its community guidelines today to prohibit so-called "incentivized reviews," which are customer reviews of a product that was received for free or at a discount in exchange for an online write-up. The company says these types of reviews make up a tiny fraction of overall Amazon.com reviews. Yet studies have shown that incentivized reviewers are less likely to give products negative feedback and review hundreds of products on average, potentially affecting the overall sales performance of otherwise mediocre items.

The company says it will still support incentivized reviews handled through its Vine program, which was set up in 2007 to offer a more bias-free customer review system. Vine lets retailers pay Amazon a fee to distribute its products to trusted reviewers, who never deal with the maker of the product itself. The Vine program does not incentivize positive coverage and Amazon limits the number of Vine reviews it displays for any given item. One exception to this new rule is the book category, as Amazon does not want to prohibit the industry standard of sending out advance review copies of new novels and non-fiction.

Amazon will still give out review units of new products through its Vine program

Amazon has often struggled to maintain the integrity of its customer review system, which millions of consumers rely on to make smart purchase decisions and avoid faulty or substandard products. In some cases, Amazon has aggressively gone after companies that abuse its system and even sued individuals who offered reviews in exchange for cash on freelance job sites.

While the company does not spell out exactly why it decided to ban these reviews, the decision may have been influenced by a recent study from ReviewMeta. That website is a pro-consumer online database that analyzes reviews to suss out certain trends. When looking into incentivized reviews, ReviewMeta found that these reviewers were "12 times less likely to give a 1-star rating than non-incentivized reviews, and almost 4 times less likely to leave a critical review in general." Its findings were published in July, yet a video detailing the results went viral on Reddit last month. Overall, it seems to suggest consumers are less critical of products in the absence of any monetary investment and that some incentivized reviewers post positive feedback to receive more free products in the future.

Over time, Amazon hopes to alter its Vine system to help improve its trustworthiness, but Chee Chew, Amazon’s vice president of customer experience, says the company is not ready to disclose details on that front quite yet. Meanwhile, the company will continue to take legal action against those who attempt to manipulate its review system for any purpose.