The Underworld of Amazon’s Incentivized Review Problem

Inflated and biased reviews are bought and sold by the thousands every day in exchange for rank manipulation, bad reviews are guilted or bribed until they’re made good, Amazon’s attempt at “making things better” only made things worse, and why you shouldn’t always trust what you read!

For about a decade or so, I ran a large online consumer electronics review blog. At my peak I was pulling in about 0.5mil hits a month from around the world, and had a small team of casual writers helping me out. We didn’t get much (or any) money out of the endeavor, but as technology loving people we did get a chance to always play around with the latest and greatest and to share our thoughts for the readers. I had full time employment, so I didn’t need this blog as a way to support myself. I’d treat the reviews no differently than telling a friend about the product. If it sucked, I’d say it sucked. Rarely would that mean a manufacturer wouldn’t talk to me again, and most of the time it would mean they’d want to chat more to find out how to improve their products. Manufacturers relied on us professional reviewers to help provide industry insight; we knew what people wanted to see, and we also got to play with WAY more of their competitors products than they ever did, so we could offer valuable insight. Fast forward: life got busy, and I ended up selling the site a number of years ago.

In Came Amazon

I ended up getting Amazon Prime last year after I found myself shopping on there a lot. Something I always wanted to know more about were all the reviews that ended with “I got this product free in exchange for my unbiased review”. These were short and sweet reviews for simple products; nothing like the magazine style long form reviews I used to write! Missing reviewing a little bit, I decided to dive into this culture and become a casual reviewer on Amazon. It’s very important to note that these reviews are not done for Amazon, they are done for the third party seller on Amazon. Amazon has no affiliation for these reviews unless they are “Vine” reviews, which is Amazon’s reviewer program. At the time, these reviews weren’t prohibited by Amazon, but the usual common sense applied: always disclose your relationship with the seller (not doing so isn’t just against the T&C, but also FCC law!), never accept money or bribes, give your opinion without bias, and so on (common sense, really). Basically, follow the rules. Although we all lived in a bit of a “grey area” inside the rules.

What quickly became apparent

“Give me free stuff, and I give you five stars”. Occasionally people pop up in the groups and make clueless posts like this, sometimes they’ll even link to their Amazon profile for easy reporting!

was that the majority of my peers were not in this to help the buyers with smart shopping decisions. They were in it for little more than free stuff. Unlike my professional blog, reviewing on Amazon didn’t require weeks, even months, of building relationships with manufacturers before things got to a point of reviewing. Various agencies, and sometimes even online groups, were a hub of sellers and buyers and as long as you had a well established profile of reviewing on Amazon and a decent rank, you were in. Most items were 95-100% discounted, but of course it was expected that you’d do the work of writing the review and not just take the product and run.

The sellers? This wasn’t Amazon themselves wanting their products reviewed, those sell just fine without reviews. These are the third party sellers, which I learned sell a large percentage of what you see on Amazon. Amazon lets just about anyone sign up to sell their products, and you can either pay Amazon to warehouse and ship it (faster shipping to Prime members), or you can self ship.

The sellers wanting reviews? Almost entirely Chinese sellers selling cheaper/knockoff versions of better known items.

What’s in it for the seller?

Give me five stars, and you get a gift!

I quickly discovered that this community isn’t about the reviews. This community is about rank and search manipulation, pure and simple.

  • When people buy these products, it looks good on the seller.
  • When people search for these products before they buy them, it helps search scoring for the products. Now their products will come up first, ahead of their competitors (who often are selling the same products with a different brand name on them).
  • Most of all, when sellers get shills to write five star reviews, it helps them rank higher overall, be seen easier, and sell more products.
This was a recent one of mine. A neutral review on the earplugs; they didn’t blow me aware compared to a cheaper pair I use regularly at concerts. The seller begged, and begged (far more than I posted here) for five stars.

Here’s what frustrated me

  • People had no morals. They would literally take as much free stuff as they could hoard, write half-assed bullshit reviews, and probably turn around and sell it for profit. They didn’t care about the buyers, nor respect the fact that people are making sometimes very expensive buying decisions based on their input. I’d need more than two hands to count the number of solar power inverters that were reviewed by “stay at home moms” who couldn’t coherently talk about anything more than what the box said.
  • The quality of reviews shows that most people never tested the product or used it at all. Building on the above point, many would even disclose in their reviews they they had absolutely no idea how to use whatever it was they were reviewing. BUT, they still gave the seller five stars, because I guess they could tell from the box it was good, right?
  • Looking at the profiles of some of these people, some would be doing 50++ reviews a week. This is unimagined coming from someone who knows that properly evaluating a product before reviewing it, and then taking the time to write proper feedback, even if short, can not be accomplished that fast. How are people commenting on great battery life of Bluetooth speakers when they haven’t owned it long enough to run out the first charge yet?

I wasn’t buying it.

I continued to review honestly and unbiased as always. I had ethics and I was going to follow them until the end. This often meant a lot of poor reviews, because let’s be honest, a lot of these cheap Chinese products are absolute garbage. This is where things were also very different from my professional past life. Leave a bad review for one of these sellers, and they don’t ask you for how they could do better; they impose their wrath on you! Constant harassment and attempts are bribery to make your one, two, three or even FOUR star review into a five star. Low reviews hurt their ranking. Theaten me not. I’d leave my review exactly in the same unbiased ranking I wrote it in.

In came some facts

This blog post 
came up late last year and put actual numbers to just how bad and dishonest reviews are when they’re done in exchange for free/discounted products. As I could have told you, it meant a whole lot of undeserving four and five star reviews.

The images below are all sourced from the original blog post linked above; these are not my images or facts! I encourage you to go read the blog post linked if this is of interest to you.








Amazon steps up

Amazon made some rapid changes in policy shortly after said post. In the USA, this meant absolutely no more reviewing for free or discounted products when the arrangement is product for review. It’s very clearly called out in the Amazon USA review terms.

As you can see, in the USA there is simply -no- doing incentivized reviews of any kind anymore. Take two minutes on; it takes less than that before you’ll find the first incentivized review posted in the last 24hrs.


In Canada here, things didn’t get quite as strict. Amazon’s seller FAQ says that they can still give away or discount products for review purposes, but the relationship has to be disclosed by the reviewer.

Amazon - Rules Canada
In Canada, nothing really changed in regards to the rules. Other than the fact that nobody follows them any longer; confusing the USA rules with the Canadian ones and running this blackmarket ring of PayPal review and/or reviews without any disclosure of the relationship.

When things got really dishonest and dirty:

With the USA ban on reviews, and the obvious language barrier with a lot of the sellers involved, they started treating all countries as if the review was banned. This created the dishonesty on Amazon that I blog about today. To make it clear, this is where I’ve given up, I do not partake in these dishonest reviews. Here’s what’s happening now:

1: Sellers are threatening reviewers and telling them absolutely no disclosures should be left. Now you, the buyer, have no way of knowing that you’re reading a [biased] review that was asked for by the seller. Now you can’t ignore these reviews like you probably did before when making important buying decisions. I can find you hundreds of reviews a week (out of the most likely thousands being posted), with little effort, just on Amazon Canada alone where I know the products are incentivized reviews and there is no disclosure. The trends (brand names and/or specific products) of reviews in people’s profiles are obvious, and I see exactly the type of items being posted where sellers want reviews. The guy who posted 10 Aukey reviews in a row, all five star, all with tons of pictures taken on his SLR, certainly did not buy all those products and spend that much effort on their reviews, that goes against the trends of what I see in review quality from actual day-to-day Amazon buyers.

2: Since Amazon can see which sellers are using discount codes, the sellers have done away with this now too. Most sellers are buying reviews with PayPal. They’ll “refund” you the value of your purchase, and sometimes offer to add “extra” for “thank you”.

Phone cases and screen protectors are some of the worst for this activity; lots of competition in that space. Every seller wants to be #1 for accessories for the newest phones on the market.
In this case, the reviewer is actually filing disputes with PayPal for the matter!

How often is this happening? In just one small Amazon Canada Facebook group (one of very many), there can easily be 10-25+ posts a night of new products available for “PP” review. The people jumping on these reviews? LOTS. Each product can have anywhere from 20-100+ people that openly respond, and that isn’t including all the people who deal entirely via private message and avoid the public eye in the groups. This is only one small group, and this is only in Canada. I can’t even fathom the scale of these PayPal reviews being bought every day, but there must be hundreds, if not thousands, being posted on Amazon every day in Canada alone.

These “reviewers” [shills], see nothing wrong with this. I’ll argue with them till I’m blue in the face, and they think it’s perfectly fine to accept money, break all the rules, and post these reviews all week long. It’s amazing what free Chinese junk will do to people’s morals.

This reviewer seems to keep a rolling bankroll of review “earnings” and is now seeking out revenge by altering her reviews when she doesn’t get the promised PayPal payout from the seller after!

PayPal, in my opinion, only increases the bias. A lot of these sellers won’t refund you until the review is posted. Leave a bad review and your money will be hostage, or you’ll be blocked on Facebook, never to reach them again. I’m making a guess, which I assume to be fairly educated, that PayPal = 5 star review in 99% of the cases. I occasionally save links of items being posted for PayPal reviews and go back a week later to look at the review; I have yet to find any of my research items with anything less than all stellar five star reviews, even on obvious junk items.

What does Amazon do?

Absolutely nothing. Myself and other honest reviewers report these sellers and reviewers day in and day out. Occasionally Amazon will “wipe” all the reviews from their products, but most of the time Amazon does nothing. This doesn’t stop the sellers either, as they’ll be back buying reviews again the next day.

How does this impact YOU?

As the stats above from Review Meta show, incentivized reviews are heavily biased. The purpose of my post here was to take the data that Review Meta compiled, and show you the underworld that still exists in the review community, despite Amazon USA completely banning the practise, and Amazon Canada having very clear rules that need to be followed. Having participated in this when it was still somewhat honest, and still lurking in many of the communities, I’m disgusted at the acts the sellers and reviewers are doing. The sellers are outright manipulating Amazon to their benefit, and the reviewers just want free stuff, they don’t actually care about helping your buying decisions. Amazon continues to turn a blind eye to this so they can continue to profit from sales, despite the fact they’d simply need one employee with some spare time to join these communities, act as a reviewer, and start initiating the ban hammer on sellers to show them that they mean business.

As for you? Unless you’re shopping name brand, then take any reviews posted since late 2016 with a grain of salt. If the review is longer than a paragraph or two, has lots of photos and/or videos, then it’s probably incentivized, and most likely bought (those are common things – the sellers always want photos and videos, and lots of words). Many of these reviews also list Pros and Cons, as that’s something some sites asked for back in the day and something that’s rarely done by “joe at home” who just wants to leave a quick blurb about whether his kid liked the fidget spinner he bought them or not. But the guy who wrote five paragraphs with pictures and videos of a fidget spinner? I’ll leave that one to you.

Shop wisely my friends.