The Amazon’s Choice endorsement is being applied to potentially poor quality products that appear to have been artificially boosted by incentivised and fake reviews – putting millions of customers at risk of being misled, new research from Which? has revealed.
The consumer champion’s findings show that Amazon’s recommendation system is inherently flawed and easily gamed by unscrupulous sellers, despite evidence suggesting that many consumers trust the Amazon’s Choice badge as a mark of quality.
Which? analysed five popular product categories on Amazon.co.uk and found dozens of Amazon’s Choice-recommended products bearing what Which? experts consider to be the hallmarks of suspicious reviews.
The practices uncovered among the almost 200 Amazon’s Choice products Which? looked at included brazen examples of incentivisation – when sellers offer refunds or free products in return for positive reviews – or to remove negative ones.
Which? researchers also found evidence of product merging – where sellers merge dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings to transfer positive reviews from one to another – to artificially boost a listing and a prominence of brands unknown to Which?’s tech experts, many of which did not appear to even have a website.
Which? is concerned that some sellers are seeking to manipulate reviews to influence the Amazon’s Choice algorithm because they know it is valued and seen as a badge of quality by consumers.
New Which? research found four in ten (44%) Amazon customers, people who have been on the website in the last six months and have spotted an Amazon’s Choice logo, believe it means a product has been quality checked by Amazon, and a third (35%) believe it means it has been checked for safety.
It also found that when these people notice the Amazon’s Choice logo, nearly half (45%) are more likely to buy the product.
Which? asked Amazon if it actually checks and reviews the products that receive the badge and it did not answer. It has also refused to reveal further details of how the algorithm behind the recommendation works, beyond its current explanation, that it is influenced by customer reviews, price and whether the product is available to dispatch immediately.
Which? is calling for Amazon to be clearer with its customers that the Amazon’s Choice label is not a mark of quality, and crackdown on fake reviews which appear to be skewing the system.
The issue of fake reviews and flawed endorsements is not limited to Amazon and online reviews influence an estimated £23 billion of transactions each year in the UK alone, according to the Competition and Markets Authority.
Following its work examining fake review groups on Facebook and eBay, the CMA must now investigate how Amazon, and other review sites, are being infiltrated by fake reviews – manipulated by unscrupulous sellers – and how they are being used to mislead consumers.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:
“Amazon risks betraying the trust millions of customers place in the Amazon’s Choice badge by allowing its endorsement to be all too easily gamed.
“Amazon must ensure its customers aren’t being misled about the products it is recommending to them – or reconsider whether it should continue with the endorsement in its current form.
“This is yet further evidence that the CMA needs to investigate how fake reviews are being used to manipulate online shoppers. It must take the strongest possible action against sites that fail to tackle this problem.”
Notes to editors
Which?’s experts uncovered the following examples:
One product, the Innosinpo Upgraded Dash Cam Car Camera 1080P, had at least 24 written reviews mentioning the offer of a free SD card in return for a positive review. A number of reviewers awarded it five stars and one wrote “Redeem a free gift” as the review title while others left reviews to criticise the incentive they had been offered.
Another product, the AKASO EK7000 4K Sport Action Camera, had 3,968 customer reviews, more than any other of the top 50 action cameras on Amazon, and an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. But several people claimed they had been incentivised to write good reviews – with one sharing a photo of a leaflet offering free accessories in exchange for reviews underneath a big image of five stars.
One said: “The reason for the high review ratings is because they offer you free accessories if you leave a favourable review! So how can you trust the reviews to be sincere and genuine?… The whole thing stinks! Disappointed in Amazon.”
A fitness tracker (ANCwear Fitness Trackers Bluetooth Smart Watches with Heart Monitor and Blood Pressure) had an average 4.2 star rating but also showed signs of incentivisation. One reviewer posted a photo of the card used to offer the incentive, and wrote: “Don’t believe the five-star reviews, the watch looks and feels very cheap… only reason it is getting good reviews is the £15 bribe.”
A company attempting to tamper with negative reviews. For a baby monitor (Victure 1080P FHD WiFi IP Camera Baby Monitor), one reviewer criticised its wifi connection, playback and viewing capabilities and then said: “After seeing my review [a staff member] from Victure contacted me directly via email (i.e. outside of the Amazon messaging system) and asked me to change to five stars in exchange for a new free camera. I declined.”
Prominence of unknown brands
In nearly two-thirds (63%) of cases the label had been awarded to brands Which?’s tech experts have never heard of and, these unknown brands sometimes had more reviews than better-known counterparts such as Apple and Sony. On nearly a quarter (23%) of the recommended products, the tech brand behind them didn’t even appear to have a website. Not only is this unusual for an electronics brand in 2020, it potentially leaves customers with limited or no support if they have issues with the product.
An example of exploitation of an Amazon feature called “product merging” – where sellers merge dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings to transfer positive reviews from one to another – first reported by Which? in July last year. A pair of AMYEA wireless headphones had close to 2,000 reviews, but the majority were about completely different products, including acne cream, a ceiling light shade, prescription goggles and even razor blades.
- Which? analysed five popular product categories on Amazon.co.uk – including the bestselling items – dash cameras, action cameras, headphones or earphones, surveillance video equipment and smart watches.
- Sign Which?’s petition to demand big online marketplaces take more action on fake reviews: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/fake-reviews/
- Which?’s top tips on how to spot a fake review: https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/how-to-spot-a-fake-review
- Video available for use: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KkkbmlpgqI&feature=youtu.be
- Which? surveyed 2,042 GB adults between 21st and 22nd January 2020; 896 had seen the Amazon’s Choice logo on a visit to the website in the previous 6 months. Fieldwork was carried out online by YouGov and data have been weighted to be representative of the GB population (aged 18+).
- Which?’s previous research exposing the shoddy products being boosted by fake reviews: https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/fake-it-when-you-rate-it-which-exposes-the-shoddy-products-being-boosted-by-fake-reviews/
- Which?’s previous research on Amazon ‘product merging’: https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/bribery-hacking-and-gaming-the-system-the-tactics-used-to-post-fake-reviews-online/
Right of replies
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“Amazon’s Choice seeks to help customers by making it easy to select items in our store. When browsing our store, customers may see a product highlighted as “Amazon’s Choice” for their specific shopping request. Amazon’s Choice highlights highly-rated, well-priced products that are available to ship immediately. Amazon’s Choice is our choice for a product we think customers may like, and customers can always shop for any brand or product that they want to purchase.
“We know that customer trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, so we strive to protect customer trust in products Amazon’s Choice highlights. We don’t tolerate Amazon policy violations, such as review abuse, incentivized reviews, counterfeits or unsafe products. When deciding to badge a product as Amazon’s Choice, we proactively incorporate a number of factors that are designed to protect customers from those policy violations. When we identify a product that may not meet our high bar for products we highlight for customers, we remove the badge.”
ANCWear told Which?:
“Only those who are satisfied with our products and are willing to leave feedback will [get] a coupon.”