Practical Ecommerce

Fake Reviews, a Despicable Practice?

Online retailers have an ethical and legal responsibility to customers to advertise and market in an honest and legitimate fashion. But sometimes the line separating an excellent marketing idea from a despicable or even illegal business practice is not perfectly clear.

Ecommerce marketers, even well-meaning ones, may be contributing to widespread advertising fraud without even realizing it.

Is Review Marketing Unethical?

Last week, The New York Times reported that an Amazon Marketplace seller, VIP Deals, was compensating customers for writing positive product reviews.

Some customers who actually purchased an Amazon Kindle case from VIP Deals via the Amazon Marketplace received a letter offering them a full refund in exchange for a positive review on Amazon. As a result, the company garnered nearly 400 extremely positive reviews, and presumably boosted its sales of Kindle cases.

The New York Times and several other commentators, blogs, and news sites have consistently referred to the reviews VIP Deals generated as “fake.” But it is worth noting that the company’s actions are only slightly different or more extreme than “best practices” promoted by leading marketers and even review services.

PowerReviews, as an example, consistently encourages its customers to send review solicitation emails shortly after a customer makes a purchase.

In a PowerReviews blog post from September 2011, Alan Trzuskoski, who is, in my opinion, an ethical and respected marketer, wrote that companies should “add an extra holiday incentive for writing reviews. Let customers know it’s a holiday bonus and add a deadline” when sending review solicitation emails.

Similarly, another PowerReviews blog post stated that “it is well known that 80-90 [percent] of all reviews on your product pages are a result of a post transactional email. Merchants who implement a follow-up email program see not only an increase in the volume of reviews but also a more favorable distribution of review ratings.”

Even Practical eCommerce has advocated several times that readers should send review solicitation emails and include incentives to get customers to respond.

These review marketing best practices — to solicit reviews from real customers and offer an them an incentive — are surprisingly similar to what VIP Deals did. Nonetheless, VIP Deals’ actions are being described as misleading or even illegal.

The New York Times’ article mentioned above has shed some light on review marketing and it may well be that the very act of paying incentives for a review taints the process just enough that it ultimately can be misleading to customers.

Legal Ramifications of Soliciting Reviews

Paying for reviews, even when the payment comes in the form of a discount or other incentive, may actually be illegal.

In 2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission updated its endorsement and testimonial guidelines to better reflect the modern, digital world. A relatively broad reading of those guidelines would indicate that any relationship between reviewer and the reviewed company — even an incentive relationship — should be disclosed. Doing otherwise could be illegal.

More Egregious Forms of Fake Reviews

Some online merchants have also been accused of purchasing reviews from individuals or agencies. These reviewers may or may not have actually used or handled the product. For example, a worker on Fiverr, is offering to review two digital products for $5. Other crowdsourcing marketplaces like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Digital Point and online classifieds like Craigslist have fake-review jobs posted.

A worker on Fiverr offers to write fake Amazon reviews.

A worker on Fiverr offers to write fake Amazon reviews.

Summing Up

Online retailers should always aim to serve customers, even when they are encouraging reviews, and in the light of The New York Times article and other published reports, serving customers may mean changing how review marketing is done.

The VIP Deals incident should serve as a lesson for marketers. Sometimes what seems like a cleaver marketing or advertising plan in conference rooms may unintentionally seem unethical when presented to customers or the media.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

Bio   •   RSS Feed


Sign up for our email newsletter

Get the Practical Ecommerce RSS feed

Comments ( 19 )

  1. Alan January 31, 2012 Reply

    Alan Trzuskoski here. Personally, I think VIP Deals’ practice is very unethical, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen businesses [try to game the system]( That said, I don’t think that soliciting user reviews, even if an incentive is offered, is unethical by itself. The difference is to whom the incentive is offered.

    What I mean is, VIP Deals appears to have targeted actual customers and offered them a financial incentive to author positive, five star reviews. If instead they offered that same financial incentive to all customers, regardless of rating, I don’t see a problem.

    Just to clarify – the point of my article last year was to help merchants generate more content on their website and drive more sales. Not to suggest that they should generate biased review content by offering incentives for positive reviews.

    I hope that helps!

    P.S. Thanks for the kind words!

  2. Armando Roggio February 1, 2012 Reply

    Alan, I hope I did not imply otherwise.

    My goal was to point out just how fine the line is. Personally, I am not going to use follow up campaigns anymore. The VIP Deals incident has made it clear to me that there are some actions for which we should not offer incentives.

  3. Will Devlin February 2, 2012 Reply

    I see no problem giving incentive to write a review; it’s different when you only offer up the incentive for giving a GOOD review, though.

  4. Jim Rudnick February 2, 2012 Reply

    Fake reviews? This is old news. [Here’s a link to a blog post]( I did up here in Canada, back in Aug 2010.

    As you’ll note, it’s about car dealerships and their purchase of phony reviews in Google Maps/Places…sigh…..and it still goes on today too!



  5. Bryan Stapp February 2, 2012 Reply

    Fake reviews are definitely a no-no. Lifestyle Lift got hammered for this: [](

    The problem with incentives is that when you offer a token gift (like a $10 gift card) for all reviews (good, bad, ugly) the consumer will still feel obliged to write a POSITIVE review to make sure they get the gift. Most people would say "yeah – duh! that’s the whole point!" But you really do want to get all comments so you can learn and take corrective action.

    I generally advocate putting any reviewer’s name into a monthly drawing for a gift or product accessory worth $25 or less.

  6. surfeast February 2, 2012 Reply

    Review Scams Where to begin?

    For starters asking for a review after checkout even before a product ships. What a Joke…

    How about the fake reviews competitors launch at you? Have plenty of those floating

    Reseller Ratings perhaps the biggest joke of them all. Started by the men in funny hats out of The NY electronics industry as a little side venture yet tell everyone they are impartial. Do the research ratings are heavily favored by google as original content yet 70% are phony in how they came to be.

  7. sagagreg February 2, 2012 Reply

    How about companies that first must "approve" reviews for products sold on their website (where they hold their own inventory). Talk about fraud. How many 1-star ratings do you think get approved? Because if they actually approved those 1-star ratings, those items would remain on their shelves forever. So the incentive is to disallow them. And would anyone ever know that this is happening? Of course not.

    And then how many fake ratings are left by their employees on the website to create 5-star ratings for those products?

    The whole rating system is a scam and the FTC should more heavily regulate it.

  8. Armando Roggio February 2, 2012 Reply

    @sagagreg Not sure that having the FTC increase its regulations is the proper answer. But I do think that marketers should self-regulate.

  9. Elizabeth Ball February 2, 2012 Reply

    I’ve had the opposite problem. A customer with an unusual surname asked me to replace his surname with an initial after his name came up on a Google search by his potential employer who decided that his demonstrated interest in my types of products (astrology) would not suit a faith-based organisation.

  10. Lorraine Pierce February 2, 2012 Reply

    Consumers typically put a lot of weight into reviews. I do the same when shopping. Sometimes is very apparent when a seller writes their own reviews when an actual customer did it.

    Amazon does a pretty good job reminding customers to do reviews, however they apparently dont monitor seller emails very well! Amazon does distinguish the reviews as to wether or not the reviewer actually purchased the product. However, most people probably never notice. They just look at the number of stars and skim the reviews.

    Amazon does lean heavily on the reviewers side of a dispute. I had a customer that was mad about our refund policy on our .com site, so she posted a rant as a product review on Amazon, and they wouldn’t take it down!

    So, the unfairness goes both ways :)

  11. Armando Roggio February 3, 2012 Reply

    @Lorraine Pierce, do you think "reminding" customers to do a review is the same as asking customers to do one?

  12. Blake Schreck February 5, 2012 Reply

    Personally, I don’t think that any revue should be dependent on a discount of any sort…that’s just a bribe and unethical. Any discount should be a simple "thank you for shopping with us".

    If you’d like a review of your products, just ask for an honest review. If you’re getting bad reviews, maybe you had better rethink the products you’re offering and or your customer service.

  13. DrPHD August 16, 2012 Reply

    Here is one Amazon seller used 5 star review to promote store items, and 1 star review to attack competitor. Got caught and exposed.

    But, most of the fake reviews are still there….′ defer filler=’

  14. Nachshon November 5, 2012 Reply

    This is a great article!
    See what Yotpo is doing about reviews, specifically fake reviews!
    Here’s a blogpost I wrote about fake reviews:

    And this is about Fake "Likes" on facebook.

    Check it out. Share, spread, like-

  15. miglenan December 20, 2012 Reply

    The situation with the paid positive reviews is pathetic. May be that’s why the unreliability of retailer site’s reviews is replaced by reliability of social media. Now a lot of people trust their friends’ opinions and are more inclined to buy reading them, not the common ones.
    Armando, I’m not sure it’s possible for marketers to self-regulate when their greatest aim is sales only.

  16. djay August 21, 2013 Reply

    Not only is this a questionable practice by the sellers, but what about the morals of those who accepted the bribes to post positive reviews? I rely on reviews to make decisions about my purchases and don’t appreciate being deceived. Since I am scrupulous about the reviews I submit, I don’t appreciate my reviews being watered down by fake ones.

  17. Jenny February 13, 2014 Reply

    I recently found this website which sells amazon reviews for $3 per review

  18. Danny B January 5, 2015 Reply

    This page also offers amazon reviews – I think a lot of AMAZON FBA sellers use services like this.

  19. Nadine Zachary June 18, 2016 Reply

    I belong to a few sites that offer Amazon items at a nice discount in exchange for my HONEST review, and they really do stress the “honest” part, good or bad. In searching for more sites I did run across one site promising sellers good reviews for a fee. I really don’t like those, as I rely heavily on reviews when making a purchase. I even consult
    Amazon reviews for items I’m planning to purchase elsewhere. But from what I’ve seen myself I feel the majority of them are honest. But then the crooked ones might not be out there front and center either.