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'Bait and Switch' Amazon Reviews Cause Skeptical Consumers

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Brooke Lynch

Customer reviews are an integral part of the online shopping experience. Reading what others have to say about a product gives shoppers the confidence to make purchases with ease. When they can’t physically pick out an item, customers seek words of advice on the quality or look of a product from their fellow reviewers. 

But not all reviews can or should be treated equally, as the rapid expansion of eCommerce has spurred a significant rise in fraudulent reviews. This practice can be most prominently recognized on sites like Amazon, where fake or inaccurate product reviews allow sellers to promote their products to achieve higher rankings.

In a recent example, writer Timothy B. Lee documented his experience purchasing an inexpensive drone on the site. After realizing the quality of the toy was too low for his kids, he decided to head back to Amazon to find a more suitable replacement. When sorting through drones he decided to search by the average customer review and was surprised to find equally low-quality listings that boasted thousands of five-star reviews. Upon further review, he found that the product reviews in question were not even for a drone but for a highly rated honey. In a fit of suspicion, he browsed the most recent reviews that were accurately associated with the drones, giving it a more concerning one-star.


‘Bait and Switch’

This concept isn’t new; it was previously coined the ‘bait and switch’ method and like the drone from Lee’s example, it allows products to rise in the Amazon ranks to the top of a particular search. Sellers appropriate an existing product page to take advantage of the abundance of reviews; they can then benefit from the legitimacy of reviews without actually acquiring any on their own.

This process detracts from the very purpose of reviews and allows sellers to take advantage of customers trusting nature. However, not all shoppers take fraudulent reviews at face value. What’s interesting, and was particularly noted in the comment section of Lee’s article, is the concept of the skeptical consumer. One commenter noted that they always start by reading the negative reviews of a product, stating they were shocked this isn’t the standard practice. Another wrote, “Amazon is giving their customers ‘free’ training to distinguish "real" reviews from "fake" reviews to allow their customers to better filter out false posts.” While these may be a bit extreme, they’re giving us a picture of a more suspicious customer; one that feels jaded by the presence of endless positive reviews. 


Finding Truth 

The review section used to be a place shoppers could turn to for genuine testimonials, now some feel they can’t trust a product unless they vet every critique to find some sense of truth. They’re not wrong either; according to Fakespot, a service dedicated to identifying counterfeit reviews, about 42% of the 720 million Amazon reviews they evaluated were marked as unreliable. With such a high percentage of inaccuracy, how can consumers continue to trust reviews, and whose responsibility is it to find the truth?

On Amazon’s end, it has continued to enact measures to avoid these fraudulent sellers. The site utilizes a verification system to ensure reviews are made by individuals who actually purchased the product without any discount. But there are still ways for fake reviews to slip through the cracks; a recent study noted that some sellers use social media sites like Facebook to offer reimbursement for positive product reviews, allowing reviews to appear verified by having users purchase the products through their personal account.

In reviewing both sides, we see an imperfect system; customers lack the confidence to make successful and accurate purchases, and sites like Amazon are left policing their sellers to promote high-quality products. Ultimately, the system fails in its assumption of customers’ reliance on review scores, rather than their concern for in-depth, honest reviews. With this framework, brands feel encouraged to game the system to rise up the rankings. Though this process may offer short-term success, true customer sentiment will always prevail, and underperforming products will be exposed. 

If we continue to undermine the credibility of reviews, we end up hurting small businesses’ ability to compete. When customers feel they can no longer trust reviews about new and unfamiliar offerings, they’ll default to bigger brands and effectively eliminate the biggest opportunity of eCommerce.

To avoid this trap, companies need to look at the bigger picture. True positive reviews need to be earned through high-quality products, fair pricing, and strong customer service. From follow-up emails, to special coupons, to additional buyer "perks," customer-centric brands go all-out to leave a more genuine positive impression. By doing this, brands benefit from real advocates, ones who go above and beyond to share their exceptional customer experiences. In the end, these are the reviews that stick and allow smaller companies to compete over the long-term.