reviews on Amazon in exchange for free/discounted products
September 21, 2015 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Product reviews on Amazon reviews have been very helpful in choosing and researching options for everything from fish oil supplements for dogs to baby swaddles to windshield wiper blades. It's always been fairly easy to tell obviously fake reviews and mentally discount those from the bigger picture, or see the extreme highs and extreme lows offering a certain kind of perspective that may or may not apply to my own decisions. The Vine program was a bit annoying at first, but since the reviewers were generally chosen for writing helpful reports, their reviews were often quite helpful and contained information missing from the product descriptions. But recently it seems like there are SO many reviews by non-Vine folks who include a variation on the line, "I received this product at a discount in exchange for my writing a honest review." It is obvious why the manufacturers or distributors want to get more reviews, but does Amazon condone this kind of review? Why have they suddenly been popping up even more?

How are people offered products in exchange for the reviews? Does the customer make a purchase on Amazon, then get contacted for a partial or full refund by the seller? Or does this selection process happen on a site that is NOT Amazon?

Other than down-voting them as not helpful (when they're not, which is very frequently the case) is there anything I can do to signal that the review was underwritten by free or discounted products? It is really annoying to find dozens of semi-sponsored reviews in the otherwise useful results.

Has this been happening more frequently in the past few months or is that just confirmation bias? If it has ramped up recently, do you know why? What is Amazon's take on this practice? More generally, is this trend annoying to folks other than myself?
posted by barnone to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Amazon's FBA program has received a great deal of attentional lately. This, in turn, has led to a large array of Amazon review sites. It's against Amazon policy to pay someone for writing a review, but you can give them a coupon code that allows them to receive the product for free. People like free stuff, people in the FBA program like getting good reviews for their products, so it's led to an explosion of reviews that are in the gray area.
posted by Ostara at 3:19 PM on September 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

From what I've read, sellers pay about $20 for a fake review. It doesn't surprise me that giving away product to generate a legitimate (if lame) review is suddenly popular. I don't think I've seen it more lately, though.
posted by wnissen at 3:30 PM on September 21, 2015

If you order a relatively cheap product, especially tech-related (think charging cables, bluetooth adapters et. al.), you will often find a small card or piece of paper inviting you to register for an extended warranty and/or a special club that the manufacturer operates in with the product.

The club or warranty registration will often include the opportunity to receive free gifts, where you will send them a link to your review of the product you have purchased and they will then send you the item or as Ostara says a code that will discount an item by the purchase cost.

I've not been motivated enough to write a review for a freebie, but all of this literature extols the manufacturer's wish for a fair and balanced review. I've no idea if they'll [keep] send[ing] free stuff to people who rate products badly as I've yet to see a bad incentivised review...

I've also recently received snail mail directly from a manufacturer of Lightning charging cables when I purchased an FBA product that lets me use my Prime membership to get it fast, containing a double-sided sheet of paper basically asking the same as the above - will you review the product, we'll give you one of (selection of products) in return. I'm not sure how I feel about the company using my data provided for shipping to then send a followup letter, but it sure beats the unsubscribable spam I've started getting to my PayPal address from certain eBay traders.
posted by NordyneDefenceDynamics at 3:57 PM on September 21, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the link to the list of sites where you can sign up. Crazy! Do the sellers get your Amazon name/profile ahead of time? Do they select you if you write positive reviews more often, or do they just take the chance that free stuff means net positive reviews?
posted by barnone at 3:58 PM on September 21, 2015

Best answer: I don't think I've got a huge social media presence, about a thousand followers on Twitter, and I've made the front page of LumberJocks a couple of times, and been active on that site since close to its inception.

On the basis of basically that and some questions and statements made there, I've had a couple of manufacturers outright gift me a bunch (a few hundred bucks retail price each) of merchandise for evaluation.

Based on that, because it was a nice generous thing and I was super impressed by being treated that way, I've written reviews, clearly outlining my biases and disclosing those gifts, but still. Given those reviews I don't expect to get any more merchandise, but the only thing I can figure is that social media is a still new and evolving, and a couple of brand managers out there said "heck, let's try some experiments!"

I mean, really, "Hey, saw your disparaging comment about parent brand, let me send you a $200 retail tool kit to see if it'll change your mind!" doesn't make any sense to me. It did change my mind, I now think that's a perfectly reasonable tool brand for working mid-range contractors, but I don't know why my opinion mattered that much.

But if manufacturers keep doing it, I'll keep saying nice things about their brand, even if my reaction to particular products hasn't been 5 stars...
posted by straw at 4:43 PM on September 21, 2015

Best answer: I don't know what kind of products you're primarily focused on at Amazon, but with books you can sign up at many author's sites to join early readers clubs, and there are also services (like the many linked above) that exist solely for newly released books.

There is so much emphasis on this because the social proof in the form of reviews sells product. And because we have effectively crowd-sourced this now; I mean, I do not care at all what Kirkus Reviews thinks of a book; I care much more what 286 other readers think of a book.

Don't make the mistake of assuming a review for a free product is a shill review. Amazon ranks reviewers based on a number of factors including how often other people marked your review as helpful. Trying not at all, I rank somewhat highly, and I am moved to give a one or two star review about as often as I am moved to give a five star review -- perhaps more. Amazon does more than they need to to try to stop the system being gamed and to reward and weight genuine reviews.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:44 PM on September 21, 2015

Best answer: I sell products via amazon FBA. Received wisdom is that it is very difficult to get people to click on your products unless you have a number of reviews, which leads to spending a ton on amazon PPC for nothing, so people send out samples or offer discounts for early reviewers. Of course you also get feedback as to quality and as to whether a first run of the product will be a good seller by doing this too. Sometimes it's through review groups or mommy blogger groups or whatever, sometimes through opt-in email lists of previous buyers, sometimes through reddit ads/posts, sometimes through emailing people on amazon's top 1,000 reviewer list and asking if they'll give your widget a shot.

The review will generally get deleted if it doesn't have the verbiage you noted, so people on both sides (reviewer and seller) are strict about having it in there. Lots of people take the top reviewers list VERY seriously and want the opportunity to build their, er, portfolio of reviews. Others like getting free stuff, like trying a particular brand's new offers, or just get a kick out of doing video reviews or having their dog try different things or something.

A number of reviewers had all of their reviews just deleted a couple of months ago creating mass drama - some of them were people on the "top reviewer" league table. It is assumed amazon notes the footprint of certain dodgier review sites which do shady things (ie outright pay for reviews or guarantee 5 star reviews) and these people were all members or attached in some way. I know in the super competitive cut throat categories on amazon - supplements and beauty, neither of which I am in - some sellers lost literally hundreds of reviews of their products overnight. It was a big topic on the FBA seller facebook groups.

After the review purge amazon changed its TOS, and there is some confusion as to whether giving away products for review is still okay in their eyes. This hasn't shaken out yet.
posted by jamesonandwater at 5:12 PM on September 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's definitely ramping up lately. I got taken recently by great reviews on a nightlight. When I received it, one of the main selling features didn't work. I looked back and saw almost 100% of their reviews are from people who got it for free (okay, 'discounted') in exchange for an 'honest' review. Only one review noted the fatal flaw in the item.

It's very annoying imo. I've seen a lot of ads towards the bottom of an item's page on amazon geared to sellers with advice on giving goods away for reviews.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 6:12 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


A year or so ago, I ordered a really nice wok. It turned out to be really nice. Recently Nice Wok Company offered me a free identical wok to review. I said yes mostly because I'd been vaguely meaning to write a review to tell other shoppers how nice it was.

My review mentioned one flaw (which does not bother me but might bother others) and qualified my guarantee of niceness (by explaining what we had done to the wok that might have made it much nicer than it would have been had we not done this special thing).

It is possible that the flaw and the qualifier would have appeared more prominently if I weren't imagining Nice Wok Company reading the review and taking it personally.

Not sure what to do with Duplicate Nice Wok. Maybe give it to someone for Christmas? On the one hand, it seems to violate some gift-giving precept, although I'm not sure which. On the other hand, it is a Really Nice Wok.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:33 PM on September 21, 2015

Best answer: It used to be that people bought reviews on Amazon. Several years ago, I contributed to a book on container gardening. Soon after it was published, the publisher sent me a letter indicating that my friends and family could make $10 for each positive review they left for the book.

Amazon has cracked down on that kind of stuff these days. Paying for reviews will get you kicked out of the FBA program. If you listen to some of the podcasts geared towards FBA folks, right now it seems like offering the discount codes in exchange for reviews is acceptable. Amazon is always tweaking its TOS, though, so this may change in the future.

Many of the sites that I listed above recommend that you contact the FBA participant directly if you can't give a positive review. This way they get the feedback but it doesn't turn into a marketing disaster. Many of the FBA sellers introducing product into the Amazon marketplace will start with a few samples sourced from Alibaba and see what kind of reviews they get. Later on they will bring the merchandise over by the container ... and containers hold a lot of stuff. Of course they want to get some reviews and feedback first. I don't really blame them.

Reviewers need to be honest, though, and if there's aspects of a product that need improvement they need to communicate this to the seller.
posted by Ostara at 8:37 PM on September 21, 2015

I was just talking to a woman that works in a furniture manufacturing business and they have the furniture made and then resell it through big box retailers.
The manufacturing woman said to get on the shelves of the big box stores, they need to send out samples (full chairs and couches!) to consumers and have them reviewed online. If the reviews are good, the big box will pick up the product, if they are bad the product is not carried. The furniture maker carries the entire huge cost of this sample and review program.
There was a certain threshold of 5 star reviews needed before anyone felt confident the product would successfully sell.
Interestingly, also in this conversation was another woman who is one of Amazon's testers. She recently got a chair from the manufacturing woman's competition for sample. They thought the chair probably retailed at about $600 and the company had sent out at least 100 chairs in a desperate bid to have them picked up by a retailer.
There's a lot going on with product reviews and how that influences what is carried and what really sells.
posted by littlewater at 9:45 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I bought a $2 electronic gizmo. It never worked, so I left a negative review -- just one of hundreds of mostly positive reviews. The seller spent weeks emailing me, promising all kinds of stuff in order for me to take my review down. It's kind of crazy.
posted by miyabo at 5:37 AM on September 22, 2015

I'm really glad you asked this question because I contacted them about this and they ignored me. I feel really uncomfortable with these reviews.
posted by shesbenevolent at 7:34 AM on September 22, 2015

This has been going on for years in one form or another. I've written reviews for free products I received from word-of-mouth-building services like BzzAgent. One of the rules was that I had to note in my review that I received the product for free. I posted reviews to Amazon and other sites, and I never said anything that wasn't truthful, so it's not always necessary to automatically discount or downvote this type of review. Sometimes it's just a marketing push to get the word out about a new product.

I've also known freelance writers who were sent free books and were flat-out paid for positive reviews of those books. That's a lot more underhanded, and they didn't state anything about reviewing the product for free. So you never really know either way sometimes.
posted by QuickedWeen at 11:25 AM on September 22, 2015

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