Zac Freeland/Vox

Amazon can’t end fake reviews, but its new system might drown them out

The company’s new one-tap star rating feature seeks to get more customer feedback ... from actual customers.


Fake reviews still exist on Amazon, but the dominant online shopping platform recently made a big change that might help drown them out instead.

The online retailer quietly introduced one-tap ratings for product reviews late last year, making it possible for shoppers to provide a star rating without needing to write a review to accompany it.

The change has already led to an increase in overall customer feedback, a competitive advantage that Amazon has over many of its biggest brick-and-mortar competitors. And new products are generating feedback on Amazon sooner, the company says, which could be a boon for new brands and sellers. But some industry observers believe another indirect impact of the change will be a significant increase in authentic ratings that will make it harder for fake reviews to break through the noise.

“As the number of ratings increase, customers can see a larger set and thus a more accurate rating,” said Patrick Miller, co-founder of Flywheel Digital, an agency that helps large consumer brands sell on Amazon. “For brands, this means the black-hat review clubs and sellers will have less impact, as fake reviews as a percentage of legit reviews should decrease.”

The new rating feature arrives at a time in which fake product reviews have been attracting more attention from the media, regulators, and Amazon itself as more consumers conduct more of their shopping online. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission brought its first case involving paid fake reviews, settling a complaint against an Amazon seller who purchased fake five-star reviews for a weight-loss supplement. Amazon has also filed at least five lawsuits related to fake-review schemes over the last five years. On one end, fake positive reviews can simply lead to the purchase of poor-quality merchandise and distrust among shoppers. But in certain categories, a flattering review of a bad or faulty product can be flat-out dangerous.

The new one-tap feature asks customers to select from one to five stars for a product. It’s only available to customers who have actually purchased the item from Amazon — “verified” buyers. That barrier alone creates one hurdle that will make the new rating system harder to game, since Amazon does allow written reviews from non-verified buyers. And as the new rating feature attracts more and more feedback from verified buyers, it’ll get more expensive for schemers to buy enough phony reviews to try to break through the noise.

“The more customers who purchased the product [who] provide feedback, the more accurately the star rating reflects the experience of all purchasers,” is how Amazon spokesperson Angie Newman put it, without directly referencing fake reviews.

Amazon does not provide many specifics about how a product’s overall star rating is calculated, other than stating that it is not a simple average but instead uses “machine-learned models” that take into account factors such as how recent the rating or review is and whether it was a verified purchase or not. It’s not clear whether one-tap ratings will carry as much weight in these models as written reviews.

But the new rating system isn’t fool-proof, since some fake-review schemers have a way to get around the “verified purchase” requirement. One popular method is to recruit buyers in private Facebook groups with a promise to refund them for their purchase via PayPal after the shoppers show proof of writing a five-star review. At the same time, it seems logical that these schemers will have to purchase more fake reviews to make an impact on their product’s ratings if the overall amount of customer feedback is growing as a result of the one-tap feedback feature.

Still, there are other concerns about what the introduction of simple star ratings will do to written reviews. Industry experts say only around 0.5 percent to 3 percent of customers typically provide a review or rating for products bought online. And online customer ratings and reviews, while not perfect, do influence product purchase decisions. But if more current reviewers opt to just leave a one-tap rating instead, important context could suffer.

“The upside is they are getting more feedback, and as long as it’s done correctly, maybe it’s more representative of the entire population of buyers,” said Matt Moog, the CEO of PowerReviews, a company that sells product review technology to big retailers and consumer brands. “The downside is it’s less descriptive.”

There are other downsides to consider with the new one-tap system. Shoppers now have to do some work to identify how many pieces of overall customer feedback are actually written reviews, since the number listed at the top of a product page is now a total for overall ratings and reviews combined. The more risk aversion a consumer has to a product or product category, the more likely they are to read written reviews, according to Tom Collinger, executive director of the Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University’s Medill School, which has conducted in-depth studies on online ratings and reviews. Brands and third-party merchants selling on Amazon also count on written feedback to identify issues with their own products or opportunities when viewing reviews of competitor products, added James Thomson, a former manager at Amazon who now runs Buy Box Experts, an agency for brands and third-party sellers doing business on Amazon.

“If you want to give the whole marketplace more feedback to work with, then Amazon has succeeded,” Thomson said. “The problem is it’s not useful feedback.”

Amazon, though, is known for making changes and then experimenting and altering an approach depending on the behavior it produces and its unintended side effects. For that reason, some in the Amazon ecosystem predict further changes are on the way.

“Ultimately, Amazon’s trying to remove the friction of people writing reviews,” said Jeff Cohen, an executive at the e-commerce software company Seller Labs. “They solve single goals and they don’t overly complex the things that they are doing. My guess is more changes will come.”