Corrupt Reviews at Amazon; What About Elsewhere?

In a recent article at Webguild (for the sake of honesty, one of my favorite web analysis sites) John Dvorak writes about a recent academic study of the reviews on the Amazon site. You can see the actual study here:

The results are nothing short of shocking. While their sample is admittedly not as large as it could be (166 of the top 1000 reviewers), 85%, yes EIGHTY-FIVE PERCENT of those reviewers had been approached with free merchandise and other goodies. Frankly, I find this highly disturbing, because it causes me to be highly suspicious of a source of information that I considered to be (as Fox would say) “fair and balanced.”

Now, call me naive, but I am willing to bet that most of us don’t even think about the possibility that the reviews we read on Amazon have been influenced by the very companies selling the product being reviewed. But, of course, we all know that this is possible and happens in the offline world frequently.

My larger question is this; just how pervasive is this? Mr. Dvorak seems to think that Yelp is a better model, because you can (as he says) “deconstruct” the reviewer to see if they have tastes similar to yours and Yelp has nothing to sell, other than the reviews themselves–although that seems to be changing with their offerings of coupons and things like that that actively help the businesses reviewed on their site.

But, there are lots of supposedly objective review sites out there; as consumers we need to wonder just how pervasive this practice is. And, to me, the larger question is, is this kind of thing going to pollute a bourgeoning (and, I would argue) valuable service/business well before it even reaches anything like it’s peak of utility?

The next piece I would argue is that all of these sites need to come up with some kind of system that makes this transparent. After all, financial reporters have to be clear on whether they have any interest in the companies on which they report; perhaps we need some kind of similar system here. Wouldn’t you rather know whether the review you are reading came from someone who profited in some way from the actual writing of the review?

Again, you can call me naive, but I sure would like to know this kind of thing before I make any kind of purchasing decision that was influenced by a supposedly object review.

And, Amazon needs to come WAY clean on this one. They need to tell us all just who is being recompensed for what on their site, or all of their reviews become suspect. As we become more savvy buyers, the marketers are simply going to have to up their transparency. To quote Pete Townsend, “We won’t get fooled again!”

At least, I hope not.


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