Whether or not a product on Amazon has a review is a huge metric in determining that product’s ability to sell. Since Amazon has made the ability to get entice customers for reviews through giveaways a more exclusive program, this means shady sellers are turning to blackhat methods to jumpstart their products.
There are plenty of tricks that sellers utilize in order to get reviews, but the most current and easiest method is to take over existing reviews. This process of hijacking zombie listings is one of the many current tricks in the Amazon blackhat strategy book.
The History of Reviews on Amazon
Amazon has technically never allowed sellers to pay directly for reviews. They did let you giveaway your products for free or at highly discounted prices in exchange for reviews. Previously, there were numerous third party services that offered you access to their users in which you could choose to giveaway products to specific users. Since these users were registered with the third party service specifically for giveaway items in return for reviews, utilizing this service was very likely to net reviews.
The policy has never allowed you to force a customer to give you a positive review. However, the ability to filter through all applicants to your giveaway meant you could pick and choose those peoples who were more likely to give you a positive review based on their review history.
On October 3, 2016, Amazon updated its policy on the ability for sellers to giveaway products for reviews, essentially discontinuing the practice.
Since this October 2016 update, options for the typical seller to garner reviews has become much more limited. There are still giveaways, but this is performed through Amazon and is is more of a shotgun approach since you cannot compel the winners of these giveaways to leave reviews. For a normal Seller Central (SC) seller, you also have access to the Early Reviewer Program (ERP).
ERP lets you register a new product to the program and as long as the product is registered, customers who purchase the product will receive an email asking them to leave a review in exchange for a small Amazon gift card.
On the Amazon US marketplace, the ERP program charges the seller a total of $60.00 USD as soon as the first review is given and is eligible for up to five reviews. It is not very effective and for the most part can be dismissed as a suitable option for garnering reviews.
Vine Review Program
Nothing compares to the Vine Review Program, which is exclusive to Vendor Central (VC) sellers. Being exclusive is exactly why Amazon is being targeted by EU regulators per a previous article I wrote. VC is basically Amazon’s wholesale program, meaning products are sold to Amazon who then resell it themselves.
Amazon’s private label products are also eligible for the Vine Review Program. Amazon’s restrictions on methods for sellers to garner reviews is what gives Amazon’s own listings an unfair advantage.
As is true with any market, services have tried to adapt to these new restrictions. As mentioned previously, Amazon does offer a giveaway function. However, these giveaways force the seller to buy the product at their retail price and have no guarantee of procuring a review.
An alternative legal method to try and boost reviews is very similar to the actual Amazon giveaway program. Instead, you pay a third-party service a fee so as to promote your product to their users. Where this works a bit better than Amazon’s homebrew giveaway program is that these select users are more likely to give you a review. These types of third-party giveaway services can cost upwards of thousands of dollars, depending on the number of products you are offering.
Reviews Matter on Amazon
I have spoken about Amazon’s algorithms before, but an easy explanation is that it works much like a search engine. Products that get more hits or sales, gain ranking in search, meaning sales perpetuate sales. One of the major factors in determining whether or not you get a sale will be heavily dependant on whether or not your product has any reviews, regardless of the star rating.
A product with no reviews is a death sentence on Amazon, or more accurately symbolizes your product never leaving the womb. Getting a product with no reviews to sell is possible, but it means you have to invest a lot more into marketing, whether through lower pricing or paid campaigns.
Something a lot of new sellers worry about are their product descriptions, things even Amazon tells you are important. The reality is that things like product descriptions take second fiddle to reviews.
Hijacking Zombie Listings
Although not necessarily new, one of the current methods of getting reviews is hijacking zombie listings, which is exactly what it sounds like. This is how sellers are tricking you into buying products with reviews that do not actually belong to that product.
Amazon’s product databases are littered with failed or shelved products which are referred to as zombie listings. A lot of these zombie listings are no longer maintained or monitored by their original creators. As such, the reviews that exist for these products are now in a way, up for grabs.
Hijacking zombie listings is possible due to a common sense function available to Amazon sellers, which is the merger of product listings.
The ability to merge or split products was a common strategy utilized by some sellers to manipulate their listings. Products on Amazon receive a combined review score for all their SKUs. If one of your product SKUs has an individual 5-star review and a different SKU has a 1-star review, this would result in a combined 3-star review for the product.
Sellers would manipulate their review average by splitting and merging specific SKUs in a way that the average was higher for certain products.
A harder to confirm and less stable side effect of this constant splitting and merging of products is that sometimes reviews would suddenly cease to exist. This provided an unstable method of removing negative reviews, but also ran the same risk of losing positive reviews.
Amazon has actually cracked down on this type of manipulation and more closely monitors the splitting and merging activity of sellers.
Much harder for Amazon to monitor or control is the hijacking of zombie listings. The reality of Amazon is that it is a scramble and the vast majority of products are actually generic products wrapped in unique branding.
By branding a product and giving it a unique UPC, sellers are able to list these products as their own individual product listings, reducing the need to compete with other sellers on the same product page.
When sellers stop selling a product, those listings may become inactive, but they continue to exist in the Amazon database. Regardless of the reason for that listing becoming inactive, its continued existence means that the reviews for those product listings also exist.
Sellers can then attempt to merge their own products into that zombie listing, thereby scooping up the existing reviews. Most people who utilize this strategy will at least try to find the same if not a similar product to hijack.
The more unscrupulous seller will merge their listings into completely unrelated products, which is why you might end up buying a toothbrush that seems to have reviews talking about a blender.
This is a great way for a seller with a new product to jumpstart their sales by getting very coveted reviews.
Restrictions in Place
Amazon does allow a seller to place ownership restrictions on their product listings, but this is opt-in and needs to be manually performed by Amazon Seller Support. This would prevent another seller from merging their product into a listing that has another seller’s restrictions. However, as is true for any industry, Amazon is also largely about networking.
Amazon fired many of its product managers for bribes in September 2018. This was over the fact that internal Amazon data was being sold to sellers. These sales of internal Amazon data or bypassing of restrictions continues to exist in the industry.
The services are typically sold by Amazon blackhat consultants who have already built these connections with Amazon staff.
The Sale of Zombie Listings
All of the Amazon marketing strategies and tactics, regardless of whether they are blackhat or not, are bought and sold.
This particular listing on the Chinese marketplace, Taobao, is offering zombie listings with a minimum 4.3 star review for 1CNY ($0.14 USD). From my understanding, this is much too cheap to actually be legitimate and you could expect to pay about $30-40 USD for a good zombie listing.
If you are selling on Amazon and having trouble launching new products, this is definitely one of the most current and effective strategies to boost a listing. However, as with any of these grey or black hat strategies, I would not suggest doing this on your own. There is a very large consulting community in the Amazon seller industry and the methods may be easy to utilize, but it is much riskier for the solo artist.
Basing your purchasing decisions solely on the reviews makes perfect sense, but the truth is that there is so much manipulation going on, it is not reliable. I often see people tout services such as Fakespot, a service which detects fake reviews on Amazon. The problem with these services is they are just an automated algorithm and as the tactics become more sophisticated, there is actually no surefire methodology to detect fake reviews on the front end. These algorithms could also be detecting real reviews as fake since they must aim for the lowest denominator.
Amazon has already become very good at removing fake reviews, however, as I have stated before, they are not the best enforcer due to a conflict of interest. Amazon strikes a balance between removing these reviews or sellers with their ability to make money. Amazon has a responsibility and necessity to make sure buyers find the marketplace reliable. However, even if a seller is blatantly utilizing these underhanded tactics, Amazon is less likely to care if that seller is making them money. This allows larger sellers to get away with it much more frequently than small sellers.
It is also important to note that a product having fake reviews does not necessarily mean the product is bad. Sellers opt for these strategies because reviews are so difficult to obtain. Any Amazon seller can agree with me for example, that it is quite frustrating to receive a review clearly meant for a product, but on your seller feedback instead of the product itself.
Difficulty in obtaining reviews in a very competitive marketplace like Amazon is pushing sellers to these underhanded tactics. It will be up to Amazon to strike a balance in opening up more options for sellers, which can then reduce the chances buyers are being manipulated into making purchases.