Through the letterbox: the secret life of an Amazon reviewer

Fake reviews on Amazon can’t be trusted as they’re biased, or at least that’s what recent reports claim. But who are the people behind these thousands of reviews, how did they get into it all and are the so-called incentivised reviews really fake?

There are two types of solicited reviews on Amazon. The retailer has its own Vine programme, recruiting writers of highly ranked reviews marked as helpful by others on Amazon, and then pitches them products that vendors have sought reviews of, acting as the middle man. Vine reviews are clearly marked up on Amazon’s site with Vine branding.

The other is the incentivised review, which Amazon is not directly involved with. Its guidelines dictate that there must be a disclaimer within the review, which normally means “I have been given this product in exchange for a fair and unbiased review” or similar appears in the text of the review. These are the reviews that are solicited directly by companies and are accused of giving biased, high-starred reviews skewing star ratings.

The Guardian spoke to one Amazon reviewer responsible for more than 400 posts on the site, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted.

You have a fairly normal day job, so how did you start your Amazon reviewing career?

Amazon reviewer: It all started with Amazon contacting me after I’d posted five to 10 reviews for purchases that were quite well received. I was invited to its Vine reviewing programme in 2011 and after ignoring the emails for a while (genuinely thought it was spam or a scam) I found out it was legitimate and started reviewing everything from steam cleaners to top-of-the range TVs.

How did you go from being part of Amazon’s Vine to incentivised reviews?

AR: After a few years on the Amazon Vine forum, I found out people put an email address in their Amazon profile – and if you’re quite highly ranked companies will literally just get in touch. For some companies its the top 10,000 reviewers, for better ones it’s more like the top 500 reviewers.

So I created a bespoke email address, added it to my profile and sure enough several companies got in touch fairly soon. I also decided to be proactive and get in touch with some companies directly to do reviews for them, which has worked quite well.

These days I reckon I get about 60 emails a week. I probably reply to around five emails a week – but of those I only expect one to go through – these emails are sent to a lot of people so it’s very much first come, first served.

Who are these companies contacting you?

AR: When it comes to people that get in touch directly, the majority are white-label firms most people have never heard of. However, I have had conversations with the likes of Creative and Anker who are bigger household names.

When it comes to the Amazon Vine programme it’s very much big household names, from Sony to AEG, Panasonic, Samsung and Lenovo to name just a few.

How do they get in contact with you?

AR: Normally everything is done via email, the only time I get in touch over the phone is if I need help troubleshooting something or have a repair issue, then it’s easier to pick up the phone.

What’s the difference between Vine and incentivised reviews?

AR: The Amazon Vine programme is very much managed by Amazon and as such the items offered vary hugely in kind and price. It is very well structured and although Amazon’s automated targeting is terrible – in terms of what you get offered – the products are great and the system really is unbiased.

Amazon also seems to keep an eye on the programme to ensure people post accurate reviews and provide support if there are any issues with the item. It has no issue with a one-star reviews. In fact, I think all Vine reviewers use the full spectrum of stars to represent their views, not just the middle threes and fours and the reviews usually go into a lot of depth, as people do take a lot of pride in what they do – myself included.

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