Should You Trust Amazon Product Reviews? Evidence in the Face of Opposition.

by Nindo Mom on July 3, 2011

Recently, I’ve seen a couple of articles around on the Internet suggesting that some Amazon.com product reviews may be fraudulent–or misleading, at the very least.

Specifically under attack were the reviews by members of Amazon’s special reviewers group called the Amazon Vine. Through the Amazon Vine program, Vine Voices–what the Amazon Vine reviewers are called–get the opportunity to post reviews on products they select and receive free of charge from a special catalog.

One criticism I’ve seen about Amazon’s review program is that when a reviewer gets a product for free, he or she is much more likely to review that item favorably. For example, let’s say you received a free PS3 to evaluate. You’re less likely to be annoyed by any problems you have with the product than if you had shelled out $399 plus tax for the unit. It this way, it does make sense that Vine member reviews could be skewed more positive than reviews given by actual paying Amazon customers.

However, there are a couple of reasons that I don’t see this as a real problem. First, Amazon Vine members are clearly labeled as such, right under their display names. This means that a customer reading their review will always know that it was written by a Vine member, and can take the review with a grain of salt if they wish. Second, I believe that a Vine member who’s gotten a product for free will feel that they “owe” something for what they’ve received and will put significant effort into composing an accurate review.

And there’s another another important point to consider. In general, customers are much more likely to speak up–through written reviews or otherwise–about negative experiences they’ve had, compared to positive ones. Likewise, satisfied customers are more likely to simply take their positive experiences in stride–because it’s what they expect to have when they pay for a product. So when you’re reading reviews that have been organically obtained, you’re likely to see a false skewing toward more negative customer experiences. For this reason, it’s no bad thing to have some reviewers (such as members of Amazon Vine) who feel compelled to write balanced, fair reviews.

Another positive aspect of the Amazon Vine program is that it provides would-be customers with information about actual customer experiences with products even before they’re officially available for sale–including items available for preorder. This helps customers who are considering pre-ordering a product to make their purchasing decision.

One other concern  I’ve seen voiced about the Amazon Vine program is that some Amazon Vine members may be contacted directly by manufacturers and sent free products to review–and that these Vine members  may “say whatever they need to” in order to keep receiving free products from those manufacturers. And of course, these Vine members aren’t likely to receive repeated requests from manufacturers if they don’t provide positive–even glowing–reviews. The validity of this concern is a little tougher to address, because I can see that direct contact by manufacturers does indeed have the potential to produce product reviews that are falsely skewed positive. However, I have to believe that most reviewers are honest and will do the right thing. Besides, if reviewers are truly having negative experiences with a certain manufacturer’s products, how much  would it really benefit them to keep receiving products from that manufacturer?

Ultimately, no customer should base his or her decision to buy–or not buy–a product solely on other people’s experiences– positive or not. But reviews can certainly be an excellent resource, when considered in conjunction with a buyer’s own experience with a brand,  the manufacturer’s warranty, past manufacturer performance,  and vendor return policy. Personally, I ALWAYS seek out product reviews before I make a purchase–especially the more expensive ones. But I also always read those reviews carefully, making note which ones sound carefully thought-out and which may have been jotted down in a moment of temporary frustration. I also tend to discard reviews that are shallowly positive–not necessarily because I doubt their honesty, but because most products DO have their faults, and a reviewer who hasn’t had time to make note of these probably hasn’t had the product long enough to experience the problems–yet.

So read those reviews! Just keep in mind that, regardless of whether the product reviewers are actual paying customers  or got their products free to review, you’re always going to have a wide variety of types of reviewers: ones who got slow shipping and want go wreak vengeance, ones who had a genuine good or bad experience. . .ones who tend to praise everything, and ones who are good at ferreting out the faults in things. Whatever the case, reviews are a tool–and can be an excellent one. And when it comes to making your buying decisions, reviews may not be perfect–but they may be the best “friend” you’ve got.

Happy reading!

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