Here's Why You Can't Trust Amazon Ratings Anymore

Today, consumers can't necessarily trust the reviews that they see on any given product they may be searching for. For one thing, cheap manufacturing and shipping has created a pipeline of goods flowing directly from Chinese factories into global households. The New York Times reports that there has been a surge in recent years of brands with random letter combinations listed on Amazon. Similarly, when one brand starts to lose traction, the manufacturer simply changes the color scheme on the product and lists it under a new, and equally nonsensical brand name. 

Some of these products do provide a worthwhile service, and do exactly what they are supposed to. Many of these options are cheaper than the alternative, and for some purchasers, a cheap stopgap is all that is required. In order to decipher products from trusted brands and parse out (or potentially hone in on) cheaper alternatives, looking to the brand name listed on the Amazon page — and the duration to which this particular seller has been active — can give you a good clue.

But cheaply built products aren't the only thing that Amazon users have to navigate. In addition to the flood of pseudo-brands, as the New York Times calls them, there is another tidal wave in the Amazon marketplace — one that's even harder to decipher.

Ratings have traditionally signaled product quality

Typically, a review is written by a user with direct experience of the product or service. Ratings help keep companies honest and regulate product quality: A positive rating draws in additional purchasers or users by fomenting trust, according to Dixa. Negative ratings drive away business and tend to force brands to rethink their products' fabrication process, quality control measures, service record, and other factors. On the most basic level, consumer ratings and reviews act as a conduit that connects brands with consumers.

Because of the importance of ratings, the Amazon experience is driven in part by the number and quality of reviews that products amass (via Lineate). This has been seen in the Kindle marketplace, with authors building strategies to publish multiple books at a time or to create free giveaways in the early launch period in an effort to develop high quality ratings, which will propel their book into the spotlight (via A Reading Place). Because Amazon sells billions of products, it can be difficult to regulate the legitimacy of ratings and reviews. This has led to a cottage industry of false five star Amazon reviews for all kinds of products that may or may not deserve it. According to Lineate, by gaining a large volume of positive reviews, a product is able to take advantage of Amazon's marketing algorithms. A seller benefits from high sales, of course, but Amazon benefits as well by remaining a trusted resource for fast delivery of a massive variety of products.

Novel Amazon selling practices and refund-for-review schemes

There has always been a market for fake reviews to help boost the brand visibility of smaller companies, or those with recent negative press. Inc. notes that this falls into the category of black hat reputation management. More recently, however, there has been a shift in which buyers are able to take advantage of refunds on their purchases through Amazon if they leave a five star review (via Wired). This has led to a surge in five star reviews for products, regardless of the build quality or actual usefulness.

It's easy to see why people are leaving these reviews. Instead of earning a few dollars to review a product you've never heard of, replying to an ad for something you actually need can give you access to free gear that will make an impact in your life. Consumers have become hyper-aware of ways in which they can save money, and this is just the latest iteration of that drive to provide value to oneself on a personal level. Wired notes that these types of ads and review relationships can be found on products ranging the gamut from cheap accessories to tech products that cost hundreds of dollars. All it takes is a purchase, and then a subsequent review, to get your money back and keep the item for no cost.

This may act as a windfall for individuals who can find this type of relationship, but it comes at the detriment to the larger consumer community.