Retail goods aren’t the only thing you can purchase on Amazon these days. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on an investigation by Amazon into its employees accepting bribes by online sellers to remove bad reviews.
It’s reported that for $300 (USD), Amazon sellers based in China have been able to remove bad customer feedback by paying Amazon employees.
Although Amazon quickly responded by saying:
“We have strict policies and a Code of Business Conduct & Ethics in place for our employees. We implement sophisticated systems to restrict and audit access to information. We hold our employees to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our Code faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties.”
The severity of such occurrences should strike a nerve with everyday consumers who unwittingly trust major retail sites and review sites. Foul play is especially concerning with companies like Amazon that generate $178 billion USD in annual net sales (2017) from an accountability standpoint. The price to pay for online bribery is more than just a few hundred dollars - it threatens consumer trust as a whole.
In a survey conducted about online review usage in the U.S., it was found that 84% of users trust an online recommendation just as much as a personal recommendation. 68% of those surveyed reported relying on online reviews to influence their purchase decisions, and 40% of the same users said reading negative reviews would make them not want to use a service or business.
In the same vein, review giant Yelp has spent countless hours defending the integrity of its reviews since 2013, routinely releasing official statements to clarify its stance on paid fake reviews, and clarifying that it does not engage in bullying small businesses with the threat of poor reviews for not having purchased ads from them. All of this just to clear its name of any bad associations with false reviews.
But to take a step back – why all this fuss about genuine, untampered reviews? Perhaps at the heart of this, there’s something unwritten that’s at stake. A deeper trust. People go to great lengths to defend the sacredness of reviews because there’s a shared agreement that comes with the understanding that making choices in an oversaturated, information age is hard. At any moment, it could be you or I that needs a stranger’s advice to guide our best interests when our options are seemingly endless. Whether navigating Yelp or Amazon, it’s all the same. When that unwritten social contract comes under siege, we all feel it because we depend on it equally to combat uncertainty and protect ourselves from feeling like we’ve been duped. And with so much information freely available, why should any consumer ever feel like they’ve received the short end of the stick?
There’s no better example of this shared sentiment than when a review is attacked for simply being honest. In Virginia, a restaurant owner showed up at a customer’s house after she had written an average 3-star review.
She later tweeted:
To which the restaurant replied:
Perhaps the absurdity of this apology is that it doesn’t address the heart of the matter. A review is meant to address the genuine thoughts and sentiments an individual feels about their experience of a service, product or whatever may be the subject of the review. A review, whether positive or negative, should not be questioned by any authority other than the person who wrote it. It’s this characteristic that affords the unspoken trust amongst online shoppers and reviewers. It’s only fitting that the 3-star review has since been decreased to a 1-star review following the restaurant’s reply. A 1-star review was the inevitable resolution when the entire crux of the matter is trust.
So when it comes to a retail giant like Amazon, the possibility that reviews are false have implications on a much larger scale. And more dangerously, the notion that a review can be outright removed takes review tampering to another degree of severity. Whereas in the case of Yelp, restaurant owners can be held accountable and be punished by a public community because there is something tangible to be discussed, a removed review negates the possibility of dialogue altogether. The implications of this investigation are disastrous for every consumer, since it targets the very core of our ability to make decisions.
Until news of Amazon’s investigations surface again, we are left with the remainder of their statement:
“We have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them, including terminating their selling accounts, deleting reviews, withholding funds, and taking legal action."