Recently in Salt Lake City I sat in on a presentation by several companies that help third-party Amazon sellers garner reviews for their (mostly) private label and exclusive product offerings. It was a packed room and what struck me was how much they disagreed on Amazon’s new policies regarding third-party reviews. The reason? Amazon is deliberately vague. This is causing consternation for sellers and vendors alike. It was obvious at the conference that these vendors, at least, are diligently trying to comply with Amazon’s rules.
We work with clients every week who have had their accounts suspended for paid product reviews and/or manipulation of the platform for the purpose of moving in the rankings. Amazon takes these offenses very seriously. Rather than parse Amazon’s vague ruling line by line, I thought I would focus instead on what constitutes a “safe” review so you can apply Amazon-think to any reviews program that you see or set up in the future.
- Customer buys product for full price.
- Keeps product.
- Amazon sends reminder email to leave a review.
- Buyer leaves review.
Amazon Vine — Seller has a giveaway through the Amazon Vine program. It costs $2,500 (last I heard) and you also have to give the product away for free. Because this review program is run by Amazon, it is fully compliant. On every review left by a Vine reviewer, it specifically says that they got the product in advance for an honest review. These are Amazon’s top reviewers who are invited into the program because their reviews are determined to be honest and helpful to other buyers.
That’s it. The end.
Just kidding! The first option is the default review program and it works fine for people who sell non-exclusive goods (i.e. retail arbitrage, online arbitrage) and who don’t have a lot of inventory to support. Obviously those with private label products, unique bundles and exclusive arrangements will want to put more effort into a product review program so they can stimulate sales.
Social media marketing – If this is your product or your exclusive, you are free to promote it however you like on social media and Amazon doesn’t care. All those links from Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc., only add to your social proof and make your product more potentially desirable to buyers.
Outside review programs – If a blogger or journalist writes about your stuff and posts a link to Amazon where people can buy it, Amazon doesn’t have a problem with that. If you are on webinars, radio shows, podcasts, etc., talking about your product and the link goes to Amazon, that is OK by them. You can put out press releases, market to your private email group and sell the product on your own website. All of that is fine.
I’ve not yet talked about the potential landmines of discounts and giveaways. This is where Amazon becomes both stern and vague at the same time.:
Actual customers. Aim your campaign at people who would naturally buy the product. If you are selling dog toys, target your giveaways to dog lovers. Have a Facebook ad going? You can pick the exact audience who would normally buy your stuff. DON’T target it to people who like giveaways or who write reviews for money or free product. They are not a typical buyer of your product.
Giveaways vs. Coupons. You can use Amazon coupons to offer discounted product as a way to generate sales. This is acceptable. If, however, you are also asking these people to leave a review, that’s where you can find yourself in trouble. Amazon prefers that you use free giveaways to generate product reviews. If you are using a discount, don’t do it through the platform. Have the potential reviewers pay you for the product and you ship it to them directly.
Advertise. Facebook ads, Amazon sponsored ads, Google Adwords, etc., are all acceptable ways to generate sales. If you plan to use Facebook to run your giveaway campaign from your product fan page, that’s fine, too, as long as it is not excessive and as long as you are telling those getting the review product that you want an HONEST review.
Product first. You must give them the free product FIRST before asking for a review. It is NOT an exchange. They have the right to not leave a review at all if they don’t want to.
Ship directly. As long as you are shipping the free product directly to your reviewers, that’s fine. People get in trouble when they try to manipulate Amazon’s platform and have people buy product off of Amazon for a deep discount and leave a review.
Review on multiple platforms. Naturally you are interested in stimulating your sales on Amazon, but a real buyer would leave reviews everywhere. Make it just as easy for them to post a review on Facebook or Pintrest as it is to leave a review on Amazon.
Honest reviews. If you are getting some negatives in the mix and the ratio of negative to positive is the same as you get from your “natural reviews” (see “safest”), then your reviewers are leaving honest reviews which is what Amazon wants to see. If it is all 4s and 5s but your natural reviews are 2s and 3s…Amazon will shut down your review program.
These are the practices that are getting sellers in trouble:
- SuperURLs. These are a clear manipulation of the Amazon platform. A superURL manipulates the platform by enforcing your keywords. It uses the same URL that Amazon uses internally to indicate how a potential buyer found your product. Obviously, if Amazon sees a lot of the same keyword being used and then purchases, it will move your listing up in the ranks. This is a very clear and obvious manipulation. Amazon’s policies clearly state, “any attempt to manipulate the search and browser experience is prohibited.” Beware. Even if you simply tell your potential reviewers or buyer to search by certain keywords you are manipulating the platform.
- Highly targeted buyers. This is where many review programs and systems fail Amazon’s smell test because the people taking the freebie or the coupon are not typical customers for that product. They are professional (or amateur) reviewers. They are different by the very fact that they like to review products and they like getting free stuff. Amazon does not like to see the same people reviewing your entire product suite. They want your reviewers to be as representative as possible of a typical customer for your product.
- Bought through the platform. Amazon prefers free giveaways to coupons or deep discounts and absolutely NO purchases with gift cards. They see coupons and deep discounts as manipulation of the platform. They already do not allow these kinds of purchases to be considered verified. If the reviewers don’t disclose that they got the product for free or at a deep discount, Amazon can (and does) remove them…at best. They suspend the seller at worst. Your best bet is to give sample product away for free directly to the potential reviewer. When you ask them to leave a review, be sure to tell them they need to disclose that they got it for free. This is a FTC regulation, not just Amazon policy.
- Offering incentive for writing a review. Most people know by now that offering money for reviews is forbidden. The sticking point here is “incentive.” Giving away free product is a legitimate and recognized form of marketing by Amazon – one that leads to real sales on the platform. This is especially true if the distribution of free product is fairly random. Think about all those samples at a grocery store on Saturday morning. Anybody who shows up during sample time gets a freebie if they want one. An incentive, however, is vague. Some reviews programs only allow their reviewers to continue to get free product if they write reviews. Does that constitute an incentive to write a review? Personally, I think yes, but Amazon has not clarified. The good programs will allow reviewers to stay in them even if they don’t write reviews every time.
- Compensating reviewers after the review is written. This is expressly forbidden by Amazon.
- Reusing your list over and over again. One client shut down for manipulating the platform was using the same list over and over again. Every new product that came out, they went back to the list of people who had reviewed their previous products to see if they would review it again. While that does happen naturally (if a buyer is a fan of John Grisham, for example, he’ll read many of his books and possibly write reviews), this was not natural and the reviews were not reflecting the buying experience of typical customers. These were superfans who were approached many times for reviews. How did they get caught? Amazon didn’t say. Beware.
- Improperly approaching Amazon’s top reviewers. A clever client had collected the names and contact information of the top 500 or so reviewers on Amazon.com by total number of reviews. Talk about super-reviewers! This is frowned on not only for the reason listed above, but also because Amazon charges money to approach their super reviewers.
- Not acknowledging product was free. This one causes my clients concern because they wonder, “how can I enforce this rule?” How indeed? That’s why it is so important that every free product go with a cheerful notice that tells them that they must disclose that they received free product in order to review it. In addition, if you’ve mailed out free product, someone at your company should be keeping an eye on your reviews to see what is written. If you see someone you know from your list who hasn’t disclosed, then you can contact them by email and simply ask them to please update their review to include that information. Remind them it is an FTC requirement.
- Sending free product to current customers in exchange for a review. Another smart client got reviews from current real customers by sending them free product after they bought from him. On the face of it, this is a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, it is against Amazon policy because freebies must be given in advance. In addition, he had put pressure on the receiver to write a review (they now felt obligated even though they never asked for free product) and it was a manipulation of the platform because the reviewers didn’t disclose they got it for free. They were verified buyers from their previous purchases, yes, but they weren’t motivated to write the review from their experience with the product, they were motivated because they got surprise product.
- Excessive giveaways. Amazon is completely vague on what is considered “excessive,” and yet they shut sellers down for it.
- Friends and family writing reviews. This is expressly forbidden and written in the rules which means while you might be able to claim you didn’t understand “excessive,” you can’t claim you didn’t know it was wrong to have your friends and family writing reviews. They catch people every day.
I have looked at quite a few review services and there are several that seem OK based on my interpretation of what Amazon stated when it updated its seller agreement. If you plan to use a reviews service, you need to be very careful and check them out carefully. The folks at Snagshout (the same team who created Feedback Genius), have their new customers get permission from Amazon first before starting.
While there is no guarantee that Amazon won’t change its rules down the road, this is a smart approach because you can show Amazon that you were proactive in trying to comply with their vague and confusing rules around reviews. In addition to the risky business above, these are issues I see particularly with review programs:
- Can’t do excessive giveaways. What the heck does Amazon mean by excessive? We don’t know. If all your reviews are freebie giveaway reviews – and you’ve actually sold product – then there is a problem for Amazon. Our speculation is that it has something to do with the ratio of paid reviews to organic reviews appearing for the product. If you are giving out more free review product than your product category usually sells in a day, for example, that would be excessive. You may want to consider using a service to jump-start sales on a new product you are offering and then wean yourself off or significantly drop the freebies as organic reviews start to come in.
- Can’t dictate reviewers. Some review companies let you select your reviewers by their past performance (top reviewers, mostly leave 5-star reviews, etc.). This is potentially risky because you are dictating your reviewers behavior rather than selecting them by their interests (love dogs).
I strongly urge all sellers to talk to their vendor of choice and examine their solutions closely for themselves and make a thoughtful decision. Everyone wants certainty and there isn’t any in this case.
WHAT DOES AMAZON SAY?
Straight from the horse’s mouth as it were. All highlights are mine:
Misuse of ratings, feedback, or reviews: Any attempt to manipulate ratings, feedback, or reviews is prohibited.
- Ratings and feedback: The rating and feedback features allow buyers to evaluate the overall performance of a seller, helping sellers to develop a reputation within the Amazon Marketplace. You may not post abusive or inappropriate feedback or include personal information about a transaction partner. This also includes posting ratings or feedback to your own account. You may request feedback from a buyer, however you may not pay or offer any incentive to a buyer for either providing or removing feedback.
- Reviews: Reviews are important to the Amazon Marketplace, providing a forum for feedback about product and service details and reviewers’ experiences with products and services—positive or negative. You may not write reviews for products or services that you have a financial interest in, including reviews for products or services that you or your competitors sell. Additionally, you may not provide compensation for a review other than a free or discounted copy of the product. If you offer a free or discounted product, it must be clear that you are soliciting an unbiased review. The free or discounted product must be provided in advance. No refunds are permitted after the review is written. You may not intentionally manipulate your products’ rankings, including by offering an excessive number of free or discounted products, in exchange for a review. Review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to remove negative reviews.
Misuse of sales rank: The best seller rank feature allows buyers to evaluate the popularity of a product. You may not solicit or knowingly accept fake or fraudulent orders. This includes placing orders for your own products. You may not provide compensation to buyers for purchasing your products or provide claim codes to buyers for the purpose of inflating sales rank. In addition, you may not make claims regarding a product’s best seller rank in the product detail page information, including the title and description.
Here’s a Q&A Amazon put together to help us (too bad they buried it Seller Central Help):
Can I Offer A Voucher Or A Free Gift?
We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including any of the following:
- Payment (whether in the form of money or gift cards)
- Bonus content
- Entry to a prize drawing or competition
- Discounts on future purchases
- Extra product
- Other gifts.
The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front for the purpose of a review. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. The reviewer must also indicate in the review that they were received the product in order to provide a product review.
Can I Write A Product Review About Items I Sell?
No. Reviews written for financial gain violate our guidelines and will be removed.
Can I Respond To A Review?
You can add a comment to a review by clicking the Comment button below the review.
Will Amazon Delete Reviews After A Certain Time?
No. As long as a product is listed in the catalog, its reviews will continue to show for the product. We do, however, remove reviews that violate our guidelines. Buyers can also remove their own reviews.
Will Reviews Be Deleted When An Upgraded Product Comes Out Such As A New Model, Fixed Issues, Or Software Upgrades?
No. Any information provided could be helpful to other buyers.
Why Do Reviews Disappear All Of A Sudden?
Reviews are removed from the Amazon website for three reasons only:
- The review conflicted with our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. This includes reviews that were posted as promotional material.
- The review was removed at the request of the buyer who submitted the review.
- We discovered that multiple products were incorrectly listed as the same product. Reviews that were posted for those products were removed when the products were separated into individual product pages.
What Can I Do Against An Unjustified Negative Review, Which Might Even Be A Fake Review?
If you see reviews that you think are inappropriate or fake, use the Report abuse button next to the review to report it.
Can You Remove A Review That Is Comparing My Product With A Competitor’s Product And Makes My Product Look Bad?
No. We encourage our buyers to give their honest opinions on our products. As long as the review is within our guidelines, we will not remove it.
Can I Block Buyers That Leave Bad Reviews On My Products?
No. You cannot block a buyer from writing reviews on your products. If you think a review violates our guidelines, use the Report abuse button next to the review to report it.
Can Amazon Edit A Review For Me?
No. We check reviews for violations of our guidelines, but we don’t edit reviews. Buyers can edit any review they’ve submitted.
Can A Buyer Change Their Review After An Issue With A Product Is Resolved?
Yes. Buyers can change their reviews at any time.
Do Buyers Have To Remove A Bad Review After An Issue With A Product Is Resolved?
No. That is entirely up to the buyer to decide. You are not allowed to pressure buyers to remove reviews.
Can You Give Me The Email Address Of Reviewers So I Can Contact Them Directly?
No. Amazon never shares private buyer information. If you wish to respond to a review, you can post a comment on it.
LAST THOUGHTS ON AMAZON PRODUCT REVIEWS
If anything comes along that seems particularly clever or that promises huge review returns, be cautious. Anything that seems too good to be true probably is. Look carefully at your review provider and/or internal review program. Naturally we all want positive reviews to support our products that we’ve spent so much time developing. However, if you find yourself trying to find ways to give yourself an advantage over your competitors that involves gaming the Amazon platform…it is probably a violation.
We’ve seen Amazon shut down a lot of sellers for improperly getting product reviews. Only you can assess your risk tolerance level. My advice is to use product review programs sparingly. You may want to launch a new program with a bunch of giveaways and non-verified reviews, but then back off on those once sales pick up and organic reviews start coming in. Look at them as a spark to get things going.
Finally, reviews are meaningless without conversions. In the end, Amazon only cares about sales – as you do. Reviews are the social proof that you have a good product but they are not the only indicator that Amazon uses to determine ranking. If you don’t have a good product, it will come out. Focus on driving sales more than reviews. Once you have 10-20 reviews that is more than the typical buyer is going to read to help make their decision.
Lastly, if I had a dollar for every time a seller told me – in so many words – “So-and-so is doing this. How come they are getting away with it? – I could fully fund my retirement portfolio. I can’t tell you why competitor X is able to get away with breaking the rules, but I can tell you that Amazon eventually catches up with everyone. If you don’t believe in Divine Justice, root for Karma. Don’t be a lemming.
MERRY MARCH TRAVELS – JOIN ME!
In March I will be in Orlando to speak during Scan Power’s conference March 20-22. I’m arriving early and have arranged a brunch to kick off the networking early. Please RSVP if you will be there Sunday at 11:30 or if you live in the area and want to join a bunch of sellers drinking Mimosas and talking about Amazon!
Immediately after Orlando, I’m flying up to Philadelphia March 23-25 to speak during SCOE. I’m planning a client appreciation Happy Hour from 5:30-7 on the 24th. There’s no conflicting conference event for that night. If you are going to SCOE or live in the Philadelphia area, please join us! The venue is super nice, looks out over the River and is in the picturesque Old Town part of the city. It is attached to a well-reviewed Italian restaurant for dinner.
As my long-time readers have probably noticed, I’m writing a lot about issues that get sellers suspended as compared to the more “how to get started selling” topics that marked my first few years. This reflects my concern that so many sellers are not aware of the potential pitfalls and that the rules have changed so much since I first started selling in 2010. Forewarned is forearmed! While I’m enjoying building my consulting firm, my goal is to help sellers be proactive so they don’t need us as much. If you’ve not read my book yet, check it out here: http://suspensionprevention.com.