Season 1, Episode 107

New Rules for Reviews

The recent FTC announcement proposed rules that aim to eliminate practices such as fake reviews, review hijacking, buying positive or negative reviews, and illegal review suppression. While some of these practices are already against Amazon’s policies, the FTC’s proposed rules provide further clarification and emphasize their stance on the matter. In this episode, Chris and Leah raise questions about Amazon’s commitment to addressing these issues, especially given the FTC’s scrutiny and the potential consequences for violating regulations.

Show Notes


Chris: [00:00:00] Hi everybody, this is Chris McCabe. Welcome back to another wonderful episode of Seller Performance Solutions. I’m here with Leah McHugh. Leah, how are you?

Leah: Good, thanks. How are you, Chris?

Chris: I’m good. We’re talking about the FTC announcement June 30th, I believe, trying to eliminate deceptive reviews, practices, online marketplaces, online reviews, and some of their proposed rule changes. Open for public comment, we should note.

Leah: So you have 60 days from the day that they posted the notice of proposed changes. That being said, we’re not really changing it so much as just further clarifying their stance in regards to product reviews.

Chris: I’m hoping this brings to an end the conversations we keep having over and over with. Well, am I just violating Amazon policies or am I violating laws? Is this illegal or am I just breaking a [00:01:00] few gray area rules?

And some of this, I’m gonna read from the FTCs announcements, but they say, for example, some of these proposed rules would prohibit selling or obtaining fake consumer reviews and testimonials. I think that sounds pretty straightforward. Review hijacking, we hear that term quite a bit now.

Obviously the FTC is starting to sue people based on that specific sellers, and that’s been announced already, buying positive or negative reviews. Buying a negative review, of course, would be paying somebody to leave a negative review for your competitor. Insider reviews and consumer testimonials, company controlled review websites.

This is essentially padding your reviews with five stars from friendly accounts or from friendly sources. We’ve seen that not just with product reviews on Amazon, but with service providers as well, correct? Illegal review, suppression, and finally selling fake social media indicators. So maybe we should start with [00:02:00] that first.

How would you define social media indicators and what they mean by that?

Leah: Well, they’re talking about likes and followers, which I don’t know how they’re going to retroactively start enforcing that cause that is Widespread. Good that they are starting to.

Chris: Illegal review suppression, I’m assuming that means they come up with some fake story about why they were left a negative review and they try to prove it with fake info in order to get it removed from a website.

Leah: No, I believe that’s when you only show your positive reviews and filter out the negative without indicating that that’s what you’re doing.

Chris: In terms of padding your positive reviews with fake accounts, , everyone is familiar with that. I don’t know how many people have been punished for that. Amazon punishes you for doing it, but outside of Amazon product review systems, how many people have been busted for that? Let’s say on Google My Business or things like that, I haven’t heard a lot about it. Maybe you have.

Leah: Not any major cases that I’m aware of. But it’s [00:03:00] also a matter of, they do have to prove it before they can file a case. I think the most recent case that is the most relevant probably to our listeners because I think at this point, even if they’re still doing it, I think most people know at this point that buying reviews, getting fake reviews, leaving fake reviews, messing with your competitors reviews, those are all not looked upon kindly by the FTC. I think we’re all aware of that. I think the area that I see the most confusion or maybe intentional confusion, I’m not sure around this is in regards to the review hijacking, because that is the one that we do still see the most I would say. It’s something that I actively get questions about how to do from sellers which I then have to refer to them that is illegal and also against Amazon’s policy.

It’s very easy to see on Amazon’s website too. If you look at a product’s reviews and you look at the images that are associated with reviews, often they’re for a completely different product or if you [00:04:00] read the reviews, they talk about product features that have absolutely nothing to do with the current product. Or maybe were on a previous version of it, that is no longer available for sale. So I think that is where we’re still seeing the most confusion or maybe intentional unawareness around this.

And, and I think it’s also because it is very easy to do. All you have to do in order to merge those reviews. You don’t even have to merge the ASINs in order to get an old product listed on the same ASIN as a new product. All you have to do, you don’t even have to hijack the ASIN. All you have to do is create a variation family with products that are out of stock and then they don’t show up anywhere on the detail page, but all of their reviews do.

So one, it’s very easy to do. And two, of course there’s an incentive to do it because you can take a product that has no reviews and all of a sudden it has 500 reviews from your previous products. And I also understand where some sellers are coming from when they’re well, but it’s the same [00:05:00] product but for one reason or another, I had to create a new ASIN, whether it’s a brand change or one of the many reasons that you do have to create a new ASIN so they don’t wanna lose all of their reviews, so they think it’s fine to just merge it as a child to keep those reviews, which yes, I understand the incentive, but what I don’t understand, and this is on Amazon side, it would be very easy for them to just make it so products that are out of stock, those reviews aren’t included on the variation family. That would probably take an engineer not that long to implement.

Chris: That’s one easy first step, right?

Leah: If the FTC is already doing all of the scrutiny, at the very least they could do it so out of stock products don’t show up. That does not address the problem of people adding unrelated products to variation families when they’re active in order to try to sell more.

So that would still be a problem, but in terms of making it look like this product has all of these reviews, which actually belong to other [00:06:00] products that you can’t even see on the detail page. All Amazon needs to do is make it so that out of stock products reviews don’t show up within the variation family.

And I’m sure a lot of sellers are swearing at me right now for saying this because I’m sure they would like their reviews to stay on the detail page, but it would be a very easy fix to this and it would get rid of a lot of abuse.

Chris: Beyond that though, Amazon already knows this is a huge strategy. The FTC knows about it. The FTCs been studying reviews on Amazon for I think 28 teams when they first announced an investigation into fake product reviews on Amazon. So these are all well known concepts. How hard is it really to marshal the resources just to figure out, there’s a bunch of reviews for an unrelated product on this page.

A bunch of these at least have to be deleted, or the merge has to be undone, or the listing needs to be suspended or even the seller needs to be suspended, right? Because we have had people work with us to report it, and a lot of times, It looks like Amazon [00:07:00] doesn’t even care. And it’s kind of strange when they’ve locked horns at the FTC lately that they’re not even interested in some of the easier stuff to fix, to at least show consumers the world, the media, whoever the FTC, that they’re willing to make some changes, as opposed to, I think the other day we got a message back, oh, we looked at these variation families.

We didn’t see anything wrong. Everything was correct. Obviously the person who read that at Amazon had no interest in fixing it, or they didn’t look at it to begin with. They were just saying they did.

Leah: I do find it interesting how hard we do have to push to get Amazon to take this seriously when we are reporting it as abuse for clients because the FTC has been very clear that they’re paying attention to this. Not even just in their announcement on the 30th. They filed suit against that supplement seller previously this year, and they’ve also brought it up multiple times in the last couple of years. So I had actually expected after that initial lawsuit that we would see a slew of suspensions regarding review hijacking [00:08:00] and that never came and again, it seems like we have to push a lot harder when reporting this sort of abuse as opposed to other kinds of abuse that we report. So I’m not sure where the disconnect is there, unless Amazon’s just under scrutiny from so many government agencies at this point that it’s on the list. I’m not sure.

Chris: Well, the FTC at the top of the list, FTC should be at the top of the list and is at the top of the list. And even just to clarify, even people that aren’t clients, We hear about them writing emails to Andy Jassy, writing to the Jeff at Amazon, or the executive seller relations. Teams writing to Dharmesh, whoever they’re doing it because they’re being universally ignored by teams that just don’t feel like looking at it or doing the work to enforce their own policies.

That’s why that’s happening, right? But why should you have to write to Andy Jasi just to get Amazon to enforce their own policies and their own rules? No one ever explains this, and it is kind of low hanging fruit. If Amazon was pressed about this publicly, they’d probably come back with some [00:09:00] fancy PR statement saying, oh, our engineers are working on this stuff all the time.

We have to develop sophisticated tools for this. Teams have to be, we have to add to their headcount to review these cases one by one to make sure we’re taking the right action. I think people are looking at some of it, they just don’t feel like doing anything about it, and no one’s looking over their shoulder to evaluate the quality of that investigation.

Leah: Well, and again, if we can see it ourselves without their internal tools it must be so obvious if they were to look at it with their tools, I can go to a listing. And without any additional information from a seller other than the detail page.

Obviously if I have additional information, it is easier to find, but it’s very easy to see on the detail page and that’s just on the front end. That is not even using the tools and their tools would be able to see the 30 or 40 ASINs that are out of stock but are still part of that [00:10:00] variation family.

Even though they’re unrelated, it’s not like they can’t see this, and it’s not like it isn’t automateable and we’ve already seen them automate parts of this. We just haven’t really seen them push the enforcement that much, and I’m not sure why.

Chris: Well, what happened to protecting buyer experience? That’s supposed to be the number one. And how is this good for buyer experience to have people make a purchase based on a product that has a bunch of reviews for something totally unrelated. This should be the most logical, easy to explain thing that anyone, whether it’s a consumer or a seller, has to explain to the company.

To anyone who’s on marketplace enforcement teams. Why are they so disinterested in this? I don’t know. Because it’s just drawing a giant target on their back and we already know the FTC is extremely interested in this topic. So it begs the question from me to you, is this just they’re thumbing their nose.

Hey, we [00:11:00] know you guys are interested in this topic, but we’ll get to it when we get to it. We’ll care when we want to care. And we’re not gonna let the FTC tell us what to do. Is that what this is about?

Leah: Maybe, maybe it also just needs to get to the point where the FTC is fining them $50,000 per fake review that they find.

Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you look at millions of fake reviews, that $50,000 goes up pretty quick.

Chris: It’s a loaded question. I know, but it’s a serious question because I can’t understand it any other way, the lack of motivation, and let’s just say they do incur a bunch of fines and they keep things exactly status quo as they are.

What’s the motivation for that?

Leah: Well, I also think we’ll see them pass those fines onto the sellers. We’ve seen that happen before where Amazon has had a lawsuit or a federal fine levied against them, they then send a letter to that, to whoever was selling that product, saying that that’s going to be deducted from their fees.

So Fines aren’t that important when someone [00:12:00] else is paying them for you.

Chris: And I want to briefly touch on this. I don’t wanna make this a 20-25 minute podcast because we haven’t had one of those in a while, but in another episode we can talk about the inconsistency of enforcement in terms of some of the people doing this, the sellers, whether we’ve reported them or sellers report them themselves. Why are those sellers still selling? Why are they just giving them a slap on the wrist? Some people get banned permanently for reviews of abuse and they never come back. We’ve seen that in spades. Other people, maybe a couple of reviews get deleted. Maybe the ASIN gets suspended, but not the account.

Maybe the account gets suspended for like a day. Then they go back to doing it again.

Leah: I was thinking about this the other day actually, when I was working on a case like this because we can see the front end, but we can’t necessarily see which seller did it.

And I was wondering if surely there are services because anybody can update a listing. I’m wondering if a lot of these sellers are using services to make these updates to their [00:13:00] listing. So those updates aren’t on their account and then now I feel like I’m giving black hat people ideas, so I should stop talking.

Chris: But what about my original point in terms of there are sellers who have been caught doing different types of review manipulation, whether it’s patting their own five stars or leaving negatives for somebody else or doing any of the things I listed at the beginning of this episode, they’ve been caught multiple times.

They’re not banned. They’re still on Amazon. And Amazon never explains why one seller will do something wrong once and get a permanent ban out of it. Or they get suspended and the appeals process is exceptionally difficult for them to recover from. While there are other sellers who get maybe a warning email, maybe nothing.

Maybe somebody reviews what they were doing and doesn’t even give them a slap on the wrist and just passes it. Why are those people allowed to operate with impunity while other sellers are treated so harshly? That’s never been explained.

Leah: You should listen to our podcast episode called Amazon Is Inconsistent.[00:14:00]

Chris: I’ve thought about that, but there are some sellers. That have hired us to report abuse maybe 12 months ago, and we do it and we know that there’s a result. We know the seller lost some listings. The seller were reporting, not the seller that hired us, to be clear. The sellers are hiring us to report an abusive seller.

We do this all the time. I’m not even sure how many other people do it to the extent that we do it. Pretty much nobody, but they come back a year later, oh, they’re at it again. Can I hire you again? They shouldn’t have to hire us again because if they’re at it again, that seller that’s been reported already as a track record of abuse, and if they’re a two-time loser or second go round, they should just be suspended and that should be it.

No one ever adequately explains. Even some account managers that I speak to who are working with some of our clients, we ask them. We’re reporting the seller again, but why are they even allowed to sell at all at this point? Oh, hang on. Each case [00:15:00] is different and I don’t know, I don’t work with those guys and I can’t look at the annotations and I can’t tell you.

So that’s another episode for another day. But lately, everyone’s afraid to have that conversation on I can’t explain why a two or a three time loser is still on the site. And by the way, don’t ask questions like that because Amazon doesn’t wanna have to answer to that and it’s just the lack of fairness on the platform underscored a thousand times to me.

Leah: Agreed.

Chris: So anyone who has examples of this, let me know. Let Leah know. We’re happy to take a look.

Leah: And I just wanna mention again that you do have, well now less than 60 days, but approximately 60 days since the 30th to comment on the FTC proposed rule making. And I encourage sellers to do that because ultimately you are the ones that are going to be most affected by these FTC changes. And we’ll include a link in the show notes, so that’s easy for you to find. But absolutely use the process to give your [00:16:00] input. As somebody who is dealing with this all of the time, the FTC might not answer you, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.

Chris: Definitely. Thanks again for listening. Talk to you next time.

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