How Chinese companies generate real-fake reviews on Amazon

January 24, 2020 by stas | Filed under Marketing.

You’re probably aware that most social networks are loaded with fake likes and reviews, and it’s quite cheap to buy those if you’d like your profile boosted. In the past an entrepreneur would arrange a network of participants who for a small monetary token would like and/or write fake reviews.

These days, with extremely powerful realistic text-generating machine learning engines like GPT-2, this technique becomes more and more automated and no longer requires networks of humans to create fake things. It’s the domain of AI agents these days.

But, in the domain of online stores these machinations are still tricky to do, since unlike online profiles that have no physical boundaries, real products are bound by hard coins and thus it’s much more difficult to game. But, of course, it’s being gamed.

The name of the game is generating multiple positive reviews by buying them with freebies.

While in the past a merchant could pay anybody to go and write reviews on sites like Amazon and all was good, recently machine learning started to being deployed to ignore those reviews, and instead count only reviews with the ‘Verified Purchase’ tag. i.e. only reviewers that spend their hard-earned cash are considered as real. Surely, the ML model also validates that the verified purchaser has a history of normal purchases and wasn’t created just to game the system, even if the money was spent for real – (create a new account, send to it some credit via a gift card, buy the product, forget about the account).

Having recently purchased a few hardware products on Amazon, I discovered that the Chinese merchants found a way to beat the system and bypass the AI gatekeeper. Once you buy say some grow lights, when your product arrives it will include a variety of incentives, such as:

  1. write a 5-star review and receive a free gift
  2. join the testers and receive free products in exchange for reviews

Who doesn’t want a free gift? So a lot of those 5-star reviews were “bought” with a free gift bribe. Notice, that Amazon ships those products and it knows that the incentive card is there. Don’t you find it strange?

Then, there is the free-testers program, where you get freebies in exchange for reviews. In order to fly below the fake review detector, the customer is told to purchase the product as if they wanted it in first place, then post a review, then email the company with the review and the receipt and they refund you for the full cost via paypal. Now, again, when you get the whole product for free, will you leave a bad review? So here, again, we get a bunch of fake reviews. Do you think Amazon doesn’t know about those?

I’m probably being unfair here instigating that it’s only the Chinese companies that do that. To clarify, I’m only sharing my direct experience and it came through Chinese companies so far.

I had another incident on Amazon, where I purchased a really badly engineered product and it fell apart after a few uses, so I left a negative review, listing its shortcomings. Next, the vendor of that product started hassling me over email trying to bribe me to change my rating from 2 to 4. This makes no sense to me. If the vendor were to fix the problems in the product and to send me a better product, I would have been more than happy to give them a glowing review, but paying me off to say lies is just lame. Though, I’m sure that it did work on some other reviewers.

Bottom line, a lot of reviews on Amazon and other sites are fake and they are there to stay. Let’s see how Amazon’s attempts at using machine learning to discount fake works out, this is a very exciting time. And, surely, the merchants will have to find adversarial ways to beat the machine.

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