Everyone likes the convenience of online shopping, and no online store is more popular than Amazon.com. Now imagine if you could get just about anything on Amazon.com for free. How would your life change? This has been my life for the past two months after I became a professional undercover Amazon.com reviewer. In the process, I gained a lot of insight into how global markets work, why everything seems to be made in China and applied what I learned in school about game theory scenarios to my new career.
It Started with a New Computer
I received an email offering me a free adapter in exchange for a review. It all started with a new computer. My new MacBook requires a dongle to connect to just about everything, so I bought a bunch of cheap adapters on Amazon.com. Many of these adapters did not work well, so I vented my frustration in Amazon.com reviews. I also felt I should leave some positive reviews when the occasional adapter did work.
One day, I received an email offering me a free adapter like the one I had reviewed in exchange for a review. It works like this: First, I place an order for a product by following a complicated set of search keyword instructions intended to improve the product’s search ranking. When the product ships, I receive a refund for the purchase price. After I get the product, I post a review and share it with the seller.
The Secret to Becoming an In-Demand Reviewer
Within a week, I was getting multiple offers every night. I liked the idea of getting free stuff, but I didn’t get any more offers after the first one for a month. Then I had an idea - I walked around my apartment and wrote a photo review of every product that was currently sold on Amazon.com. Then I waited.
It worked. Within a week, I was getting multiple offers every night. At first, I accepted things whether I wanted them or not in order to build my reputation: lawn gnomes, tactical flashlights, fitness trackers, vehicle diagnostic tools, silicone kitchen scrubbers, solar-powered backpacks, flying disco balls, and more. The flood of reviews caused my reviewer ranking to rise high enough that I could demand a higher product value and dictate terms: I demanded that reviewers pay the PayPal transaction fees, and rejected those that only paid after a positive review.
The Emergent Black Market for Product Reviews
The Amazon.com third-party seller market is extremely competitive, with millions of sellers selling nearly 30 million products. The Amazon third-party market has sellers in over 100 countries, with rapid growth from China and Hong Kong in particular. Individual vendors have to work hard to get their product noticed. An industry has sprung up to help sellers with Amazon.com Search Engine Optimization. Like with traditional Search Engine Optimization, the practices vary from the White Hat (fully compliant with Amazon.com’s rules) to dirty Black Hat tricks (practices that would get the seller banned if Amazon found out). In October 2016, Amazon.com banned “incentivized” product reviews, which includes both paying for reviews and sending people free or discounted products to review. Amazon did this to the encourage people to write honest reviews and stem the flood of fake reviews obscuring the difference between quality and shoddy products.
Banning Incentivized Reviews Only Created a Thriving Underground Review Industry
As might be expected when any service demanded by the market is banned, banning incentivized reviews mostly served to push it underground, outside of the Amazon.com platform, and gave an advantage to smaller, non-name-brand sellers willing to flout the rules. Thousands of people now have jobs writing fake reviews on Yelp, Amazon.com, Google Maps, and other review sites.
What Does Amazon.com Think of All This?
Amazon.com has fought back by suing thousands of fake reviewers, while customers have created services which analyze product pages and determine whether the reviews are likely to be real or fake.
I doubt the threat of lawsuits or even a permanent ban from Amazon.com will discourage people from reviewing. I have seen couples and entire extended families participate together in order to share the load of reviews and to obscure their tracks.
The engineers at Amazon are very smart and are surely working on machine learning algorithms to automatically flag and punish sellers who engage in these practices with lower search rankings.
Making a Living as an Amazon.com Seller
The majority of sellers trying to get Amazon.com reviews are in Greater China. Some of them are agents for marketing firms contracting with large Chinese manufacturers. Some of these manufacturers already have a massive market in China and are trying to break into the West. Others made the insides of your “Made in the USA” blender or hair dryer, and want to take out the middleman and offer products directly to consumers. Still others, like “Vivi” from Shenzhen (a major city near Hong Kong), have full-time jobs and are trying to start their own business in import-export.
Vivi gained experience in Amazon marketing while working her day job for a manufacturer in Shenzhen. She purchases iPhone X cases and screen protectors in bulk from markets in Shenzhen and ships them to an Amazon warehouse in the USA, where the case is available for free 2-day delivery for Prime customers. After verifying my Amazon reputation, she messaged me on WeChat and offered a free case. Vivi paid me with a hóngbāo, a “red envelope” sent over WeChat, a mobile messaging platform that is used for everything from buying train tickets to paying utility bills in China.
Why Chinese Knockoffs Are Better Than the Originals
A Chinese startup in Shenzhen can get turnaround times of under a day. Virtually all of the products I review seem to be made in China, and in Shenzhen in particular. Watch the story of the guy who built his iPhone from scratch to understand why. Modern products are very complex and require parts from all over the world to assemble. If even something a simple as a pencil requires the efforts of people all over the world, imagine how complex it is to make an iPhone. Actually, don’t imagine it because Apple publicly lists their top 200 suppliers, and they are located all over the world, with a heavy concentration in Shenzhen.
If an American company wants to make something, chances are that they will need to make a series of prototypes in China, with turnaround times of around a week. A Chinese startup in Shenzhen can get turnaround times of under a day, and spy on what virtually every manufacturer worldwide is prototyping in the process. This is why Chinese knockoffs are often released online before the product they imitate reaches stores, and can be better than the originals. Some Silicon Valley startups have decided to move to China to take advantage of this environment.
The “copycat” image of China is a temporary phenomenon: while the freedom of speech in America offers an advantage to American software startups, the greater freedom of labor (due to poorly enforced welfare, tax, and minimum wage laws) in China offers an advantage to Chinese hardware startups. It’s not hard to imagine that within a decade, most of the world’s hardware innovation will come from Shenzhen, not Silicon Valley.
Sellers Collaborate to Resolve the Prisoner's Dilemma of Incentivized Reviews
Offering undercover product reviews presents a coordination problem for seller and reviewer: the seller has to pay for the product in exchange for a review. However, Amazon.com shoppers can cancel or return a product, and keep the money intended to compensate their purchase.
Sellers can abuse reviewers as well. Many “professional” reviewers do just that, ripping off dozens of sellers by either canceling their order or not ordering at all and just keeping the payment meant to compensate their purchase. Because there are thousands of sellers and most only have a few products to review at a time, it’s possible to carry on the fraud with a stream of new sellers. The seller’s ability to complain to Amazon.com is limited because the buyer might reveal their practice of incentivized reviews. They can complain to PayPal, but PayPal frowns on the practice as well.
Sellers can abuse reviewers as well, by promising payment after a positive review, then disappearing. Since much of the communication happens via Facebook messages, and Facebook is blocked in China, and the sellers themselves are often banned by Facebook (perhaps even at Amazon.com’s urging), it is not often clear if the disappearance is intentional. Even when a seller scams a buyer, it is not clear that the seller was trying to increase his own sales or hurt a competitor. In fact, many vanishing sellers have been accused of trying to attack their competitors by offering a free review, then disappearing in order to get the buyer to change his review to a negative one.
Punishing Bad Behavior within a Black Market
I know all this because Western buyers and foreign sellers have established a number of thriving invite-only communities on Facebook and WeChat where they coordinate transactions and denounce bad actors. A comprehensive database (with details of each crime) has been established, where sellers can vet a fake reviewer before proceeding with a transaction.
The Ethics of Incentivized Reviews
If Amazon wants to improve the quality of product pages, it should end its campaign against incentivized reviews. My motivation for becoming a “professional product reviewer” is not financial. I got the job because I already enjoyed writing reviews, and received enough “helpful” votes from people to rise in Amazon’s reviewer ranking. This is why sellers need us: writing genuine and helpful reviews is difficult. English language issues aside, a reviewer actually needs to offer helpful and understandable information to buyers. I recently acquired video recording and staging gear, learned how to cut and edit videos, and now specialize in high-definition video reviews. Because Amazon ranks reviews based on the popularity of recent reviews, and not the absolute number or lifetime total, I need to remain relevant and interesting to shoppers. Ultimately, I am okay with incentivized reviews because they reflect my honest opinion of a product: I only share products that I like publicly and send negative reviews privately to the seller.
I think if Amazon wants to improve the quality of product pages, it should end its campaign against incentivized reviews, as it only serves to hurt established brands. Increased transparency could instead allow consumers to make their own judgments about whom to trust.
Many companies have realized that brand advocates are a major marketing asset. Shortly after I started writing commissioned reviews, I walked into an Apple store to complain about the lack of quality 4K display adapters for my MacBook and casually mentioned that I planned to present at upcoming conferences. My Genius immediately handed me a free Apple-branded dongle.