When deciding which gadgets to buy, user reviews can be a helpful guide. They can give you a better insight into the product and reassure you that it’s a good buy.
However, these reviews can be manipulated by sellers to make their products look more attractive, so it’s crucial to be able to spot the fakes from the genuine ones.
It’s a particular problem on Amazon, where third-party sellers use various tactics to get buyers to post five-star reviews with images even if the product isn’t great. From incentivising customers with freebies to hacking into accounts and posting reviews, you should be aware of these underhand methods when looking for Black Friday bargains.
A new report from Which? says that Amazon still isn’t doing enough to eradicate fake reviews from its site.
“Our investigation has uncovered popular Black Friday product categories [tablets, smartphones, headphones and phone accessories] that are littered with fake and suspicious reviews – suggesting that deals that look too good to be true often are. This leaves shoppers at risk of being misled into buying poor quality and potentially dangerous products online.
“With people more reliant on online shopping than ever before due to the coronavirus crisis, it’s vital that online platforms step up and do more to protect their users from fake reviews, otherwise the regulator must be prepared to swiftly step in with strong action.”
The regulator in question is the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority), which estimates that £23 billion worth of purchases per year are influenced by online reviews.
“Fake and misleading reviews are damaging to both shoppers and businesses, which is why we’re taking action to clamp down on such illegal behaviour. Earlier this year, for example, both Facebook and eBay committed to tackle the trade of such reviews on their sites after we demanded they address the issue", said a CMA spokesperson.
“We are continuing to review several major websites to see whether they are doing enough to protect consumers from fake reviews. We have gathered a significant amount of evidence about their systems and are now in the process of examining it.”
Worryingly, according to data from ReviewMeta – a tool which analyses Amazon reviews – there has been a 30 percent rise in suspicious reviews since the start of the first lockdown in March.
This means you really need to be vigilant when looking for Black Friday deals on Amazon this year. Obviously, if the product you’re buying is one that’s well known to be good quality, you’re less likely to read or rely on user reviews.
But for all those lesser-known brands of phones, smart watches, headphones and other tech devices, it is much more important to pay attention not to the star rating, but what the reviews actually say.
Here are the main things to watch out for in user reviews on Amazon.
Incentives to give 5 stars
It’s totally against Amazon’s policy, but sellers continue to offer incentives such as free products or discounts if buyers leave a positive or five-star review.
Which? even found products labelled with ‘Amazon’s Choice’ had incentivised reviews with one reviewer writing “wouldn't have placed this review but for the fact that I am hoping to claim the free gifts offered by doing so”.
This was for a Vankyo tablet, and there was evidence of incentivised reviews in other Vankyo tablet listings with reviewers saying they had been offered £20 to leave an honest review (but encouraging them to post five-star ratings).
One listing had almost 1,000 reviews with a 4.7-star average score. Among the reviews, one said they received a free case and screen protector 24 hours after posting a five-star review. Another, who rated the tablet three stars, said they never received the ‘review gift’ that was offered.
A suspiciously large number of reviews
Watch out for products that have thousands of reviews despite the product being very new to Amazon. You can always find the ‘Date first available’ to see how long a product has been on sale.
This applies especially if the brand is unknown: it’s unusual for so many buyers to leave 5-star reviews in a short space of time. Which?’s investigations highlights a pair of earphones from Pro-Elec with over 1,000 reviews in six months, 92 percent of which were 5-star ratings.
Keep an eye out for an unusually large number of images too. Sellers often ask reviewers to post images when asking for a positive review (usually because of one incentive or another).
A worrying number of reviewers claim their account was hacked and that the review they supposedly posted wasn't written by them and - in some cases - isn't even for the product in question.
Reviews that relate to a different product
If you look closely you’ll see which precise model the review relates to. In some cases this could be simply a different colour, but in others you might find that it’s for a completely different and unrelated product.
Sometimes sellers merge listings to bring positive reviews for a different – perhaps discontinued – product to a new one. Which? found that one brand, MOYAGOA, sold mobile phone accessories whose reviews were shared with multiple different products.
In some cases these were marked as Amazon’s choice but the reviews actually referred to other products including a magnifying lamp, a printer and the PS4 game The Last of Us.
Genuine user reviews can be useful, but your primary source for product reviews should be an independent expert which has the experience of many similar products. Naturally, the site you’re reading now is the first we’d recommend – we’ve been providing expert buying advice for well over 20 years.