Amazon’s Choice: how it can be exploited to mislead shoppers

Dodgy retailers are gaming the system by paying for positive reviews and merging random products to get this apparent badge of quality.

Shopping online can be a difficult experience. Let’s say you’re shopping for a new kettle. If you’re doing it in person, you can touch it, get a feel for how well made it is and whether it’s really the one you want.

That’s not really possible online, which is why doing some homework on an item before paying is so important.

For many of us, that will mean reading the reviews, but our eye might also be caught by an apparent badge of quality from a retailer, showing us that this is a quality item that we can trust.

A good example of this is the ‘Amazon's Choice’ label, which pops up when shopping with the online giant.

The trouble is, new research suggests that some dodgy firms have worked out how to game the system and get that endorsement, irrespective of the actual quality of their product.

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What is Amazon’s Choice?

When you search for something on Amazon, you may notice that certain items have a black rectangular box in the top left corner of their entry with the words ‘Amazon’s Choice’.

In its own words, Amazon says that it 'recommends highly rated, well-priced products available to dispatch immediately' with this endorsement.

But it’s not exactly forthcoming about how the algorithm, that dictates which items get this badge and which don’t, actually works.

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Some shoppers trust Amazon’s Choice

This is concerning as some shoppers do put some faith in items that come with the endorsement.

A study by Which? found that almost half of Amazon customers (45%) say they are more likely to buy a product when they notice the Amazon’s Choice label on its listing.

In the absence of real clarity, shoppers are deciding for themselves what that badge means as well.

Which? found that more than four in ten (44%) of Amazon customers believe this label means the product has been quality checked by Amazon, while a third (35%) think it means it has been safety checked.

Amazon packages. (Image: Shutterstock/Julie Clopper)

Gaming the algorithm

Unfortunately, the label seems to be manipulated by some dodgy retailers on Amazon.

Which? looked at nearly 200 products, which are flagged as ‘Amazon’s Choice’ and found “brazen examples” of sellers offering refunds or free products in return for positive reviews, or to remove negative ones.

For example, a dash cam car camera from Innosinpo had 24 written reviews which mentioned the fact that a free SD card was being offered in exchange for a positive review.

One reviewer even titled the review as ‘redeem a free gift’ ‒ not exactly a subtle approach.

It also found sellers may be merging products to transfer positive reviews from one product, which may no longer be available, to another item. 

For example, a pair of AMYEA wireless headphones boasted close to 2,000 reviews, but on closer inspection, Which? found that the majority of reviews were for completely different products, from acne cream to razor blades.

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You bought it from who?

Now, you might expect that if a product is legitimately attracting rave reviews, it will come from a brand that you’ve heard of.

Sure, there are always upstarts that come along and innovate, but if you’re getting hundreds or even thousands of positive reviews, the brand is unlikely to be completely unknown.

This is another area where the Which? test threw up odd results.

Looking at tech products, in almost two-thirds of cases, the Amazon’s Choice label was awarded to a brand that Which’s tech experts had never heard of, with some of these ‘underdogs’ boasting more reviews than peers you might actually be familiar with, like Apple or Sony.

Troublingly, around one in four of these Amazon’s Choice products come from brands that don’t even appear to have their own website.

Let’s be honest, there is clearly some manipulation going on here, exposing shoppers to the risk of coughing up cash for substandard products.

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What has Amazon said?

A spokesperson for Amazon said it doesn’t tolerate violations of its policies, which include review abuse, incentivised reviews, counterfeits and unsafe products.

The spokesperson suggested that when Amazon decides to award the Choice badge “we proactively incorporate a number of factors that are designed to protect customers from those policy violations.”

Only time will tell whether it acts properly to clamp down on those gaming its system.

In the meantime, irrespective of where you are shopping, it pays to be cautious about putting too much weight on the reviews you read.

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