Amazon accused of manipulating customer reviews to favour its own products

19 Oct 2018

Amazon open on browser. Image: jordache/DepositPhotos

Amazon detractors say that some customer reviews put small third-party merchants at a disadvantage.

E-commerce juggernaut Amazon is being accused of manipulating reviews to ensure its own brands are promoted over third-party sellers.

A Bloomberg report claims it spoke to multiple merchants as EU regulators continue to probe the company.

Accusations of review manipulation

Two years ago, Amazon clamped down on fake product reviews by banning customers from getting free products from sellers in order for a positive write-up. This happened as the company realised that some merchants were using reviews to game its search system, causing consumer trust in reviews to dip.

The company then began to use a programme called Vine, which connects sellers with regular reviewers for a fee, allowing those vendors to provide goods for free for customers to review. Independent sellers are not able to take part in the programme, which may be resulting in Amazon’s in-house products getting more reviews than their third-party counterparts.

Bloomberg reported that EU regulators and independent merchants are “now alleging Amazon is guilty of review manipulation”. The company said that shoppers using the Vine system can “select from any eligible product, whether it’s an Amazon private-label product or a product from one of our vendors”. It added that the same “guardrails” are in place for both vendors and its own-brand products.

Amazon has more than 120 private-label brands. According to several merchants, sales fell after the tech giant introduced similar private-label items, which it promoted heavily on its platform through Vine reviews and sponsored search placement.

A possible antitrust probe into Amazon

Last month, EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager stated that she was beginning a preliminary examination of Amazon’s business practices. She explained that she had an interest in the data Amazon collects from smaller sellers. “Do you then also use this data to do your own calculations, as to what is the new big thing, what is it that people want, what kind of offers do they like to receive, what makes them buy things?”

Economics professor at Cornell University, Justin Johnson, told Bloomberg: “You can certainly tell a story of competitive harm if you find examples of driving out competition and stifling innovation.

“If you’re going to introduce new regulations and levy fines, I’d hope there would be some evidence of consumer harm and not just a bunch of unhappy merchants.”

Amazon open on browser. Image: jordache/Depositphotos

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects