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Amazon’s Great Purge

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Today I want to talk about a semi-mysterious purge of products on Amazon. Shoppers probably haven’t noticed, but these evictions tell us a lot about untrustworthy internet reviews and they show both the power and the limitations of Amazon.

Researching this made me feel (again) that it’s exhausting trying to avoid being cheated or manipulated online and our favorite internet destinations aren’t doing enough to protect us. Let me explain what’s happening.

Who was evicted?

About three weeks ago, some big brands on Amazon suddenly got kicked out.

Most people wouldn’t recognize the names of the more than a dozen Chinese companies, like Mpow and Aukey, that disappeared. But those two sell large numbers of electronics like phone chargers and external smartphone batteries. If you’ve clicked “buy” on the first phone charger or wireless headphones that you saw on Amazon, it might have come from one of those now-suspended merchants.

It is rare for Amazon to boot off a merchant that sells so much stuff, but the company hasn’t said exactly why it made the move. Experts on Amazon’s workings, however, believe that the sellers were punished for manipulating customer reviews. And some of the company’s public statements — this helpful one is in Chinese — seem to back that up.

It’s against Amazon’s rules to pay people for glowing feedback. But it’s also an open secret that bought-off or otherwise gamed reviews are common on Amazon and lots of other websites.

An Amazon representative said that the company is “relentless in our efforts to protect the integrity of customer reviews, and we will continue to innovate to ensure customers can trust that every review on Amazon is authentic and relevant.” I tried contacting a couple of the suspended merchants, too, but haven’t been able to reach anyone.

So why does this matter to us? I’ll answer my question with two other questions.

Can we trust online feedback when it’s so easy to game the system?

A big selling point of the internet is that we can glean the wisdom of the crowds before we see a movie, eat at a restaurant or buy a product. But there are so many ways to cheat online reviews that it’s hard to trust them.

If some of Amazon’s top sellers have manipulated shoppers’ impressions of their products, it shows just how pervasive the problem is. Amazon presumably keeps a closer watch on big merchants than it does on fly-by-night companies that don’t sell much. And there is a good chance that those suspended companies have been cheating at reviews for a long time, Juozas Kaziukėnas, the founder of e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse, told me.

That means some people have been tricked into buying junk products, and merchants who played by the rules were outmatched by those who didn’t. Bogus reviews, in short, hurt us and make Amazon a worse place to shop.

Did Amazon catch merchants, or was it pressured into it?

There are two ways of looking at what Amazon did. The first is that Amazon isn’t afraid to punish companies that move a lot of merchandise to protect shoppers from deception.

The less charitable view is that it appeared that Amazon ignored the problem for a long time. And it’s not clear that Amazon discovered the problem on its own.

Vox’s Recode publication reported that pressure from the Federal Trade Commission led to at least one of the seller suspensions. And a computer security recommendation website recently uncovered a database of Amazon merchants organizing payments in return for about 13 million glowing reviews. That disclosure happened just before the Amazon bans came down.

So what now?

I understand if you don’t want to know how the online shopping sausage is made. Most of the time, buying stuff from Amazon and other reputable sites turns out just fine. (If you want to better protect yourself, here is some advice on how to shop safely and reliably.)

Kaziukėnas also suggested that it may be time to stop using reviews as a go-to way to gauge other people’s opinions on products or services. “It’s the internet,” he said. “Nothing is real on the internet.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nicer if we could more confidently click “buy” without worrying that we’ve been misled? Shouldn’t we demand more from Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor and Rotten Tomatoes to make sure that feedback is as trustworthy and transparent as possible? We shouldn’t have to put up with fakes and frauds.

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