April 8, 2019
Written By Chris McCabe, Founder of ecommerceChris
Positive reviews are the only real means to maintain your Amazon sales rank and protect your investment, lest you find yourselves losing to competitors. But are you ready to assume full responsibility for ill-advised attempts to manipulate reviews on Amazon?
Over the past several months, I’ve investigated many of the methods that sellers use to obtain non-compliant reviews. Several articles, podcasts, interviews and media stories have dealt with the matter, yet quite a few sellers continue to miss the mark on compliance.
There are certain behaviors that are prohibited by Amazon’s product reviews policies, and account suspensions result when sellers ignore warnings. Often times, the seller doesn’t even realize they were doing anything wrong. But in Amazonland, it doesn’t actually matter as much if you had malicious intentions. A violation is a violation and presents a threat to buyer trust. They’ll find it easier to educate an ignorant seller via the suspension process than to push potentially fruitless efforts to educate sellers about this policy.
What kinds of methods?
1. A few examples here show what sellers use to obtain reviews that fall under Amazon’s Prohibited Seller Activity:
- Friends & Family. “Shortly after launching a new product I would sometimes ask friends of mine to purchase a product, test it and leave a review. This set a bad example for the rest of the company and I am sorry.” One seller described their launch strategy this way. If any of those people can be linked back to your account, you’re sunk. Amazon has suspended thousands of accounts for this.
- Spikes in positive reviews due to recent promotions and giveaways. Does it look like you may have benefited from initiatives to increase sales, where reviews of the nicer variety may have also resulted? You may not have directly asked for reviews from every buyer who received a lower priced product, but it could sure look that way to Amazon. Many also lose accounts due to this.
- 3rd party services that exist to help you get sneaky. I think everyone knows the shady behavior seen from numerous third-party services at this point. To keep it succinct, they create bot armies of buyer accounts to leave you positive reviews that look like there’s no connection to you at all. They also charge to leave your competitors loads of fake negative reviews, among other attacks. Amazon tracks some of these, but they need to know how many others are out there and what they’re doing. They want to hear what you’ve been doing with those types of shady operators and how their services work.
- Language in your messaging that indicates you’re trying to encourage positive-only reviews. Sellers often believe that you can discourage negative reviews by asking buyers to contact you with any order problems and therefore receive a higher percentage of positives — as long as you don’t ask specifically for a 5-star review. This is a huge misconception that leads to countless account suspensions.
For now, I’ll assume that you don’t hire black hat services that send potential buyers product details and then funds via Paypal so they can buy it and leave a wonderful verified review left. There have been many thousands of accounts permanently deleted over the past couple of years when it became clear to Amazon that those sellers believed they were smarter than Amazon. It’s fine to believe you can beat Amazon at their own game, but make sure you’re ready to accept the results if you fail. If they ban your seller account and ferret out your secret accounts, expect a very difficult road back. In theory, you’d be doing illicit activities on future accounts too, so you’d lose those as soon as you try to open new ones.
2. Oh, and by the way, Amazon will directly ask: Who runs those fraud services? The contact information of 3rd parties…
Amazon is asking for this information for a very clear and extremely important reason. If you benefited from fraudulent services that helped you game the reviews system, Amazon now wants your help in rooting them out. Do they want you to rat out your “friends,” the people who helped get your account suspended? Yes, they do. Do those services have any value in today’s enforcement climate? No, they don’t.
If you’re suspended and you’re interested in favorable consideration of reinstatement, then start handing over names, addresses and phone numbers of those services. They don’t have any value to you anymore, anyway, even if you think what they’re doing is noble (it isn’t.)
3. What do Good Services look like and what would they advise you to do?
I spoke with Liz Fickenscher of eComEngine recently about the safest and most effective ways to solicit product reviews in messages to buyers. She’s speaking to my Meetup group here in Boston on the evening of 18-April, and here’s why: she understands the need to clarify what can and what cannot be included in product review-related messaging. She also understands the high probability of an account suspension if clear parameters around review solicitation are not followed.
“I get questions from sellers all the time regarding their review requests – wondering if a third-party tool can help them circumvent rules like buyer opt-out, let them sneak in marketing messages and even more,” says Liz. “My answer, of course, is always no. Third party tools allow you to automate your messaging, sure, but they are not there to help you break the rules and get yourself in trouble. Our tool, FeedbackFive, contains TOS-compliant templates, but we also work with you to make sure your custom messaging is TOS compliant. We get that it’s very important to get product reviews, but not at the expense of your seller health and livelihood. We want to help you succeed, but we want you to do it in a compliant way.”
We’re covering this topic together at an event in Boston this month and throughout 2019 for a really good reason. We’ve seen way too many sellers suspended for this over the last couple of years, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it from happening to you, too.
4. What else do you need to tell Amazon if flagged for Review Manipulation?
They also seek identifying information for any buyer accounts used to leave you nice reviews, of course.
Amazon wants to track down reviewer profiles that posted glowing positives on behalf of those 3rd party services that you hired. If they can nail down the IP addresses or use other tools to connect the dots, they’ll go into attack mode, and suspend every seller tied to the scheme. They usually take the info about particular reviewers and identify where else they’ve left reviews to take those out, too. If they see a pattern of consistent positives with the same kinds of wording, Product Reviews Abuse flies into action. They’ll delete all of those reviews.
5. List of any prohibited reviews remaining on the Amazon site.
I understand that it can sometimes be tough to track how many buyers have received a message from you that promotes positive-only reviews. But try to track things back to the point where you can present a spreadsheet or some kind of list of reviews for Amazon to delete. It shows that you’re willing to cooperate and it helps to solve one of the problems they need to fix up in the wake of the abuse.
Remember: you’re not just showing yourself to be a compliant seller, you should contribute to the clean up of the mess. Your cooperation will be interpreted in a positive way at a time when you’re looking to find Amazon allies however you can.
6. What kinds of review solicitation language do they want to see? Careful how you interpret these rules because it can make the difference between an account suspension and fly past a review of your post-order messages to buyers!
“We thank you for your business, and we would appreciate it if you left us a product review to share your experience with other buyers.” That’s it, short and sweet. Don’t try to influence them to leave a good one, one way or another. Asking for a review is still OK. How you do it matters.
Examples of bad language that needs to come out? “We are a small, family-owned business and we really need your support. Please leave us a review and share your love for this product.” Don’t guilt anybody, customers don’t like the approach and may even report it. Amazon will find it or find out about it, one way or another.
“If you have experienced any problems with this order or are unsatisfied in any way with this product, please contact us, using the link below. We’d be happy to assist you and make this a happy experience for you!
Are you entirely satisfied with our product and service? Please let others know! We are happy that you’re happy and hope you can share this experience with Amazon customers like you. Thank you!”
What’s wrong with this picture? You’re only asking for a positive review, essentially. You’re encouraging them to contact you if there’s a problem, to make it go away. But if there are no problems, then you’re telling them to leave a review. The scales will tilt in favor of positive-only reviews. And Amazon really doesn’t want that anymore.
OK, so…How Do I get My Reinstatement Appeal Written the Right Way?
Root Causes & Plan of Action
When you’re writing up a Plan of Action, consider that Amazon and Product Review Abuse teams don’t want a simple admission of wrongdoing plus an apology. They want to know why and how it happened, and who was responsible for the mistakes. This isn’t just to punish you, they need to know what you’ve found in your internal operations and Standard Operating Procedure misses that led to this policy violation. Some examples:
1. Weak understanding of Amazon review policy. Company ownership let friends buy, test and review products. The teams that report to ownership opted to use 3rd party services in ways now understood to be against Amazon’s reviews solicitation policies.
2. Management teams directly responsible for proper training and compliance failed to evaluate internal procedures and SOPs prior to executing product reviews solicitation
3. We created spikes in positive reviews by offering heavily discounted products. We gave away items for free during promotions that led to groups of new positive reviews
In other words, you failed to police or regulate promotional campaigns to and you ran afoul of algorithms that track reviews abnormalities.
4. We failed to understand now that even a small percentage of manipulated reviews is too many and did not act quickly enough to end campaigns or retrain staff.
Naturally, missing the boat on the Root Causes likely means the investigator briefly glances at (read: chooses to ignore) the POA after them. Make sure your root causes fit your particular situation. Generic template content won’t get your account back.
Plan of Action: What Types of Action Items do you need to Delineate for POA Acceptance?
Demonstrate a new and fuller understanding of Amazon’s policies around review manipulation. If they think you’re telling them what they want to hear, they think you’ll break these rules again and they won’t bother reading it. Don’t give them that excuse. Make sure they get real details about what you’ve already done to prevent future violations of the same nature.
Here are some examples —
- No longer will friends or family be allowed to leave product reviews and we have provided lists of those reviews for deletion, see attached.
- We have implemented additional training to ensure that all teams understand the nature of past violations and the importance of 100% compliance with Amazon policy guidelines.
- We have communicated to our entire staff all updates to our employee handbooks and manuals, and that any form of review manipulation including voting on reviews will not be tolerated.
- We have hired compliance experts to review and approve our reviews solicitation language and to build process improvements to guarantee compliance
Get the idea? This is what they need to hear, but you actually have to be doing these things. If we’ve learned anything in the Amazon account suspension space, it’s that sellers hit with a second suspension for product review manipulation have a much tougher time appealing than sellers going through this for the first time.
That said, it shouldn’t be assumed that you can easily remedy any first-time suspension of this nature. With each passing month, we see Amazon foaming at the mouth during crackdowns for this violation. Product reviews abuse evolved into a huge black eye for both the marketplace’s integrity and for the teams struggling to execute enforcement in this area. More often than not, they conduct account suspension carpet bombing campaigns that sweep up all kinds of offenders. The egregious offenders stand shoulder to shoulder with those committing minor offenses out of sheer ignorance, all lumped together in one batch. We have to assume that in the rest of 2019, the bad faith players will finally be shown the door for good, with no true opportunity to appeal.
Founder ecommerceChris, focused on business development, client relations or account/project management, and e-commerce fraud prevention. Chris worked for several years on Amazon’s performance and policy enforcement teams and in recent times and has helped compose appeals in the reinstatement of hundreds of Amazon sellers. His expertise as ex-Amazonian positions him to complete successful reinstatement early and often, given his previous experience. His intimate knowledge of internal teams at Amazon is unsurpassed by any other seller consulting service. ecommerceChris.com