E-commerce is a cut-throat business, and sellers will come up with ingenious ways, however unethical, to make a buck go that much longer. Now, for a full refund on your online purchase, all you have to do is give the seller a great review – two thumbs up and 5 stars will do, please. Even your ‘like’, can be purchased for as little as $2! After all, a million ‘likes’ online is so much more impactful than a million dollars-worth print ad campaign.
So how did a little-known company/Amazon merchant, VIP Deals, with no website and extra information, except a post box in L.A., get hundreds of reviews for a product that’s extremely competitive? With Amazon’s Kindle sales going up, and launch of the new Kindle Fire, the best place to get a case for the product, not surprisingly, is Amazon.com. This makes the site hot for Kindle cases and companies of all sizes are trying to cash in.
Pretty surprising then, how a merchant like VIP Deals managed to get hundreds of 5 star ratings for its product. Media investigations have revealed that on receiving the product, customers were asked to write a review that would help the company achieve their aim of getting 100 percent 5 stars, in exchange for a full refund.
Turns out, not many could resist and the page was flooded with great reviews. Unfortunately, none of them are now available. After media reports, when Amazon received the letter VIP sent to its customers, urging them to give their product a 5 star review, Amazon took off all the reviews and then the product page went down. When inquisitive journalists asked why Amazon had not reacted to a few customer complaints earlier on, they declined to comment on the topic. Obviously, the site benefits when products fly off their virtual shelves like they did in the case of VIP Deals’ Kindle Fire cases.
In the era of new media and unconventional marketing, where social wisdom trumps marketing brochure-speak, some marketers are trying to profit by infiltrating user networks. Because building the kind of goodwill that benefits product sales online is a long-term process and there’s never a guarantee that a product, even an excellent one, will get the kind of reviews it deserves to boost sales. While most would view this marketing practice as unethical and for web users it can be pretty annoying, it is also, clearly, illegal.
According to F.T.C. rules, the connection between a merchant and its promoters/endorsers must be fully disclosed. Last year, a Tennessee-based company, Legacy Learning paid the Trade Commission $250,000 to settle charges. “A company selling a popular series of guitar-lesson DVDs will pay $250,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceptively advertised its products through online affiliate marketers who falsely posed as ordinary consumers or independent reviewers,” says a report on the case, on FTC.gov.
While regulators try to control the problem and provide clear legal definitions and users shudder at the thought of ‘muddied’ user reviews, star-rating and likes, researchers are trying to devise ways to identify fakesters among us. Can an algorithm save the sanctity of the online user review? Computer Science professionals seem to think so.
At the University of Illinois, Chicago, researchers are trying to create mathematical models that will blow the lid off fake reviews. Tech wisdom has always said that one should be wary on the internet, but over the years, most of has have gotten so comfortable with the virtual world and distrustful of corporations that we are willing to take a stranger’s word over a company’s. Now, the companies are out to get our friends on their side, and perhaps it’s time to question: What’s your like worth?