Whether or not you read them, the customer reviews on retailers’ websites have enormous value, mostly for the company.
The more a product is reviewed, the more likely it is that people will buy that product and the more money companies such as Amazon make.
So the benefits of online reviews are obvious for retailers, but what’s in it for the most prolific reviewers? For Amazon’s top reviewers, the benefits are tangible.
Lisa Chow of NPR’s Planet Money team tracks down Amazon’s No. 1 customer reviewer and learned that Amazon has a special program for its top reviewers.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
While many people are rushing to the malls to scoop up the (unintelligible) this Black Friday, other shoppers are waiting until Cyber Monday. Americans are expected to spend $1.8 billion online this Monday, a 13 percent increase over last year.
And many of those shoppers will look to online reviewers for advice on what to buy, which makes this a good time to revisit a story from Lisa Chow of NPR's Planet Money. In October, she tracked down the number one reviewer for Amazon.
LISA CHOW, BYLINE: You're on Amazon.com. You're buying a toaster, and you're checking out the customer reviews. You might think the people writing these reviews are people like you, people who wanted a toaster, went online and bought one. It turns out a lot of reviews on Amazon are from people who are not like you.
MICHAEL ERB: Hi. This is Michael, and I am absolutely thrilled to be able to tell you my experience with the Altec Lansing IMW725 inMotion Air Speaker. I have...
CHOW: This is a video review of a Bluetooth speaker. It's eight minutes long and it's by Michael Erb. Erb has reviewed everything from doorbells to travel mugs to cardboard boxes, and he's meticulous. He updates his reviews when people ask how the products are holding up over time. Last week, he rose to become Amazon's number one ranked reviewer. I called him up at his home outside of Syracuse, New York.
ERB: There are some days where I start reviewing products as soon as I'm up in the morning, so let's say 8 o'clock. I will review products all day long.
CHOW: Erb is 59 years old and works as a wedding DJ and Web designer. And he wasn't always this obsessed. His first Amazon review was 13 years ago when he panned a book on stock options. He waited two years to write his second review. Now, he says, he reviews on average two, maybe three products a day.
He says he does it for the same reasons other reviewers give. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and getting feedback from customers. Amazon also fuels the competition among reviewers by making their rankings public. But there's something else, he says, that really ramped up his reviewing.
ERB: It's kind of like Fight Club, you know. You don't talk about it.
CHOW: In the fall of 2008, Amazon had asked Erb to join an exclusive invitation-only club called Vine. So every third Thursday of the month, Amazon sends Erb a list of products.
ERB: At exactly 3 p.m., the list goes online, and I'm then able to choose up to two items from the list.
CHOW: Which companies will send to Erb for free.
ERB: And my only obligation is that I need to write a review of those two items within 30 days, and I get to keep the items after I review them.
CHOW: A week later, Erb gets another list, this time of leftover items. And he can pick another two things for free.
ERB: I've had everything from very cheap ear buds to $500 multifunction laser printers. I've gotten Spin Bike, which is probably valued at close to $1,000.
CHOW: How much value would you say that you've gotten over the years you've been in the program?
ERB: Oh, my. I mean, if you were just to add it all up, it's probably thousands of dollars worth of stuff.
CHOW: But, Erb says, Amazon retains the right to ask for the products back. A tax lawyer told me otherwise Vine reviewers might have to pay taxes on all the free stuff they've received. Not exactly a good way for Amazon to incentivize reviews. In the five years Erb has been in the program, Amazon has never asked for anything back. But it does have some rules on the free stuff.
ERB: I can't give it away or I can't sell it. I can't even give it to my wife, technically. It's for me only. And if I don't want it anymore after a certain period of time, I have to, you know, throw it out, destroy it.
CHOW: Since I had never heard of Vine, I reached out to some people I thought would know more: an Amazon seller, an executive at the review site Yelp, and a marketing professor who studies consumer reviews. None of them knew about Vine. After I explained the program to NYU professor Anindya Ghose, he said he believed Amazon offering free products in exchange for reviews would likely bias the reviewers.
ANINDYA GHOSE: As humans, we are hardwired to give in to this sort of, you know, enticement where if you continuously get things for free, then you're more likely to be biased positively than biased negatively.
CHOW: On certain products I looked at, from a $14 box of Lipton Natural Energy Tea to $190 Oral-B Electric Toothbrush, Vine members had (technical difficulties) all the reviews as of today. That's because Amazon seeks out products that have no or few reviews and invites the makers of those products to offer them to Vine members. The goal? To increase the sales activity on those items. Ghose says this undermines the credibility of a customer review platform.
GHOSE: Look, there are no reviews of certain products because no one's buying them. And no one's buying them possibly because it's not a high-quality or good-quality product. The absence of reviews is a signal, and the fact that a platform would try and sway that one or the other by seeding people with reviews, I'm not convinced that's the right strategy.
CHOW: I also reached out Trevor Pinch, a professor at Cornell, who knew about Amazon's Vine program. Back in 2008, he surveyed more than 150 of Amazon's top reviewers and found that two-thirds of them were getting free products through Vine. He says his problem with the program is that it's not totally transparent.
TREVOR PINCH: It's not known to most customers who go to Amazon. And they read these reviews, which they think are customer reviews, and they're not actually written, a percentage of them, by genuine customers.
CHOW: So, I called Amazon. Julie Law is a company spokesperson. She told me contrary to the first professor's belief, Vine reviewers are not positively biased. They actually give lower star ratings than the average reviewers on the site.
JULIE LAW: Our theory is that it's because they take that role so seriously, to give as much sort of unbiased perspective on reviewing that product.
CHOW: She said the Vine program was created to deal with the inherent challenges in customer reviews. For example, if someone had a late shipment or is frustrated with a particular seller, their review may be more about that specific experience than about the product itself, so Amazon decided to work with reviewers who customers had voted most helpful to populate the site with more useful reviews.
Law said in the scheme of the millions of Amazon reviews, the number of Vine reviews is very small. But she wouldn't tell me that number. Then I raised the issue of transparency, that most people I spoke to didn't even know that some reviewers were getting free products.
LAW: It says right on the help page for Amazon Vine that the Vine members receive free products that have been submitted to the program by participating vendors, and that Vine reviews are independent opinions of the Vine voices. There's no way in influence, modify or edit those reviews.
CHOW: Law's right that the information is there. But Amazon doesn't exactly put it front and center. In other words, if you're not looking for it, you might not find it. One thing's for sure: Amazon benefits enormously from getting these reviewers to review more stuff, because, Law told me, even a product with negative reviews sells better than a product with no reviews. Lisa Chow, NPR News.
CHAKRABARTI: And since Lisa's story aired back in October, Mike Erb has slipped in the Amazon rankings. He used to be Amazon's number one reviewer. He's now number two. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.