Today Amazon.com has banned all reviews for free and discounted products unless they are done via Amazon’s Vine program.  The reasons for this are clear and understandable but what implications will this have for future selling on amazon and while books are currently exempt from this, will they always be?

I’ve been reviewing on amazon UK for nearly two years now.  I started out reviewing video games and colouring books.  For those who have read more of my blog you’ll know that reviewing items on amazon gave me a way to cope with a traumatic event I suffered.  A way to keep my mind off of everything that had happened and to focus on something else.  I began by reviewing items I’d bought but once my ranking had reached a certain level I was approached by many different sellers for reviews of their products.  I’ve always taken reviewing seriously and always been honest in my star rating for a product but there has been an increase in unscrupulous reviewers and it’s because of these people that amazon has taken this drastic step.

From now on all products (except books) can no longer have reviews in exchange of a free product.  Sellers who want such reviews will have to apply to the Vine program, something which currently costs money to do.

So why are amazon doing this?

If anyone’s picked up a newspaper in the past few months you may have noticed the problems amazons been having with ‘free’ reviews.  Firstly there were the reviews where people were getting paid to review items, I myself spotted some on the site fiverr, people offering to give 5 star reviews of a product in exchange for money.  Many of these reviewers had their accounts shut down on amazon but there’s a second type of reviewer emerging, what we call the ‘coupon club’ reviewer.

What is a coupon club reviewer?  Well to understand how they operate we should first understand the correct process.  In the past reviewers have been contacted directly by companies, authors, sellers who are willing to send a free sample of their product in exchange for an honest review on amazon.  This is the right way to do things, but a new thing called coupon clubs has emerged.

What are coupon clubs?

Around the internet there are various websites where people can signup and start receiving coupons for amazon products.  These coupons are exchanged at the amazon till for part or the whole cost of the item.  People signed up to coupon clubs promise to leave a review after getting their free item.

Although we’d like to think most people are honest, the truth is that many have started using coupon clubs as a way to get free stuff.  In order to do this many people will leave 5 star reviews for items regardless of how good they are in the hopes of being offered more items, who, after all, wants to give items to reviewers who give negative reviews? – or so the mentality of these reviewers and some sellers goes.

‘Coupon club’ reviewers are rife on amazon and I’ve spotted many of them during my time as a reviewer.  These people give a bad name to all amazon reviewers and I’m not surprised that so many want to get free products for review.  Some reviews by these people are so simple as ‘works great, recommend’ which to me isn’t all that helpful.

So amazon has taken the drastic step in banning all reviews which are for ‘free’ items.  The only way a person or company can now receive reviews for their products (other than waiting for someone who bought it and wants to review it) is to go via the Amazon Vine program.

What is Vine?

The Vine program is run by amazon.  It works in a similar way to the one already described but only ‘vine voice’ reviewers are offered the chance of a free product for review.  Amazon has a set amount of what they consider trusted reviewers who can review vine products.  You may have seen some of these vine reviews while searching products on amazon.  They appear with a green text above the review stating that this is a ‘Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme’.  Vine reviews are supposed to be considered more trusted that regular reviews and only certain amazon reviewers are picked to join the vine program.

The vine reviewer program is now considered the only way to get legitimate reviews.  Rather than sellers being able to contact reviewers directly, all reviews are done through amazon, so no chance for sellers supposedly manipulating the reviewer into giving 5 stars.  But is the vine program really that good?

For starters a seller can no longer pick who will actually review their product, just one of the many vine voices.  Some of the vine reviewers are great but there are a few who leave one line reviews which make it hard to give a true idea of whether something is worth buying.  Some companies might want to target tech reviewers to review a new gadget rather than have a book reviewer do it.  But with the vine program anyone can review the product whether they have a keen knowledge in it or not.  The second question is who is picked to go into the vine program?  Some people consider me an honest and trusted reviewer but I’ve never been selected.  I know of many really brilliant and honest reviewers who’ve been doing it for a lot longer than me but who haven’t been selected either. I’ve also seen people join the vine program with very few prior reviews that it makes you wonder who is considered a trusted reviewer.

So a good move?

Many people who have seen the corruption on amazon believe so and I understand the need to curb the current ‘freebie’ culture that’s out there.  However some key questions have been asked, questions that haven’t been answered.  For a start how does this impact on genuine small sellers of new items who relied on a few quality reviews of their products in order to generate interest and sales.  There are genuine sellers out there who accepted honest reviews (even if bad) and who can’t join the vine program due to the costs.  Second this whole new policy doesn’t actually stop the unscrupulous sellers and reviewers from operating in an underhand manner.  If sellers are willing to send products to reviewers (rather than using the coupon method) then reviewers could still post 5 star reviews just omit the fact they received their products for free.  There are enough sellers on amazon already not putting the disclosure that a product was free, what’s to stop them from continuing in this manner in the future?

What about authors?

While amazon is currently exempting book reviews from this process what’s to stop them implementing it in the future?  What if this new policy, while weeding out a lot of bad reviewers, will lead to amazon profiting from a rise in the use of their Vine program?  And if this happens will they one day wish to create a similar such program for authors?

Another New Rule

A few days ago I was informed about another rule to amazon’s review guidelines on the US site.  Reviews are no longer to be allowed by people who have not spent at least $50 using a valid credit or debit card.  This new rule means that for me, posting in the UK and cross posting my reviews to the US site would now be against the rules, though I’ve done it for a while now. I’ve only bought one digital item one time from the US site but it never reached the new $50 limit.  So am I now breaking the rules of amazon by posting?  If so I’ll have to stop reviewing there.  And if I do how does this affect the authors I’ve promised to review for?

Conclusion

It’s been a stressful and strange day with heavy and almost bizarre exchanges on the amazon forums .  It’s understandable that something had to change and the ‘freebie’ culture of amazon reviewing has to be stopped.  But is this really the best way to go about it?  Many reviewers believe so, but many of them are also part of that vine program that it makes you question whether they’re all that bothered as they’ll continue to be offered ‘free stuff’ to review.

I can sympathise with some of the newbie sellers out there who rely on reviews to get their products off the ground and who can’t afford to join vine.  I also sympathise with many of my fellow reviewers who will also see an end to most of their reviewing (especially heartbreaking if you knew the stories behind some of these people and their reasons for reviewing).  This policy will inevitably come to the UK, they usually do, but for some people who give genuine reviews and for whom reviewing has been a lifeline in their personal circumstances (like me) it is a sad end.

Does it mean an end to all reviews?  Of course not.  But I wonder what the future will bring to both good reviewers and those small genuine sellers.  And of course will the book industry be targeted in the future too?  Will amazon abolish all reviews that aren’t ‘verified purchases’ in future?  If so not only could small time sellers be affected but major ones too.  As someone who receives regular books from major UK publishers for review, these new rules and possible future ones do make me wonder what’ll happen.  There are a lot of questions that amazon has created with this news.  Questions that need answers, but will we get them?  Only time will tell.

What are your views on this new policy?  If you are an author would it worry you about the future?  Are you a small time seller affected by today’s news?  Please do comment, I accept all views but please be civilized in any exchanges .

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