Anyone who's sold on Amazon knows that the company's apparent lack of enforcement can get frustrating. Amazon suspends sellers every day for violating their Terms of Service, but it seemed like honest sellers would always run into competitors breaking the rules and going unpunished. There were always sellers paying for reviews, relying exclusively on discounted reviews from shady review trading sites, creating armies of secondary accounts just to post reviews… you name it.
Luckily for us, Amazon — slow-moving and behemoth as it may be — has made a flurry of changes to address these problems in recent months. They're no longer content to arbitrate solely on a case-by-case basis; these policy changes affect the marketplace as a whole, and should hopefully stop malicious sellers in their tracks while letting legitimate sellers continue on with their business.
However, with the number of policy changes popping up one after the other, it can be difficult to keep track of every one. That’s why we’ve decided to write up a compilation post documenting the major Amazon policy changes within the past three months (plus one older outlier that we believe started the trend).
Expect this post to be updated as more changes appear. Let’s begin!
Date: ~November 2015
What Happened: If a product was purchased for greater than a 50% discount, any subsequent reviews are not marked as Verified Purchase.
What It Means: Providing discounts in exchange for reviews is a totally legitimate strategy to garner the first few reviews for a new product. It’s listed by Amazon as the sole exception to the “no compensated reviews” rule. However, some sellers were over-reliant on these discount reviews, using them for the majority of their review base with few organic reviews in sight.
Data also shows that discounted reviews are more likely to be positive, leading many to believe that they’re inherently biased and so are less valuable than organic reviews. Amazon wanted to indicate this potential unreliability to customers by stripping their Verified Purchase badges: reviews not marked Verified Purchase have a lower weight in the calculation of average stars, they can be filtered out with a drop-down option, and they’re generally trusted less by customers.
Extra Note: This change was much earlier than the many of the other changes in the compilation, but we think it’s a good starting point for the series of policy shifts that followed. It represents an initial attempt from Amazon to increase trust in their review system, a key feature of the marketplace that customers have become increasingly wary of as fake or discounted reviews continued to pop up in excess.
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Review Purges: Amazon is wiping reviews from various members of the Top 10,000 Reviewers. These reviewers aren’t being banned outright, but every review they have ever posted is getting deleted and removed from the associated product page. This automated site started tracking the “purged” reviewers in February 2016, but the purge started some time before that. It’s still ongoing today, with 1–3 reviewers getting purged every day.
Seller Lawsuits: Amazon has always suspended sellers for manipulating the review system, and they also have a history of suing sites that support or host paid reviews. However, this case was the first time that Amazon sellers were sued for using paid reviews.
What It Means: Amazon is basically flexing its punitive muscles here — subtly in the case of the review purges, and publicly in the case of the lawsuits.
We don’t know for sure when the review purges started, but they seem to be a fairly recent development. In this recent effort, Amazon is aggressively pursuing reviewers who, for example, post 50 reviews per day when there’s no way they could have formed an actual opinion on each discounted product they (supposedly) received. Any reviewer which Amazon’s data indicates is suspect might be slated for a purged.
The seller lawsuits, on the other hand, seem to be something of an escalation or a scare tactic — threats of suspension aren’t enough to stop sellers from using fake reviews, so Amazon chose to take it to the next level and put out a legal threat.
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Date: Early August 2016
What Happened: Amazon made a change to their Customer Review guidelines, changing the requirements for posting a review:
An additional caveat was also added: “Prime subscriptions and promotional discounts don’t count towards to the $5.00 minimum.”
What It Means: This is a move that prevents a number of fake-review tactics related to bots and additional accounts. First, it prevents extensive use of “sock puppets,” which are additional accounts set up by one person for the express purpose of posting reviews. In a similar fashion, it also halts the use of fake-review-posting bot networks — or, at the very least, it makes maintaining them much more expensive.
Additionally, the requirement of a valid debit or credit card means sellers can’t give reviewers (or sock puppets, or bots) prepaid gift cards to fulfill the $5.00 minimum.
Note that the $5.00 minimum is an account-wide threshold. Once an account spends a total of $5.00 anywhere on Amazon, they’re eligible to leave reviews on anything. It’s not on a per-item basis, so anyone could leave a review on a $1.00 or $2.00 item as long as they’d exceeded the spending threshold beforehand.
There are other conclusions to draw, mostly based on “promotional discounts don’t count towards the $5.00 minimum.” However, the vague wording means these conclusions are little more than speculation. Take them with a grain of salt.
First, this phrase could mean that the full price of the item is not taken into account — if an item is normally priced above $5.00, but it’s purchased at a discount for less than $5.00, it would not fulfill the minimum by itself.
Second, the more pessimistic reading: no promotional purchases count at all towards the threshold. This would mean that even if an account purchased a $100.00 item at a 70% discount, bringing their price down to $30.00 (still well above the minimum), they would not be eligible to leave a review without spending $5.00 on another, non-discounted purchase. No one knows for sure which of these readings is correct, if any.
UPDATE: As of September 23rd, Amazon has raised the minimum requirement to leave a review from $5.00 to $50.00.
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Date: August 29th, 2016
What Happened: Amazon “gated” hundreds of popular brands (think Nike, Hasbro, etc.), meaning that third-party sellers on Amazon, in order to sell these brands, will have to:
Thankfully, Amazon later clarified that existing third-party sellers were being grandfathered in: they would not have to pay the application fees if they were already selling products from gated brands.
What It Means: This is Amazon’s first big stand against counterfeit. After Birkenstock completely abandoned the platform due to counterfeit, Amazon knew it had to do something. They identified some of the biggest brands with the highest risk of counterfeit, and chose those for their initial round of gating.
Since the application fees only apply to new sellers, according to Amazon, existing resellers shouldn’t be affected, as long as they’ve sold the brands in the past and can demonstrate a direct supply chain.
Counterfeiters, especially ones who’ve been suspended and attempt to start new accounts to continue selling, will either be blocked by the system or set back significantly by the fees. However, sellers relying on arbitrage may be caught in the crossfire, as it’s nigh impossible for arbitrageurs to prove a direct supply chain the way Amazon wants.
We expect more brands to be gated in the future, along with more counterfeit protections to come for smaller private-label sellers.
Extra Note: This policy comes somewhat conveniently after Amazon’s push to facilitate Chinese sellers’ entry into the US marketplace. Most of the Chinese sellers are legitimate, but China is also a notorious source of counterfeit. Counterfeit did already exist on Amazon prior to this push, of course, but it may have aggravated the problem so much that Amazon was forced to take action.
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And there you have it! All the significant Amazon policy changes from the last few months. Again, this post will be updated when more major changes come up.