Without the satisfaction of trying out their purchases beforehand, Amazon users have always depended heavily on community-provided reviews on the largest online retailer before making purchases. While some of these reviews are as you'd expect, others, may not be so honest, courtesy of a few loopholes in Amazon's guidelines.
The company has always looked down upon paid reviews and even sued sellers who wrote reviews for their own products, but many vendors have been able to circumvent Amazon's rules by providing products to potential reviewers either for free or at discounts in exchange for an 'honest' review of the product. As long as the fact was mentioned by the reviewer, Amazon allowed the review. Unfortunately, however, such reviews are often of a higher quality than average, and may include videos, granting them far more prominence than those by an 'average' user.
Statistically, too, incentivized reviews seem to significantly impact a product's overall rating, with a study by Web Retailer indicating that a product with incentivized reviews can have as much as a 0.40 star lead over one that doesn't offer incentives. While this may not seem like a large number, the difference between incentivized and non-incentivized reviews' average ratings of 4.73 and 4.33 stars, respectively, can take a product from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile, thus giving an incredible lead in terms of visibility and reputation.
While Amazon may have been willing to push these facts under the rug previously, it seems that the apparent imbalance, alongside its recent problems, has impacted consumer trust enough that the retailing juggernaut is finally taking steps to curb this problem on its platform. It has recently updated its Community Guidelines with the following:
“[C]ontent and activities consisting of advertising, promotion, or solicitation (whether direct or indirect) is not allowed, including… Creating, modifying, or posting content in exchange for compensation of any kind (including free or discounted products) or on behalf of anyone else.”
Incentivized reviews will, however, still be allowed for books and via Amazon's Vine program - Amazon's in-house program where they handpick individuals for review. There are, of course, still concerns as to how strictly Amazon will enforce these new guidelines and whether vendors will come up with new ways of circumventing these checks and balances but, hopefully, these changes will make for less skewed review ratings in the future.