The problem of fake reviews on TripAdvisor, Amazon, Yelp, and other similar websites featuring user reviews to provide an important part of helping people make decisions is well-known. There are problems with both fake positive reviews (where establishments arrange for fake positive reviews) and fake negative reviews (presumably created by jealous competitors).
A year ago a couple of people in London gamed TripAdvisor to the point that TripAdvisor designated their restaurant the best restaurant in all of London, better even than famous Michelin starred restaurants, the best of over 18,000 London restaurants listed/reviewed by TripAdvisor.
The surprising thing about this is the new best restaurant did not exist. It was all a fun figment of the imagination, and the entire process was done for fun and to prove a point about how susceptible to distortion such ratings are. (There’s a great story detailing how this was done here.)
It is true that it is very hard for the sites to adequately police and intercept all the fake reviews that infest their sites. Some are obvious, others are very sophisticated and hard to identify. But what about when the sites themselves start gratuitously censoring real reviews, merely because they are negative? Isn’t actively filtering out a review, just because it is negative, every bit as much manipulating a product’s review profile as allowing a fake positive review to slip into the mix?
The censoring of negative reviews on some sites is unsurprising and almost expected. None of us expect a site belonging to, eg, Acme Services, and showing “customer reviews” would ever allow negative reviews of their services to stay up and unchallenged (and few of us believe the positive reviews, either!). But what about a supposedly neutral site, like Amazon? Surely they don’t care if a product receives a bona fide negative review, because that is as helpful to a future purchaser as a bona fide positive review, and they still stand to make a sale, just of an alternate product in the same category. Indeed, for most of us, we ignore the five-star reviews accompanied by throwaway comments like “Works really well, recommended” and seek out the more detailed reviews that show some thought and discernment.
But it turns out that Amazon has a Pollyanna approach to reviews. It loves positive reviews, but may reject negative ones. I know this, because it has happened to me, occasionally in the past, and twice recently.
From time to time, I’ll write a reviews of a product I buy on Amazon. In total, there are 92 reviews that Amazon hasn’t deleted, and they’ve amassed 1007 helpful votes My first review was way back on Feb 11, 2000. Almost without exception, all are of products verified purchases direct from Amazon. They range from one to five stars, and 58 of the 92 are either four or five star, the others a mix of one, two and three stars, and most are more than a line or two long. In other words, this is a perfect profile for a “real” reviewer”.
But, as I look through the list, I immediately notice one review I wrote, some time back, has mysteriously disappeared (a negative review of a book), and I see another review has been hidden by Amazon’s “sensitivity filter” (a one star review of an industrial UPS type lead acid battery that failed prematurely). A third party review analyzer site suggests I’ve had four reviews deleted by Amazon (and they have only noticed 53 of the 92 reviews, so maybe this suggests in total I’ve had 7 deleted), but Amazon has never told me about these deletions (or given me a chance to contest them), and with reviews dating back almost 20 years, I totally can’t remember what I’ve reviewed and what has disappeared. The unkindest part of this is that the review analyzer site is now downgrading my reliability as a reviewer because of the deleted reviews, when in reality, the opposite interpretation applies – chances are my reviews weren’t deleted because they were dishonestly praising products, but because I was accurately and honestly criticizing them.
Today – and the reason for this article – I received an email from Amazon advising that it was refusing to publish my most recent review because it didn’t meet their community guidelines.
Their community guidelines are lengthy and vague. But they do clearly say that if a review is rejected, it can not be revised and resubmitted. So you’ll never get to see my thoughts, no matter how sanitized and compliant, on this particular product, on Amazon. Of course, the rejection email was from a “no-reply” address and with no disclosed way to contact anyone for a doubtless pointless discussion of why the review was rejected.
The product is the Netgear R6700 Nighthawk AC1750 router. Superficially, it seems excellent. It has received 24,018 customer reviews as of now, averaging four stars (there’s some black magic in how Amazon “averages” review ratings as well, but that’s a topic for another time). It is an Amazon Choice product, and also apparently discounted (another topic for another – Amazon discounts which are illusory rather than real – as it turns out, I could save $25 off Amazon’s price by buying it elsewhere but with slower shipping). I wanted it immediately, and it seemed good, so I bought it (making it now the second time an Amazon Choice product has colossally disappointed).
Reviews that have been recently accepted for the Netgear router include such helpful gems as these (all five-star, most of the reviewers having limited numbers of reviews published, all brief, and all five-star, and one of which wasn’t even a verified purchase) :
- Really nice product – high performance and easy to install
- Excellent Router Nice Range Easy Set Up
- My wifi signal is crazy fast now
- Works great!
- Runs good for me
These are not the review headlines. These are the actual reviews themselves. Yes, you can submit a two-word review, or a review with the first letter of every word capitalized, and it will be accepted, presumably because it is positive, even if you didn’t buy the product from Amazon and have a limited history comprising entirely of brief gushing reviews.
But submit a detailed negative review, and you run the risk of being censored.
So, if you’re curious about my opinion of the Netgear R6700 Nighthawk AC1750 router, you’ll never see it on Amazon. But if you’re curious to read the type of review that Amazon refuses to publish, here it is below. If you can see, within it, the offensive element, please do let me know.
| Intermittent disconnects, Netgear couldn’t fix
On paper, this seemed like a great router. But it had an intermittent problem – once or twice a day it would go offline. Netgear support was terrible, and after several failed attempts to diagnose/fix the problem, they offered to swap it for another router. Fair enough. Except they wanted to charge me $17 for the swap, on a new router that was bad from right out of the box on day one.I explained I could simply return it to Amazon for free and buy a better router from a different brand. Eventually, by naming and shaming them on Twitter, they first tried again to fix the problem with a more senior support rep helping. She also failed to fix, causing another week of intermittent disconnects (a real problem these days when relying on Alexa to do everything for one, even to turn on and off lights!) and then another offer to swap the bad unit for a good unit.And, again, the demand for $17 to do the swap – either that or send the bad unit in and wait for it to be received before a good exchange unit would be sent out. “How can I manage without a working router at home for over a week?” I asked. They had no reply.But, now the “good” news. Eventually they agreed to waive the $17 fee and send a new router out first. Yay. However, there was one more surprise waiting. After setting up the order, their support person then said “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of stock of this unit, and I don’t know when we’re getting more.” In such a case, you normally expect to strike it lucky and get a newer/better model, but in this case, Netgear’s offer was to instead send out a unit two generations older!Another unanswerable question “Why would I swap this brand new third generation router for an old obsolete first generation router when I can simply return it to Amazon for free and buy a better router from another supplier?”.
So that’s what I did. Sure, I’ll concede that my experience was probably an exception rather than the normal rule – most of their routers probably work perfectly well out of the box. But it was two weeks of misery with a total failure to fix the problem, resolved only by returning it to Amazon. Thank you, Amazon, for your very fair return policy, but as for Netgear, what a colossal customer and technical service fail.