For the first time ever, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has enforced action in a case involving “review hijacking”, or deceptive manipulation of online product reviews.
In the words of Gautam Kanumuru, consumer reviews expert and Yogi CEO, “There are more eyes on reviews and ratings than ever before.”
So, what really happened?
Popular supplement brand, The Bountiful Company, has been ordered to pay $600,000 in reparations for misleading Amazon customers by merging reviews of different products to create the appearance of higher star ratings and review volume. In other words, reviews from the listings of high-performing products were combined with those from lower-performing products in order to create a false appearance of high review performance across the board.
Higher review performance is directly correlated to higher PDP conversion rates and more sales.
By merging reviews, The Bountiful Company sought to increase its sales for weaker or newer products. Their “Stress Comfort” supplement, which had only 26 reviews and 3.2 stars prior to the merge, appeared to have over 5,000 reviews and 4.5 stars after the merge occurred. More than a dozen similar instances were cited in the FTC case.
Amazon has a merge feature meant for products to easily combine reviews for SKUs that differ only in slight variation, such as color or quantity. In this article, we’ll dive into the do’s and don'ts of review merging, what this case means for consumer brands going forward, and how to maintain a compliant and powerful consumer review strategy.
Let’s cover the basics.
Amazon review merging refers to the practice of combining multiple products into a single listing, and in doing so, combining all of the associated reviews and star ratings into a single listing as well.
This practice is a perfectly legitimate and common way for sellers to manage their catalog of products with similar variants. Examples of correct use of Amazon merges include shirts that come in multiple colors and sizes or grocery items sold in various quantities.
The popular feature allows sellers to efficiently manage their listings and shoppers to easily select their preferred variation and access relevant information about the quality of the product (regardless of slight differences).
However, the practice can quickly become fraudulent when fundamentally different products are merged with the intention of combining reviews in order to boost conversion rates of underperforming products. Such is the case with The Bountiful Company.
To paint a clear picture of the correct and incorrect use of this feature, and where things went wrong for The Bountiful Company, here are the do’s and don'ts of Amazon merging:
Moving forward, the FTC and other whistleblowers will likely be more watchful for fraudulent merging (or “review hijacking”) and other deceptive review strategies. More brands who are using this tactic or similar deceptive review strategies are likely to face similar consequences in the coming years.
As the importance of online customer reviews in shopper journeys continues to increase, so will the attention of regulators.
According to Kanumuru, “Because reviews and ratings play such an influential role in the way people make decisions, the FTC now has more eyes on people manipulating that, so this won’t be the only time we see cases like this. This space is changing extremely fast, and a lot of the things that companies could get away with before, like merging new listings with old listings, will no longer be viable.”
This means, now is the time for brands to audit their listing strategies and fix any potential review faux-pas.
Strong strategies around generating and leveraging reviews are more important than ever before. And when these strategies put the customer experience first, they will stand the test of time (not to mention the FTC).
Looking forward, consumer brands looking to increase conversion rates and garner higher star ratings and review volume will no longer be able to cut any corners without the risk of major penalties. This highlights the importance of a strong strategy around reviews.
So what can brands do now? According to Kanumuru, “Any reliance on ways to manipulate reviews has to start going away. At the end of the day, brands just have to create better products and experiences and have the products speak for themselves.”
Rather than covering up negative reviews or underperforming products, brands can leverage that customer feedback to create products and listings that have organic success. This may sound easier said than done, but many key players in the consumer goods space are already using shopper feedback to drive strategic change as part of the customer-centric movement.
What does this strategy look like?
By analyzing reviews to discover what consumers like and dislike about a product, brands can quickly evolve to match consumer expectations by adjusting PDPs, marketing claims, and their product roadmpa. This leads to more reviews, higher ratings, and more sales. Just take our friends at Johnson & Johnson as an example.
This approach turns consumer feedback data into strategy through granular measurement of Customer Sentiment and Voice of Customer. The result is dynamic dashboards enabling brands to make informed decisions, avoid misallocated spend, and improve product ratings and conversion rates.
Yogi uses this method through advanced AI and NLP technology, allowing brands to go beyond star-rating metrics and utilize the full potential of consumer reviews through customer sentiment analysis.
At Yogi, we know firsthand how powerful reviews can be. This FTC decision highlights the power and importance of reviews in the customer journey and emphasizes that you just can’t do better than creating positive product experiences.