Like thousands of other parents, I decided to get my kids a cheap drone for Christmas. I spent $24 for a plastic flying machine with rudimentary collision-avoidance capabilities. A plastic cage mostly kept small fingers away from the four propellers. The kids were delighted for the first couple of hours.
Then my five-year-old daughter somehow managed to get one of the propellers stuck in her hair. The drone was never the same after that. Instead of hovering in the air, it started veering crazily to one side and falling to the floor. A couple of hours later, I noticed that another propeller—not the one that had grabbed my daughter’s hair—had fallen off entirely. Now when you toss it up it immediately flips over and plunges to the floor.
The kids enjoyed the drone so much in its few brief hours of functionality that I thought I might buy them another one. (Hopefully this one would avoid my daughter’s hair.) If I did more research and spent a bit more money, I hoped I could find a higher-quality model that wouldn’t fall apart after a few hours.
So I went to Amazon.com, searched for “children’s drone,” and sorted by “average customer review,” figuring the best-reviewed drones were likely to be high quality. They weren’t.
“Absolutely love this honey”
The first result of my search was a $23 drone with 6,400 reviews and an impressive five-star average rating. This looked promising!
But then I actually looked at the five-star reviews.
“Absolutely love this honey,” wrote one reviewer in the UK in March 2019. “It’s quite different from any supermarket-purchased honey I’ve tried.”
“If you’re looking to have a taste of Greece without making the journey, this honey does the trick,” wrote another customer the same month. A third customer wrote in January 2019 that it was “dark, luxurious pine honey, not too sweet, absolutely fantastic with strained Greek yoghurt and extra cream.”
When I sorted the reviews by date, I saw that the most recent reviewers actually had bought a drone and they were overwhelmingly not giving it five stars. “Bought this for my Grandson,” a customer wrote on December 26. “He played with it for 2 hours before it broke and is no longer working.” He gave the drone one star.
But the older reviews were for honey. Apparently, the manufacturer had tricked Amazon into displaying thousands of reviews for an unrelated product below its drone, helping the drone to unfairly rise to the top of Amazon’s search results.
The story was similar for the second and third results in my drone search. Both had thousands of reviews with five-star averages. In both cases, many of the five-star reviews were obviously for other products—including a bottle of vodka, a bracelet, and a box of Christmas cards.
In both cases, the most recent reviews were almost all negative reviews from customers who had actually bought the drones. One reviewer claimed that a drone had scratched their son’s face.
This kind of review bait-and-switch is not a new problem. More than two years ago, Buzzfeed’s Nicole Nguyen wrote about other online sellers using the same scam. For example, she found that many of the five-star reviews for a highly-rated iPhone charging dock were actually reviews for a culinary torch.
“Amazon is sprinkled with other examples,” Nguyen wrote. “This iPhone X battery case listing used to be for a leather wallet phone case. This iPhone battery case page was formerly a listing for Lightning charging cables. This Wi-Fi router was previously listed as nano computers and has been collecting reviews since 2003. This neck brace was formerly a shower caddy listing. What was formerly a listing for a guitar-string action gauge is a now a page for magnetic, glue-free eyelashes.”
In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesman told Ars that the bogus reviews I noticed violated Amazon’s policies.
“We have clear guidelines about when products should be grouped together and we have guardrails in place to prevent products from being incorrectly grouped, either due to human error or abuse,” the spokesperson wrote. “The detail page in question has been fixed, and we are taking appropriate action on the bad actor.”
As a result of Amazon’s action, the top-ranking drone, which previously had more than 6,000 reviews, now has only about 50 reviews and its star rating has dropped to three and a half stars. But the other two listings I mentioned above—both of which I also mentioned in a Monday email to Amazon—still have thousands of positive reviews, including a bunch of obviously bogus ones.
Amazon’s approach to third-party sellers is the opposite of customer obsessed
Whatever action Amazon ultimately takes against these particular vendors Amazon’s broader efforts leave a lot to be desired. A company shouldn’t be able to secure a top slot in search results with such obvious subterfuge.
The top-reviewed drones in Amazon’s search results came from brands with names that seemed to be chosen at random. My drone was made by “HONGXUNJIE.” Other highly-rated drones on Amazon are made by “SHWD,” “Taktoppy,” “SimileLine,” “Hffeeque,” “Mafix,” “MINOSNEO,” and so forth. Clicking on the names of these “brands” takes you to a search result with no additional information on who made these products.
Amazon could easily require sellers to provide some basic transparency about these listings—disclosing where these manufacturers are located, how long they’ve been in business, and which other brands they own. This might make it easier for Amazon to punish companies that try to mislead customers with fake reviews.
Major Internet companies often insist that policing their platforms for misinformation is a logistically insurmountable task. This argument has at least superficial plausibility for companies like Facebook and Twitter that have to deal with billions of pieces of content every week. But maintaining minimum standards for Amazon product listings shouldn’t be so difficult. Amazon isn’t just listing information on its website, it’s offering a product for sale and taking a cut of the sale price. In many cases it’s warehousing and shipping the physical products.
The resulting revenue should give Amazon ample resources to do basic vetting of product listings. Amazon probably can’t verify every claim in a product listing, but it shouldn’t be hard to detect when someone takes a listing for honey and converts it into a listing for a drone. If it can’t be done algorithmically, Amazon can and should hire enough human beings to review every significant change to product listings. It shouldn’t be possible for someone to change a listing for honey into a listing for a drone without anyone in Seattle noticing.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has long claimed that his company is laser-focused on serving the needs of customers—a philosophy he calls “customer obsession.” In some ways, Amazon has lived up to its own hype. Amazon offers low prices, a wide selection, and fast, convenient service. Amazon continues to get better on all these fronts—just this weekend I was able to pay an extra $3 to get same-day delivery on a $9 item.
But quality is also important to customers, and here Amazon seems to be anything but customer-obsessed. Sometimes I want the cheapest product I can get. But other times I’m willing to pay extra to get something that will last longer than a day and won’t injure my children. And for some product categories, Amazon’s website makes it difficult to determine which companies actually have a track record of satisfying customers.