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The New Amazon Review Guidelines: Excruciatingly Harsh Consequences for Vaguely Defined Violations

It seems like hardly a week goes by without the online retail giant releasing news about Amazon review guidelines. At the beginning of October, product testers were banned from leaving ‘incentivized’ reviews; Shortly thereafter, Amazon began retroactively deleting reviews from product testers. And now just last week, sellers who have participated in product tests have received more emails directly from Amazon iterating the ban on product tests (‘incentivized reviews’) and stressing that sellers who don’t comply with this ban will be punished with suspension or termination of their Seller Central account.

Furthermore, Amazon has released more information as to which circumstances exactly warrant:

  • Products being given out
  • Reviews being permitted to be left
  • Review clubs not being allowed

Amazon’s Email to All Sellers in the USA Marketplace

Hello,
We recently updated our policies to prohibit incentivized reviews, including those posted in exchange for a free or discounted copy of the product. You are receiving this email because products you sell have received incentivized reviews in the past. If you attempt to acquire incentivized reviews going forward, your Amazon privileges will be suspended or terminated.

We consider a review to be incentivized if you have influenced or can influence the review directly or indirectly, including by monitoring whether a review is written and providing or withholding any future benefit based on whether a review is written or the content of the review. Below are a few examples where a review is considered incentivized and is not permitted:

– You provide a free or discounted product, gift card, rebate, cash payment, or other compensation in exchange for the review.
– You provide or withhold free or discounted products or other benefits in the future based on whether the customer writes a review.
– You use a review service where reviewers’ continued membership depends on writing reviews.
– You use a review service where you can rate customers based on their reviews.
– You use a review service where customers register their Amazon public profile so that you can monitor their reviews of your products.
Incentivizing customer reviews violates our policies and may violate the Federal Trade Commission Act.

The following actions are generally allowed, provided you comply with the above restrictions:
– You may offer discounts that are generally available to all Amazon customers, such as Lightning Deals.
– You may give out free products at trade shows, conventions, or other similar venues where you are unable to monitor whether the recipients write a review or provide or withhold any benefits based on whether a review is written or the content of the review.

The above changes apply only to product categories other than books. We continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies of books.
For more information please visit the following Help pages:
Prohibited seller activities and actions:
https://sellercentral.amazon.com/gp/help/200386250
About Lightning Deals:
https://sellercentral.amazon.com/gp/help/202043200
About promotional content
https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html

Amazon Will Punish Anyone Attempting to Generate Incentivized Reviews

This email, in our opinion, mainly serves as an explanation of the most recent changes to the Amazon review policy (now called ‘Community Guidelines’) and doesn’t present any new changes to the guidelines per se. Amazon has made one thing very clear: Anyone attempting to generate incentivized reviews has to deal with the consequence of a suspended or terminated Seller Central account.

Amazon Review Guidelines Still A Bit Unclear About Incentivization

The previous statements released from Amazon weren’t very clear to begin with, and many sellers were left asking what exactly is still allowed in regards to leaving a review under the Amazon review guidelines. At least the latest email from Amazon defined a couple scenarios more clearly. The following aren’t complete lists, but contain the main actions that are banned under the current Amazon review policy:

Explicitly Banned

The use of review services where testers’ membership is dependant upon leaving a review
The use of review services where testers are selected for testing based upon the reviews he / she has left
The use of review services where a tester provides his or her Amazon profile so that it can be checked whether a review has been left

Explicitly Allowed

Discounts offered that are generally available for all Amazon customers such as Lightning Deals

So far, so good – but there’s still gray area leaving room for a lot of other scenarios where it’s still unclear whether the action is allowed or not:

  • Is it permissible to use a discount platform where sellers can offer reduced products but customers don’t have to leave a review?
  • Many review clubs have dropped the mandatory review since the updated Amazon review guidelines, so is it okay to use them now?
  • Can I share discount codes within a closed group, for example my Facebook group?
  • Can I give out a coupon code in exchange for signing up for my newsletter?
  • Can a review even be given on a product that was discounted? And if so, what kind of disclaimer should be included so that it complies with Amazon review guidelines and also FTC regulations?

This unclear situation is highly unsatisfactory for sellers, of course, because on the one hand drastic consequences are threatened (terminated account), but on the other hand it isn’t clear what exactly constitutes a violation of the Amazon review policy – leaving room for interpretation.

Can I Still Use Coupon Codes to Boost Sales?

After the ban on incentivized product tests at the beginning of October, review platforms quickly adjusted their model and removed the requirement of leaving a review. Review clubs argued that they should still be able to operate because they aren’t ‘review platforms’ as such anymore. They stressed that generating reviews was only just one aspect: The most important factor has always been generating more sales with coupons and therefore being able to improve one’s organic ranking.

But is boosting organic ranking through coupon codes ‘allowed’?

It appears that Amazon is also targeting unnatural improvements in sales more precisely. Here’s what one seller reported being notified of from Amazon:

If you take a look at the Misuse of Sales Rank guidelines, one new clause jumps out:

amazon review guidelines violations

Amazon is very clear in this case as well about the consequences of violation: Listing removal, suspension from use of Amazon tools, or even revoking a seller’s privilege to sell on Amazon. View the full details here.

Unfortunately they also aren’t clear here what exactly constitutes a violation. When is the use of coupon codes allowed? And under which circumstances are coupon codes prohibited? Doesn’t every coupon code actually increase sales? Why would one use coupon codes otherwise?

What’s an Amazon Seller To Do?

If you’re also selling in Amazon markets outside the USA, then you’re probably wondering when these changes will affect international markets too. Regardless, the situation for sellers is still unsatisfactory on the whole: Drastic consequences are being threatened, but it’s not exactly clear why.

From our perspective, which measures are allowed will only become clear after some sellers report when and how Amazon has taken punitive action – a kind of ‘trial and error’ where the stakes are high. It’s therefore recommended to be extra cautious right now until things become clearer.

It’s safe to say that there has often been room for interpretation left in the changes to Amazon review guidelines in the past. And only later will it be decided how exactly the guidelines will be laid out.

That’s the way Amazon changed its review policy in August 2015 which banned ‘excessive’ use of product testers – causing the seller community to discuss at length how many reviews are considered to be ‘excessive’. Actual consequences for violation of that 2015 policy update were sparsely handed out, if at all, for a long time. It was only a few weeks ago – one year after the initial policy update – that Amazon started to delete the ‘excessive’ reviews.

Amazon has cracked down rather strictly by deleting excessive reviews left by product testers – but how strict will they be when these new guidelines are violated? Will Sellers be given notice and a chance to correct suspicious activity if, for example, they (1) issue a coupon code to a ‘closed’ group, such as Facebook friends or a church group and (2) the large majority of those friends also leave reviews for that (discounted) product of their own free will? Will Amazon investigate such cases, or simply take drastic action such as product listing suspension or account deletion?

We will certainly find out soon.

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