Customer reviews can be a useful tool when shopping on Amazon, but as our investigations into fake reviews have revealed, navigating them can be a minefield.
90% of people that had used customer reviews to shop for products in the 12 months to June 2020 had done so via Amazon - but our research has revealed concerning flaws that allow sellers to game the system.
This doesn't mean you should write off customer reviews completely, though. They can be a source of insight and help you when deciding on a product to buy.
Our experts explain some of the more recent changes to Amazon's customer reviews, and reveal how to use the tools provided to shop safely and smartly.
To navigate Amazon reviews effectively, it's helpful to know how they work. There have been several changes in recent years, including the introduction of global reviews and one-tap ratings. The overall star rating on a product is now an amalgamation of these plus traditional written reviews.
In October 2019, Amazon began rolling out one-tap ratings that allow shoppers to submit a star rating with no other detail.
According to analysis by e-commerce specialists Marketplace Pulse, this has resulted in products amassing ratings more quickly and an increase in the average star rating: average reviews per product increased from over 4,000 in 2019 to nearly 25,000 in December 2020 for products in the top 100, while the average rating rose from 4.1 to 4.4 out of 5.
Simple star ratings tell you little about a user's actual experience of a product, and actually digging into customer reviews is important to get a measure of its quality.
To see more detail about the breakdown of reviews versus ratings, you need to look at the full reviews page - which you reach by clicking 'See all reviews' on the product listing.
In 2020, Amazon introduced global ratings to the platform. Sellers can add ratings for a product from reviewers anywhere in the world that the item is sold.
Amazon arranges the reviews so that those from the UK appear first, but in some case very few, if any reviews, may have been written by UK buyers.
We'd recommend checking where the reviews that make up the star rating are from - particularly if the experience of UK-based reviewers is important to you.
There are a variety of ways to tailor the reviews you're viewing on Amazon so you can see those that are the most helpful, as well as spotting any that may not be genuine or that have been incentivised.
Read our top tips to make sure you're seeing the whole picture when shopping around.
Reviews on Amazon aren't automatically sorted by most recent first. The default order takes into account other factors, such as how many people have voted a review as helpful. This means older reviews, such as this one from 2017, may appear before recent ones.
In our fake reviews investigations, we've found sites selling review votes to third-party Amazon sellers. These helpful votes help specific reviews rise to the top, so could be used to hide more recent negative reviews further down in the ordering.
Note the 'Sort by' box near the top of the customer reviews page. This defaults to 'Top reviews', but you can change it to 'Most recent'.
Our research into fake and incentivised reviews has shown that most of the time, there's a demand for flawless, five-star reviews. Reviews that are less positive can therefore be more useful, and open your eyes to any potential problems.
The odd negative review may not mean a lot, but if multiple users have found the same issues, perhaps with a particular element or with how long a product lasts, then that should raise alarm bells.
Amazon helpfully lets you filter reviews by star rating. Once you click through to the 'see all reviews' page, use the drop-down filter to select the star rating you want to look at. Selecting 'all critical' will display all reviews with three stars or fewer.
The search bar above reviews can be a useful way to search for comments about a specific feature you're interested in. If you spot that a few of the reviews cite a problem with, say, the battery life of a product, you can use the search bar for 'battery' to look for other reviews with this issue.
This could also be useful if a particular feature or function is important to you - such as searching 'lightweight' or 'pet hair' on a cordless vacuum cleaner.
Reviewers on Amazon can leave images and videos to accompany a written review, but our research has shown that in some situations, this could be a red flag.
We've also found sites selling reviews in bulk to third-party Amazon sellers that let you request images as part of the package.
Ask yourself how likely it is that a reviewer would have posted an image or video of a product. It may make sense for an item where appearance or size is important, such as clothing, but less so for a bottle of nutritional supplements or a book. Unboxing images or videos - where a reviewer shows off the packaging as well as each feature of a product - can be time consuming to put together.
The number of images can also be telling. If you find yourself scrolling through a gallery with hundreds of photos for a cheap phone cover or charger, consider if all of those reviewers would have left an image without being prompted.
Another way to shop smart on Amazon is to read reviews for the seller of a product, not just the product itself.
Some products are sold by brands through an Amazon storefront, for example via Apple, and others may be sold by Amazon directly. But there are millions of items for sale by third-party sellers, and it can be tricky to know exactly who has listed the product.
On a web browser, you can view the seller on the right-hand side of the screen. We've highlighted this in the example below.
Clicking on the name of the seller takes you to their profile and here you can see where they're based, any feedback that has been left about their service, and the other products they sell.
While many smaller brands that you don't recognise could be honest start-ups trying to find an audience in a crowded market, others attempt to take shortcuts to jump to the top of the listings.
If you don't recognise the brand, check online to see if it has a legitimate-looking website, with clear contact details so you can get in touch if anything goes wrong. Use the tips above to find out who is selling the product, and where it's coming from, too.
Which? research in January 2020 found that four in 10 Amazon customers - people who had been on the website in the six months prior and spotted an Amazon's Choice logo - believe it means a product has been quality-checked by Amazon; 45% of shoppers said they were more likely to purchase a product from Amazon with the badge than without.
According to Amazon, the badge recommends 'highly rated, well-priced products available to dispatch immediately' and it also takes into account the number of products that have been returned.
Our investigation in 2020 revealed that the Amazon's Choice badge had been awarded to potentially poor quality products that appeared to have been artificially . We've also uncovered third-party sites promising sellers a shortcut to an Amazon's Choice badge in just a fortnight.
Rather than taking an Amazon's Choice badge as the ultimate seal of approval, our advice is to use the tips above to interrogate the product listing further before you click buy now.