The Secret World of Amazon’s Power Reviewers

In a Craigslist forum, for example, users spent recent weeks commiserating about their suddenly shrinking review queues. (They were restored shortly after, but posters weren’t happy with how: “Mine has been restocked as well, but with things I don’t need,“ said one. “That’s it — junk.” Another user warned others off a particular brand of chocolates he’d gotten for his wife: “They weren’t even edible and had a strange odor.” They discussed a recent investigation by the website The Verge into Amazon’s treatment of sellers (“great reading and it confirms everything we already know!”). They attempted to troubleshoot minor issues (Amazon’s brand Solimo, which makes a variety of household goods, seems to break the Vine interface for some reason) and major issues (a “technical error” reported last year, which exposed some Amazon users’ data, including email addresses, has created a huge problem for affected Vine reviewers: a flood of emails from overseas sellers attempting to bribe them for reviews and, in some cases, threatening to falsely tell Amazon that they’re doing it anyway). The forum has a resident tax expert.

They talk about the weather, on planets Earth and Amazon. Reviewers are sometimes removed from the program without notice, or are reinstated. Sometimes they’re told they broke rules they didn’t believe they’d broken; other times, forum users are left to assume they’ve been culled by some sort of automated system designed to root out fraud, only to be brought back days later, after appeal.

They’re also friends. K.T. described the old Vine forums as cliquish, and then, in their final days, gripped, like so many communities online, by politics. “They were all liberal, and a few of us weren’t, so they made an assumption that I support Trump,” she said, and that was that. She helps moderate one of the Goodreads forums now. It’s calmer. “‘What’s your life like?’ ‘What do you do?’ Then general happy stuff,” she said. “There’s a photo gallery thread for a member who is a great photographer.”

“We are the same as any quilter’s group, or book club, that meets or chats about whatever common interests they enjoy,” she said. These are her Vine people. The other Goodreads forum has its Vine people too, and they all have Vine, and Amazon has them all.

“From a sky-high view, the reason Amazon is so successful is that it’s easy for people to find things on Amazon,” said Rachel Johnson Greer, a former Amazon employee of eight years, and currently the managing partner of Cascadia Seller Solutions, a firm that helps sellers on Amazon’s Marketplace.

But the pool of products Amazon now draws from is, in most categories, large and not readily countable. And so, as with Google search results, getting your product on the first page of results for a specific term — or giving it a chance of floating upward in one of the site’s countless recommendation or discovery mechanisms — is crucial. In its earliest days, Amazon operated in plainer view: Products were categorized, then found by customers, then reviewed by customers. The good stuff ranked higher, the junk drifted out of view. Now, when customers don’t just have countless alternatives to a particular product but multiple ways on the site to buy the same product, even a potentially beloved product needs a leg up.