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Gaming the User Reviews Rating System at Amazon

I’ve been researching and ultimately purchasing a bunch of guitar stuff lately. I’ve shared what I’ve learned in my recent posts, including reviews of major products. Although I’ve looked at major and minor online music sites including Musician’s Friend, Sweetwater, and American Musical Supply, my go to merchant is Amazon. There is a lot that is good about Amazon. But I’m writing about an irritating way Amazon is combining their user reviews in a way that gives you less useful information. They are gaming the system.

Let me start by what is good about Amazon. Their normal return policy is liberal. It is easy to return something you don’t like within their 30-day window. Most online music merchants give you 45 days, so Amazon’s return policy isn’t quite as good as someone like Musician’s Friend most of the year. But from November 1st through December, holiday orders can be returned until the end of January. Thus, if you bought something November 1st of this year, you have a 90-day window to return it.

Besides their return policy, there is Amazon Prime. If you are a member, as I am, you get free 2-day shipping on most items. I usually filter my search results to show only Amazon Prime eligible items. An increasing number of items are available with 1-day shipping. Sometimes you can get an item delivered the same day you order it. And I am getting many items delivered on Sundays. Wow. This is great.

So much for the good things about Amazon.

I recently complained to Amazon about a Joyo effects pedals product page. Joyo pedals are clones of famous effects pedals, made overseas and sold for much less than the real thing. The consensus of the reviews seems to be that these nail the sound of the originals but quality control and ruggedness are sometimes poor. I don’t have a Joyo pedal (yet). This post isn’t about either Joyo or any of their pedals.

My objection to the Amazon product page was that Amazon had aggregated the user reviews for 14 different Joyo products as if all effects pedals from Joyo were identical except for size or color. This is obviously wrong. The result was that the Joyo product page had over a thousand reviews. But as a potential purchaser, I couldn’t tell which ones were rated highly and which weren’t. Further, users who reviewed the product thought their comments would be applied to the item they ordered. It was a rare review that bothered to specify which of the 14 items matched the review. Thus, the comments were worthless in assessing whether to purchase the product.

One example is the Joyo JF-18R Power Tune pedal tuner. If you search user reviews with the Amazon search box on the page for this purpose (over a thousand reviews so you won’t be searching for them manually) there are zero hits. No reviews for “JF-18R” which is how it is listed by Amazon. Over a thousand reviews with an average 3.9-star rating yet the number of reviews for this product is zero. That isn’t how most people would interpret the rating information. There is, of course, no similarity among a pedal tuner, a distortion pedal and tremolo effect except they are all pedal effects. A guitarist might love one Joyo pedal and hate others.

I at first thought this was something done by the seller. I’ve seen it on Amazon for non-music items. When I first saw this aggregation, it seemed fair. Amazon listing pages had aggregated different colors and sizes of the same men’s shirt or different lengths of extension cords or different colors of earbud headphones. All of those are an appropriate use of aggregation.

But I just saw a guitar amplifier listings page for Fender amps sold by Amazon. They’ve done the same thing. They have the Fender Pro Junior, Blues Deluxe, Blues Junior, Extension Cabinet, Hot Rod Deville 212 and Hot Rod Deville 410 amplifiers all listed on the same page with an average rating (at the time of writing) of 3.9-stars out of 87 customer reviews.

The good news is Amazon at least included the size (size here being the size and number of speakers in the cabinet) and style in comment heading for each review. Still, what do 3.9 stars mean if you’re buying an extension cabinet and most of the reviews apply to amplifiers? Does the 5-star review of Hot Rod Deville 410 translate into a positive review for a Pro Junior?

The Joyo page, also sold by Amazon, has been updated, so the products now indicate the color. This sometimes includes the model number and sometimes does not. Maybe Amazon is trying to address my complaint. But so far, it seems this aggregation helps the merchants but has a negative impact on your ability as a potential purchaser to find useful information from product owners who have submitted comments. A high number of reviews doesn’t mean what you think it means. A high star rating is meaningless when it is averaged across products that are significantly different from each other.

Perhaps the product pages are managed by a marketing person who doesn’t know an effect pedal from a power tool. But you and I know the difference. This aggregation of reviews seems like cheating.

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