You're on Amazon.com. You're buying, say, a toaster, and you're checking out the customer reviews. You assume the people writing these reviews are people like you — people who wanted a toaster, went online and bought one. As it turns out, a lot of reviews on Amazon are written by people who are nothing like you. They're written by elite reviewers who are sent free merchandise to review products. In other words, it's possible that the guy reviewing that toaster you're looking at wasn't in the market for a toaster to begin with and didn't pay a cent for it.
As of Tuesday, Michael Erb was the No. 1 customer reviewer on Amazon. He has reviewed everything from doorbells to travel mugs to toothbrushes. "I have so many Bluetooth speakers, it's ridiculous," he told me. "I've got enough lithium ion batteries in my house to blow up a city block."
As Erb has risen up the ranks among Amazon reviewers, the stream of free stuff has grown because manufacturers have started sending stuff directly to him to review. "I have to admit it has probably caused a little bit of a strain on my marriage because my wife goes crazy," he says. "Literally every other day there's UPS boxes piled up at the door."
Erb is a member of Amazon Vine, an invitation-only program for the site's top reviewers. At least once a month, Amazon sends Erb a list of products. He gets to choose any two items from the list. "My only obligation is that I need to write a review of those two items within 30 days," Erb told me. "And I get to keep the items after I review them."
Like other top reviewers, Erb says he reviews so many products because he likes sharing his knowledge and getting feedback from other customers. Amazon also fuels competition among reviewers by making their rankings public. And top reviewers do get a lot of free stuff.
Through Vine, Erb has received everything from cheap earbuds (worth a few bucks) to multifunction laser printers (retail price about $500) to a spin bike (worth almost $1,000). In all, he says, he's received thousands of dollars worth of merchandise through the program.
Amazon does have some rules on the freebies. Erb can't sell the products or give them away. In fact, Amazon can ask for the stuff back any time it wants. But in the five years Erb has been in the program, Amazon has never asked for anything back.
Anindya Ghose, an NYU professor who studies consumer reviews, said Vine members might review things more positively than people who had to pay for their stuff.
"As humans we are hard-wired to give in to this sort of enticement where if you continuously get things for free, then you're more likely to be biased positively than biased negatively," he said.
But Julie Law, an Amazon spokeswoman, told me Vine reviews have fewer stars, on average, than other reviewers on the site. (Correction: An earlier version of this sentence said Law said Vine reviews are more negative than other reviews.)
Law said the Vine program was created to deal with some of the inherent challenges in customer reviews. For example, if someone has a bad experience with shipping or a particular seller, their review may be more about that specific experience than about the product itself. So Amazon works with the site's most trusted reviewers to populate the site with more useful reviews. Even a product with negative reviews sells better than a product with no reviews at all.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Whether or not you read them, the customer reviews on retailers websites have enormous value, mostly for the company. The more a product is reviewed, the more likely it is that people will buy that product and the more money companies such as Amazon make. So the benefits of online reviews are obvious for retailers, but what's in it for the most prolific reviewers? For Amazon's top reviewers, the benefits are tangible.
Lisa Chow of NPR's Planet Money team tracks down Amazon's top reviewer and learned that Amazon has a special program for its top-rated reviewers.
LISA CHOW, BYLINE: You're on Amazon.com. You're buying a toaster, and you're checking out the customer reviews. You might think the people writing these reviews are people like you, people who wanted a toaster, went online and bought one. It turns out, a lot of reviews on Amazon are from people who are not like you.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO REVIEW)
MICHAEL ERB: Hi, this is Michael and I am absolutely thrilled to be able to tell you my experience with the Altec Lansing IMW725 inMotion Air Speaker. I have...
CHOW: This is a video review of a Bluetooth speaker. It's eight minutes long and it's by Michael Erb. Erb has reviewed everything from doorbells to travel mugs to cardboard boxes, and he's meticulous. He updates his reviews when people ask how the products are holding up over time. Last week, he rose to become Amazon's number one ranked reviewer.
I called him up at his home outside of Syracuse, New York.
ERB: There are some days where I start reviewing products as soon as I'm up in the morning, so let's say 8 o'clock. I will review products all day long.
CHOW: Erb is 59 years old and works as a wedding DJ and Web designer. And he wasn't always this obsessed. His first Amazon review was 13 years ago when he panned a book on stock options. He waited two years to write his second review. Now, he says, he reviews on average two, maybe three products a day.
He says he does it for the same reasons other reviewers give. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and getting feedback from customers. Amazon also fuels the competition among reviewers by making their rankings public. But there's something else, he says, that really ramped up his reviewing.
ERB: It's kind of like Fight Club, you know. You don't talk about it.
CHOW: In the fall of 2008, Amazon had asked Erb to join an exclusive invitation-only club called Vine. So every third Thursday of the month, Amazon sends Erb a list of products.
ERB: At exactly 3:00 P.M., the list goes online and I'm then able to choose up to two items from the list.
CHOW: Which companies will send to Erb for free.
ERB: And my only obligation is that I need to write a review of those two items within 30 days and I get to keep the items after I review them.
CHOW: A week later, Erb gets another list, this time of leftover items and he can pick another two things for free.
ERB: I've had everything from very cheap earbuds to $500 multifunction laser printers. I've gotten Spin Bike, which is probably valued at close to $1,000.
CHOW: How much value would you say that you've gotten over the years you've been in the program?
ERB: Oh, my. I mean, if you were just to add it all up, it's probably thousands of dollars worth of stuff.
CHOW: But Erb says, Amazon retains the right to ask for the products back. A tax lawyer told me, otherwise Vine reviewers might have to pay taxes on all the free stuff they've received. Not exactly a good way for Amazon to incentivize reviews. In the five years Erb has been in the program, Amazon has never asked for anything back. But it does have some rules on the free stuff.
ERB: I can't give it away or I can't sell it. I can't even give it to my wife, technically. It's for me only and if I don't want it anymore after a certain period of time, I have to, you know, throw it out, destroy it.
CHOW: Since I had never heard of Vine, I reached out to some people I thought would know more. An Amazon seller, an executive at the review site Yelp, and a marketing professor who studies consumer reviews. None of them know about Vine. After I explained the program to NYU professor Anindya Ghose, he said he believed Amazon offering free products in exchange for reviews would likely bias the reviewers.
ANINDYA GHOSE: As humans we are hard-wired to give in to this sort of, you know, enticement where if you continuously get things for free, then you're more likely to be biased positively than biased negatively.
CHOW: On certain products I looked at, from a $14 box of Lipton Natural Energy Tea to $190 Oral-B Electric Toothbrush, Vine members had (technical difficulties) in all the reviews as of today. That's because Amazon seeks out products that have no or few reviews and invites the makers of those products to offer them to Vine members.
The goal? To increase the sales activity on those items. Ghose says this undermines the credibility of a customer review platform.
GHOSE: Look, there are no reviews on certain products because no one's buying them. And no one's buying them possibly because it's not a high quality or good quality product. The absence of reviews is a signal and the fact that a platform would try and sway that one way or the other by seeding people with reviews, I'm not convinced that's the right strategy.
CHOW: I also reached out Trevor Pinch, a professor at Cornell who knew about Amazon's Vine program. Back in 2008, he surveyed more than 150 of Amazon's top reviewers and found that two-thirds of them were getting free products through Vine. He says his problem with the program is that it's not totally transparent.
TREVOR PINCH: It's not known to most customers who go to Amazon. They read these reviews which they think are customer reviews and they're not actually written, a percentage of them, by genuine customers.
CHOW: So I called Amazon. Julie Law is a company spokesperson. She told me, contrary to the first professor's belief, Vine reviewers are not positively biased. They actually give lower star ratings that the average reviewers on the site.
JULIE LAW: Our theory is that it's because they take that role so seriously to give as much sort of unbiased perspective on reviewing that product.
CHOW: She said the Vine program was created to deal with the inherent challenges in customer reviews. For example, if someone had a late shipment or is frustrated with a particular seller, their review may be more about that specific experience than about the product itself. So Amazon decided to work with reviewers who customers had voted most helpful to populate the site with more useful reviews.
Law said in the scheme of the millions of Amazon reviews, the number of Vine reviews is very small. But she wouldn't tell me that number. Then, I raised the issue of transparency, that most people I spoke to didn't even know that some reviewers were getting free products.
LAW: It says right on the help page for Amazon Vine that the Vine members receive free products that have been submitted to the program by participating vendors and that Vine reviews are independent opinion of the Vine voices. There's no way in influence, modify or edit those reviews.
CHOW: Law's right, that the information is there. But Amazon doesn't exactly put it front and center. In other words, if you're not looking for it, you might not find it. One thing's for sure. Amazon benefits enormously from getting these reviewers to review more stuff because Law told me even a product with negative reviews sells better than a product with no reviews at all. Lisa Chow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.