NPR’s Planet Money profiled Michael Erb, an upstate New York wedding DJ who has a lot of free time on weekdays to review things. He reviews them thoroughly, and site users find his work very useful. His 900 reviews have made him currently the #1 reviewer on Amazon. It also entitles him to be part of Amazon’s Vine program.
Amazon Vine is a program that identifies the site’s top reviewers and sends them new stuff to review. Vine members report receiving everything from e-book downloads to appliances worth thousands of dollars. They’re not supposed to sell these items, and have to give them back to Amazon if asked. (Amazon rarely, if ever, asks.)
The NPR team seems uncomfortable with the Vine concept, wondering whether receiving items for free might color reviewers’ opinions, even if they insist that they have no conscious bias at all. (Consumer Reports, which buys all items that it reviews in retail stores, would agree.) Amazon claims that the company’s own analysis shows that Vine reviews tend to have fewer stars than those belonging to people who purchased the item.
In a way, this makes sense: if you’ve received ten Bluetooth speakers, you can compare their features in a way that isn’t really possible when you’ve only experienced one type of speaker. Even if some of those speakers were free, you can still compare, contrast, and identify the crappy ones.