Amazon has an invitation-only club for a small percentage of elite reviewers.

Amazon Vine is an invitation-only club for a small percentage of elite reviewers.

  • Amazon's terms of service prohibit sellers from offering users products for free in exchange for reviews.
  • The only reviews that can be incentivized must come through Amazon's own Vine program. It's an invitation-only club for a small percentage of elite reviewers, selected by Amazon.
  • Some sellers' forums cite it as costing as much as $1,000 per product for vendors to participate in Amazon Vine.

Amazon's terms of service aim to keep vendors from incentivizing reviews, but a little-known service run by the site does just that for sellers who are willing to pay for it.

Known as Amazon Vine, this invitation-only club for a small percentage of elite reviewers, selected by Amazon, aims to prevent biased reviews on the site. Reviewers are sent products and asked for honest feedback, with no direct dialogue between the sellers and reviewers. Vendors "cannot modify, influence, or edit the reviews," according to Amazon's terms.

A spokesperson for Amazon explained the Vine service in a statement to Business Insider:

"We do not promise positive reviews by participating in Vine. We do not incentivize positive star ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews or even require a review to be written. And, we limit the total number of Vine reviews that we display for each product. Vine has important controls in place and has proven to be especially valuable for getting early reviews on new products that have not yet been able to generate enough sales to have significant numbers of organic reviews."

Amazon has not allowed users to be compensated — in the form of free or discounted products — for writing reviews since October 2016, when it changed its terms of service.

While monetary compensation has never been allowed, the revised terms prevent businesses from offering products for free in exchange for supposedly "honest" reviews.

Having a high volume of positive customer reviews is important to sellers because it helps to improve conversion rates and bring their products higher up in Amazon's search results.

"The terms-of-service change was a tough day," iLoveToReview's former CEO, Keith O'Brien, told Business Insider.

Founded in 2014, iLoveToReview was a service for third-party sellers that offered consumers free or heavily discounted products in exchange for reviews, a practice that would previously fall within Amazon's terms.

"We were the first to do it in the world," O'Brien said, adding that the company's practices were so above board that it "would have opened the doors to Amazon and [shown] them our business at any time."

The changes to Amazon's terms of service meant iLoveToReview had to close up shop.

Now, the only reviews that can be incentivized must come through Amazon's own Vine program. This might seem like a more credible option, but there is a catch: Amazon charges vendors an enrollment fee on a per product basis to participate in the Vine program.

O'Brien told Business Insider that the Vine review system could cost as much as $2,500 per product, and that this fee is paid directly to Amazon. On top of this, vendors have to provide the items for review and cover the costs of shipping them to Amazon. The only cost Amazon incurs is in shipping these products to its Vine reviewers, or "Vine Voices."

Reviews that were written by Vine Voices appear in green font.

For newer sellers, Amazon has a second system in place: the Early Reviewer Program. Again, vendors need to pay for this service. According to O'Brien and various online sellers' forums, it costs vendors $60 per product to participate. Amazon declined to comment on the specific costs of the Early Reviewer Program.

The reviewers' incentives for this program are somewhat less enticing. The reviewers must have purchased the item in question themselves, and then Amazon will reach out to customers directly (provided they have no history of dishonest reviews), and ask them to leave a review. If they do, they will be rewarded with a $1 to $3 Amazon gift card.