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Amazon Reviews Are About To Get A Major Overhaul

06/22/2015 11:49 am ET
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Amazon's turning to artificial intelligence to make more sense of human reviews.

A new update to the company's customer review system will automatically recognize "helpful" product reviews and give them more weight, an Amazon spokeswoman told The Huffington Post. CNET on Friday was the first to report on this change.

Under the new system, which is already rolling out, the best reviews are those that are recent, written by people who purchased the product from Amazon and frequently cited as "helpful" by Amazon users. Such posts will now have greater influence over an item's overall "star" rating, which was previously an average of an item's starred reviews.

For example, if you were in the market for the third volume of an old "Justice League" comic book, you might notice its overall rating of 4.2 stars is a perfect average of the stars given by its 13 reviewers. Under the new system, this item might actually display a higher rating, because the lowest review -- one star -- was not written by someone who actually purchased the book from Amazon.com, and nearly half of the 53 people who interacted with that review said it was not helpful.

You can see why this would be appealing: If Amazon can give greater weight to "legitimate" reviews, then publishers can worry less about people gaming the system with a flood of junky reviews. Amazon has tried to crack down on such reviews in the past, going so far as to sue a number of websites that allow individuals to purchase positive coverage.

The new system is also bound to make companies happy because, as The Guardian notes, if one releases a flawed product that's later updated, reviews focusing on the outdated version will be given less weight than newer reviews.

Many Amazon users won't see a major difference right away. The company says that it's introducing the new feature gradually, and it won't change which items you see on the Amazon homepage. Company spokeswoman Julie Law told The Huffington Post that the system also doesn't impact which items come up when you search on Amazon, unless you specifically sort by review scores.

That said, there are some interesting implications to the new update. Amazon's dipped its toe into automated product recommendations with "Amazon's Choice," a new service that suggests specific brands if a user asks for a general product. (It might sell you Aquafresh if you ask for toothpaste, for example.) Amazon has said that product ratings affect those recommendations, at least in part. If actual, human reviews play a larger role in shaping ratings, Amazon's Choice could feel a bit less like a faceless corporation arbitrarily peddling wares to the masses.

As for those humans who write the reviews: They don't seem worried about the update.

"It has no effect on how I review products," Amazon Hall-of-Famer Ali Julia told HuffPost via email. "All I can do is do the best to describe my experience with the products and show videos that illustrate the pluses and minuses of each product that I review."

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