Networking and peripheral gear maker Belkin has found itself in hot water for offering Internet users money to write positive reviews for its products using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system. Belkin has issued an apology, saying a single employee “may” have posted offers to pay for positive reviews via the system…and at the same time Belkin says it has removes all associated postings from Mechanical Turk and is working with its channel partners to remove “any reviews that may have been placed due to these postings.”
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is designed to be a way for companies and organizations to farm out work that’s difficult for computers to do, but comparatively easy for humans to do—so-called Human Intelligence Tasks—and offer a small amount of money for doing the work. Mechanical Turk can be very useful for, say, assaying a large number of street photographs looking for mailboxes or out-of-date signs, transcribing audio recordings, or locate bits of discrete information. Lately, requesters have been using Mechanical Turk for tasks like writing blog entries and reviews, generating content for sites to improve their discoverability via Google and other search engines.
Several tasks on Mechanical Turk offered to pay workers to write positive reviews of Belkin products on partner and retailer Web sites. Workers were urged to “write as if you own the product and are using it,” “tell a story about why you bought the product,” and “thank for website for making you such a great deal.” Workers were also told to mark any negative reviews on the site as “not helpful.”
Obviously, paying to have positive reviews written about products on retailer and consumer review Web sites is unethical. However, the actions also highlight many shortcomings of so-called user-generated content and social media. Sure, sites may enable consumers to post reviews and comments about those products…and as Belkin’s gaffe shows, there’s no real way of knowing whether any of those reviews are anything but fiction and marketing. Welcome to the Web 2.0 world.