by Arlen Parsa
Late Friday night, I published a blog entry exposing how Belkin employee Mike Bayard had been paying people $0.65 for each positive review they wrote of his company’s products on sites like Amazon.com. The item caused a firestorm, with users from Slashdot, Digg, Crunch Gear, Engadget, Gizmodo and dozens of other sites decrying the obviously unethical behavior. My web server even temporarily went down, it got so much attention.
Less than 48 hours later, Belkin’s president Mark Reynoso responded to my report, saying that “this is an isolated incident” and that “Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this.” I can add that I’ve independently verified that Amazon has taken action to remove what it believes were fake comments on product listing pages for a specific Belkin router.
Now, thanks to an anonymous tip left in the comments section of one of my posts, there is fresh evidence of potential wrongdoing on the part of Mr Bayard, Belkin’s Amazon.com sales rep. The commenter suggested that Mr Bayard could be using multiple pseudonyms of his own to post positive reviews of Belkin products.
I’ve now looked into it, and it appears that this may indeed have been occurring. Around the exact same time that Mr Bayard started paying people to write fake reviews using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, it appears that Mr Bayard used an Amazon.com account called “B. Ekim” (whose nickname was listed, subtly, as “mikebayard”) to give Belkin products five star ratings and review them– without acknowledging that he was in fact in charge of Belkin’s dealings with the mega e-tailer.
Above: A list of reviews which appear to be written by Mr Bayard under two pseudonyms. All of them were for Belkin products; all of them were 5 out of 5 stars.
One of the reviews he posted under this pseudonym was for a Belkin TuneCast, an FM receiver for iPods. The product has gotten 23 one-star reviews from customers who said it was “a very poor product” and “very disappointing.” Mr Bayard’s review, one of only two five star reviews for the product, said it “it exceeded my expectations, and was a lot of fun for us to use.” 3 out of 7 users said they found his input helpful when making their purchasing decision. Click here to see a screenshot of this review (note especially the rankings the product has received from other users, as show in the far right side of the screen).
On another product’s page, he wrote, “I think this thing is really cool and worth every penny.”
Another account with the name “R. Wood” (nickname “rudomag”) was found to have done little other than rate Belkin’s products the highest rating possible. The same user also uploaded to Amazon dozens of the same promotional product images also found on Belkin’s website, and the nickname “rudomag” can be traced to positive reviews of Belkin products elsewhere online, at sites like PriceGrabber.
So it appears that Mr Bayard’s wrong-doing was more extensive than the company has acknowledged, although I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they don’t know about these additional apparent cases of his astroturfing (although they do now, as I just shared with them these fresh findings in an email). As the anonymous blog commenter who pointed this out to me wrote, it “looks like Belkin and Amazon still have more clean up to do.”
Update: As noted by someone in the comments section, one of the Amazon.com profiles has been scrubbed. Not surprising.