Episode 492: M. Erb's Amazon Empire : Planet Money Michael Erb has reviewed more than 800 products on Amazon — everything from a telescope to facial wipes. Why does he do it?
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Episode 492: M. Erb's Amazon Empire

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Episode 492: M. Erb's Amazon Empire

Episode 492: M. Erb's Amazon Empire

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

I am the old guy here at Planet Money, and back in my day, we used to shop in stores. There were these places we would go, and whatever you wanted to buy, you had to buy from a store. And the thing that influenced what we bought in those stores sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) There's more for your life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Here's (unintelligible) too, VCRs and big-screen views.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) There's more for your life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) At Sears.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In store for you.

SMITH: Sears.

LISA CHOW, HOST:

Yeah, Robert, I think you should check out a place called amazon.com.

SMITH: Yeah, I've heard of it.

CHOW: You know, you don't have listen to these cheesy ads. You actually look at something called customer reviews instead. You know, how many stars a product gets. Or there's actually these long detailed breakdowns of how sturdy a lunch box is, or video reviews like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL ERB: Hi, this is Michael. And I am absolutely thrilled to be able to tell you my experience with the Altec Lansing IMW725 inMotion Air speaker.

SMITH: This is Michael Erb. He is a reviewer on amazon.com. And you would think from this review, just listening to it, this guy knows his speakers. He is a geeky audiophile.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. ERB: I have owned a lot of speakers over the years, and this baby right here is absolutely one of the most amazing speakers I have ever seen. And actually...

CHOW: But if you spend much time on Amazon, you'll find out Michael has lots of obsessions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. ERB: Hi, this is Michael. And this is my review of the Bale (ph) Decor 16-inch spy glass or telescope.

SMITH: OK, he is an audiophile who also happens to like to look at stars. So that actually makes sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. ERB: Hi, this is Michael. And this is a review of Simple exfoliating facial wipes.

SMITH: OK, OK, I get it. This guy will review anything.

CHOW: Right? I mean, I became obsessed with Amazon reviews recently because Michael is part of a very strange select club of people. I mean, they're not paid by Amazon. These are people who clearly spend vast amounts of time hanging around on the site and writing and recording in excruciating detail...

SMITH: Yeah, I could tell.

CHOW: ...Reviews. And I wanted to figure out why, what motivates these people. This week, Michael became the number one reviewer on Amazon. I called him up, and he wasn't kidding about the speakers.

M. ERB: I have so many Bluetooth speakers it's ridiculous. And power banks. I've got enough lithium ion batteries in my house to blow up a city block (laughter).

CHOW: Hello, and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Lisa Chow.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today, we are going to go deep into Michael Erb's world. Now, 20 years ago, his obsession, really, online product reviews, this job did not even exist. And now Michael Erb is a big player in the new internet economy. He's sort of this modern-day Don Draper, a guy who can make or break products with just a few words. A man who is courted. A man who is feared. And we'll figure out why he does it all for free - kind of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP RATED")

ICONA POP: (Singing) Always been top rated. You think you can change it? Think that you can change it?

CHOW: So Michael Erb lives in the suburbs of Syracuse, N.Y. He's 59 years old. He works as a wedding DJ and a web designer. And we played a few of his video reviews, but that's only a tiny fraction of Michael's amazon.com life. He has written more than 850 reviews. And he's meticulous and thorough. He updates his reviews when people ask, for example, how products are holding up over time.

M. ERB: There are some days where I start reviewing products as soon as I'm up in the morning. So let's say 8 o'clock. I will review products all day long. And by 6 o'clock, I may be done or I may have a couple more to do.

SMITH: Eight a.m. to 6 p.m., which sounds like a full-time job, you know? And in fact, he says he approaches it like a professional reviewer. But once again, Michael does not get paid by amazon.com. He's not allowed to get paid. Manufacturers will send him products just so he can try them out, though.

M. ERB: I have to admit it has probably caused a little bit of a strain on my marriage because my wife goes crazy. You know, literally every other day there's UPS boxes piled up at the door.

CHOW: So, of course, I have to talk to Michael's wife.

LINDA ERB: Hello, this is Linda.

CHOW: She tells me they've actually gotten into heated arguments about whether to buy a bigger house.

L. ERB: I mean, our kitchen looks like a film production studio when I come home from work. And then I have to have this little talk with him about cleaning off a place for us to have dinner on the table where he's been recording all of his things. I'll come home and there'll be free power juicers on the countertop and all these bright lights shining and (laughter), you know, microphones set up. And it's - it is getting kind of crazy, so we think maybe we're going to have to just redo our basement and make that his testing area.

CHOW: So Michael wasn't always this obsessed. His first Amazon review was 13 years ago, when he panned a book on stock options. He waited two years to write his second review. Now he says on average, he reviews two, maybe three products a day.

SMITH: And, you know, that ramping up of his reviewing - he's basically doing it from 9 to 5 every day - this creates enormous value for a company like Amazon because the more a product is reviewed, and you assume the more positively a product is reviewed, the more likely people are going to click on it. They're going to buy it. They're going to have that instant gratification. And in fact, someone at Amazon told us that even having one or two negative reviews is better than a product that has no reviews whatsoever. So clearly, we know what Amazon gets out of this. They get money. But what does Michael get out of it? I mean, he gets maybe a few extra power juicers, But, how many of those do you need?

CHOW: Right, right. In talking to Michael, I found out that, you know, Amazon has been very shrewd about the way they've set up their reviewer program. So they have a bunch of tricks that make reviewers like Michael stick around and want to do this all day long.

SMITH: The first thing that Amazon has harnessed,

SMITH: we've noticed, is a natural sense of competition. Now, I never really looked before closely at the reviewers. But if you click on a reviewer's name, and you go to their profile, there's a little tiny number there. It's called the top reviewer ranking. And normally when you click on a review, it's something like 2,000,547 - you know, whatever. Who cares? But Michael says that as he did this more and more, he started to notice his number leaping up sometimes dramatically. And then he hit number 250. And all of a sudden this guy was hooked.

M. ERB: And that's when I really started paying a little more attention to rank and where I was and how fast I was moving up. And I started moving up in pretty big chunks. And I think it was just because I was writing so many reviews, and they were also being deemed helpful by people.

SMITH: And, you know, Amazon was pretty clever here because they didn't just rank people by the number of reviews that they made because anyone could just stay up all night and churn those out. That's way too simple. You could game that system, and it doesn't allow new reviewers to sort of climb up the ladder, so they made it much more complex. They made it a mystery.

CHOW: It was like Amazon wanted to fuel the competition. I called up the number-three ranked reviewer Alana Chandler.

ALANA CHANDLER: There's an algorithm that Amazon has that we don't all know which is actually a good thing because people can't beat it if they just want to rise up. We know that it has something to do with your helpfulness rating. I've got over a thousand reviews, and I've got a 97 percent helpful rating on my review. So we know that's very important.

SMITH: These people go crazy for this number.

CHOW: Right. In talking to Michael and Alana, it became clear to me that people can get extremely competitive about their rankings.

SMITH: Sure. Yeah.

CHOW: Some people actually use dirty tricks against each other.

M. ERB: They're jockeying for position. They think if they can vote you down, that's going to help raise them up. And they can call their friends, and they go, hey, vote this guy unhelpful or they can create a fake account of their own. We believe that there's a lot of people that have multiple accounts that they've created just so they can vote different ways either to help themselves or to punish somebody else.

SMITH: And once again, this is just a little number that Amazon puts on their reviewer. Review ranking - it's absolutely meaningless, but it is a great thing for Amazon. I mean, these reviewers are almost addicted to it.

CHOW: Now, there's a second thing that keeps them working hard for Amazon - respect.

SMITH: Yeah. These reviewers - they might not be considered power brokers, you know. Maybe they're not the mayor of their town or even like a mover-shaker in their community. But once you get into the top echelon of Amazon reviewers, you actually get fan letters. And you get this feeling - which must be an amazing feeling, I've never felt it myself - of being able to change the economic marketplace, to change the landscape of America with a single review.

CHOW: That's absolutely true. For example, Alana Chandler became famous for a review that she wrote in 2009 when she compared several steam mops side by side.

SMITH: Wait a steam mop? Like the...

CHOW: Steam mops.

SMITH: Like you'd use on your kitchen floor?

CHOW: Yes.

CHANDLER: Now the funny thing was the number one steam mop at that time was actually the worst performer. But they had spent a great deal on marketing and making it look like it was all steamy. And then one that just had no reviews, nobody knew about was truly the best steam mop. And after the comparison - and I'm sure it can be based on whatever - but from then on, that one that was the worst seller is now the number-one seller on Amazon.

CHOW: Wow. Yeah. No, I mean, what does it feel like to have that kind of power?

CHANDLER: It's actually kind of weird because I've actually had companies, you know - when I talked about that tartar control dog treat...

SMITH: A tartar control dog treat?

CHOW: Yes. Alana reviewed a tartar control dog treat, and she alerted others to the fact that sugar was a key ingredient. And after her review came out, the company, she says...

CHANDLER: They did change their formula once it was pointed out to consumers.

SMITH: Wow.

CHOW: Yeah.

SMITH: Wow.

CHOW: It's power.

SMITH: All you have to do is type. Yeah. So Amazon hooks them with this sense of power. It hooks them with this really fake sense of competition, but we found out something you may not know which is that Amazon has a third way to keep reviewers competing against each other, maybe the most important way.

CHOW: And for the most part it's an extremely well-kept secret. So some reviewers are invited into a club, a very special club, called Vine.

SMITH: Vine - V-I-N-E.

CHOW: Yes. When I first learned about it, I asked three people who you might expect to know more than me, an Amazon seller. Euri Goodkin (ph). Have you ever heard of Amazon's Vine program?

EURI GOODKIN: I have no idea what that is.

CHOW: I asked a Yelp executive Andrea Rubin about Vine.

ANDREA RUBIN: I'm not too familiar with that.

CHOW: I even went to an NYU professor who studies customer reviews. His name is an Innendo Gush (ph). Do you know about the Vine program?

ANINDYA GHOSE: This is the Amazon verified purchases, right?

CHOW: Well, no.

SMITH: No, it is not the Amazon verified purchases. If you want to know about Vine, you have to ask somebody in the club. Michael Erb knows about it. He has a little Vine symbol next to his name on Amazon.

M. ERB: It's kind of like Fight Club. You know, you don't talk about it (laughter).

CHOW: Michael says he received his invitation in the form of an email in the fall of 2008.

M. ERB: I almost overlooked the email. It was actually in my spam folder.

SMITH: Good thing he didn't because in that email, Amazon was asking to join an exclusive invitation-only club, a way for Amazon to basically - this is me saying this - but it's basically to bribe its reviewers to write more reviews. Every third Thursday of the month, Amazon sends Michael a list of products.

M. ERB: At exactly 3 p.m. the list goes online, and I'm then able to choose up to two items from the list that Amazon will then send me for free. And my only obligation is that I need to write a review of those two items within 30 days. That's the new policy, and I get to keep the items after I review them.

CHOW: A week later Michael gets

CHOW: another list this time of leftover items. And he can pick another two things.

M. ERB: I've had everything from very cheap ear buds to $500 multifunction laser printers. I've gotten spin bike, which is probably valued at close to a thousand dollars.

CHOW: How much value would you say that you've gotten over the years that you've been in this program?

M. ERB: Oh, my. I mean, if you were just to add it all up, it's probably thousands of dollars worth of stuff.

SMITH: For free. Michael Erb is basically being paid for reviews with free merchandise, and the weird thing about it is that his reviews are still labeled customer reviews, even if he didn't buy the product. And Amazon doesn't require Michael to disclose in his review that he got the stuff for free. Now, if he got a power juicer from a manufacturer, he actually has to disclose that. But if the product comes through Amazon through their Vine program, that's kosher. There's no need to mention it because Amazon says they put a little symbol Vine Voice next to his name.

CHOW: Now, Amazon does put some rules on those freebies.

M. ERB: I technically don't own any of this stuff.

CHOW: Michael says the agreement with Amazon is that they retain the right to ask for the products back.

M. ERB: And I can't give it away or I can't sell it. I can't even give it to my wife technically. I - it's for me only. And if I don't want it anymore after a certain period of time, I have to, you know, throw it out, destroy it.

SMITH: Did Amazon ever ask for any of its stuff back?

CHOW: No. Michael tells me in the five years that he's been in the program, Amazon has never asked for anything back.

SMITH: So he kind of owns them.

CHOW: Yeah. It's a pretty sweet deal. But remember that Professor I talked to who studies consumer reviews, that NYU professor Anindya Ghose?

SMITH: Yeah. He didn't know about the program.

CHOW: Right. He didn't know about the program. I told him about the program and when he heard about it, he was pretty shocked. He thought if people are getting free stuff, they're probably more likely to write positive reviews.

GHOSE: As humans, we are hard-wired to give in to this sort of, you know, enticement where if you continue to get things for free, then you're more likely to be biased positively than biased negatively.

CHOW: I talked to another professor at Cornell, Trevor Pinch. He says he believes the main problem is one of transparency.

TREVOR PINCH: It's not known to most customers who go to Amazon, and they read these reviews which they think are customer reviews that they're not actually written a percentage of them by genuine customers. They've been written by people who've given - been given the stuff for free on the Amazon Vine program.

CHOW: So lots of questions for Amazon, so I called up Amazon.

JULIE LAW: This is Julie Law with Amazon.

CHOW: Julie is a company spokesperson, and she answered our NYU professor's question. She says, no, Vine reviewers aren't writing positively biased reviews.

LAW: One interesting thing about the Vine program is that those Vine Voices actually on average have a lower rating than another average reviewer.

CHOW: Interesting. She also says that in the scheme of the millions of Amazon reviews, the number of Vine reviews are very small. But she wouldn't tell me the number, so then I raised the issue of transparency.

Even though, there's a Vine badge next to the reviewers' names, if you click on that badge, it just says that these reviewers are getting advance soon-to-be-released products. And then when I talked to the reviewers, they told me, well, actually we're getting lots of products that are already released. And it doesn't say anything about the fact that they actually are getting these products for free that they're not paying for these products.

LAW: It says right on the help page for Amazon Vine that they - Vine members receive free products that have been submitted to the program by participating vendors and that Vine reviews are independent opinions of the Vine Voices. There's no way to influence modify or edit those reviews. And a Vine review is identified with that green stripe.

SMITH: It seems like Law kept referring to this Amazon help page, but even if you go to the Amazon help page, you have to really look for information on Vine. You have to scroll down and dig deep to find just a little summary of the program. And, I mean, you can - you could Google the vine program. There are a few things have been written about it, but the only way to google it is to know it's out there in the first place. The thing that sticks with me is that whatever Michael Erb is - professional, not a professional, top reviewer, you know, Vine program - he's clearly not a customer. When he talks about all those Bluetooth speakers filling his house, does he know what it's like to spend $300 on a crappy Bluetooth speaker and that sense of disappointment? He may have lost the sense of what it means to like truly be someone who spends money on products.

CHOW: OK. So I'm going to come to Michael's defense. Here's a guy who has written hundreds of reviews. Yeah, maybe he didn't pay for those products, but he knows those products. He's become an expert in those products, comparing different brands across all sorts of product categories. And Amazon customers are voting his reviews helpful, so he must know something.

SMITH: Well, we'll leave it to the true customers out there of amazon.com to determine whether he is doing them a favor or not, but I think we can agree on this. The real winner in all of this is amazon.com.

M. ERB: It's almost as a double standard in a way. Like, Amazon says we can't be paid for our reviews, but yet they are indirectly making tons of money off my reviews because they're getting a piece of the action of everything that's sold off their website, and the companies are benefiting, possibly, from my reviews or not if it's negative. But, yeah, it seems like I'm the only one who's not getting a piece of the action (laughter).

SMITH: Well, I mean, he's getting a little piece of the action. He's getting a lot of lithium batteries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP RATED")

ICONA POP: (Singing) Try and take me down. I'll be right up.

SMITH: As always, we love to hear what you think of Planet Money. You can send us email planetmoney@npr.org.

CHOW: Or you can find us on Facebook, Spotify, Twitter. I'm Lisa Chow. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP RATED")

ICONA POP: (Singing) Top, top, top, top rated, rated. Try and take me down. I'll be right up. 'Cause you aim too low, and I've had enough...

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