Doug Brown is the founder of the supplement analysis and fitness website Muxcle.com. He is a British-born supplement expert and has examined over 1,000 health supplements throughout the years.
Recently, Muxcle published a full 8,500 word report into Supplement reviews on Amazon (linked here) to see how much you should trust them as a consumer. We interviewed Doug to discuss this and more.
Before we get begin, why did you start Muxcle.com?
Doug: Supplements have always been a passion of mine since I first started exercising. I really enjoy looking for that perfect (supplement) stack that your body really responds to.
I used to discuss it with my friends, and realised very quickly that they were choosing their supplements off the reputation of the brand, rather than the actual ingredients. They didn’t have the knowledge to make an informed decision based on the facts alone.
I started Muxcle.com to break down the ingredients and servings in mainstream supplements, and make it so that everyone could understand what they are taking and if it lives up to the claims being made.
Not enough people read the labels on supplements. It’s a lot of work to research, and most people are too busy to keep up with the new studies and information out there. They see the bottle, like what they hear and buy. Sadly, most of the time the companies behind these products are more than happy to let that happen rather than explain what’s actually going into their products.
So, why the Amazon Review article?
Doug: Because we’ve noticed a similar trend through Amazon reviews. Again, people don’t have time to do all the research, so they see what other people are saying about it. Most of these supplements are on Amazon, so that’s where people look the most.
However, we started to see a trend in reviews to the point that it looked manipulated. They weren’t being left by other customers, they were the handiwork of sellers trying to encourage potential customers to buy.
The further we looked into it, the more we found. It was interesting to begin with, but it slowly began to be more and more shocking.
What’s the most shocking thing you saw during your research?
Doug: Definitely the Facebook groups. Amazon are trying their best to stop fake reviews, but they can only control what happens on their site – so sellers are farming fake reviews via Facebook.
It works like this: There are huge groups on Facebook that are full of Amazon sellers and participants that are willing to submit a “favourable” (fake) review. The Amazon seller submits a link to their product on the group and offers it for free in exchange for a review. An individual buys the product, as far as Amazon is concerned it’s a genuine sale, next they give the product a 5 star review, and the seller refunds the buyer’s money through PayPal, WeChat or some other service outside of Amazon.
Amazon thinks a sale has gone through, it has no reason not too, the seller’s product gets a boost in ratings and ranking on Amazon, and the “buyer” gets a free product and their money refunded.
It’s almost impossible to police. Ironically it used to be easier when Amazon allowed it as long as the buyer stated in their review that they were given the product for free, however, after Amazon put a stop to that, they organised them off-site and it became harder to detect.
Shortly after we broke the story, we saw more and more news organisations like The Guardian picking up on this, and we like to feel somewhat responsible. But who knows it could be a big coincidence, we’re not the only ones that have noticed these problems.
You did a huge report which analysed reviews of the top 10 supplements for various goals (fat burners, pre workouts, etc.) how did you do that?
Doug: The main tool that we used was Fakespot (https://www.fakespot.com/).
All you need to do is put the direct link to the product into their website, and their software analyses all the reviews on it. It accounts for user activity, for example if they’re rating just every product 5 stars, or if this is there only review, what they wrote and if there’s a pattern. It’s really in-depth.
Is this a fool-proof method for finding fakes?
Definitely not, but it’s a good guide. Nothing can beat your own common sense and old fashioned detective work.
However, this can be very time consuming. You can go down a rabbit hole looking into some of this stuff – and then you started asking yourself if it’s really worth doing three hours of research for a product that you have a $40.00 budget – it doesn’t make any sense.
This is why we suggest reading the label and doing the research, or better yet contact us and we’ll take a look.
But we don’t see this sales spam phenomena stopping on Amazon any time soon.
What could Amazon do to stop it?
Doug: At this point we don’t know. Untrustworthy Amazon reviews appear to have become a business in themselves.
Amazon would have to dedicate teams to scrutinizing every comment before approval, and with literal millions of products on their site this would be impossible to do.
However, I do have a few ideas.
AI could be the future here. If Amazon could get a more sophisticated version of the Fakespot software that we used, that could help kill a lot of the spam, but that wouldn’t be a silver bullet. Some of the genuine reviews may caught in the crossfire and that could muddy the waters even more.
It’s difficult. At best we think Amazon could benefit from labelling what they think might be a fake or untrustworthy review with some kind of mark. It wouldn’t remove the review, but would tell the consumer that they read the article with a level of skepticism.
Any other tips when it comes to supplements?
Doug: Supplements in general? Sure. A big thing that people don’t know to look for are proprietary blends. In my opinion, these are a big problem in the supplements industry at the moment, although it has got better over the years.
A proprietary blend is a method used by supplement manufacturers to hide the individual dosages of the ingredients in their product. They group all their ingredients together under a large value.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it really is. You don’t know how much of each ingredient you’re getting in a supplement – which means you don’t know if it is dosed effectively or not.
By using a proprietary blend manufacturers are able to claim their product has effective ingredients, and even quote the studies to support this, but they can under-dose the ingredient and save themselves some money in the long run.