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The slippery slope of bogus reviews

A very simple solution is right under Amazon's nose

By now you undoubtedly read about Amazon’s decision to remove a large number of questionable book reviews. This is a problem that’s existed since the first day Amazon reviews. Most are probably from legitimate customers but quite a few are undoubtedly from friends, family, and others who never even opened the book.

As authors and publishers figured this out more and more of them have used it to game the system and look for an advantage, especially on publication date. The problem only seems to be getting worse so it’s well past the time for Amazon to act.

My question isn’t so much whether they need to intervene but rather how to do so. It feels very Big Brother-ish to have them decide which reviews stay and which go. I’m sure they have terrific data to back up many of their decisions but it’s not perfect and some legitimate reviews could disappear.

Lately I’ve been simply rating books I read on Goodreads but I was thinking I should go back and start posting longer reviews there and elsewhere. I might do that but I’m not going to waste my time putting them on a site where they might get deleted.

I think Amazon should consider a different solution to this problem. How about this?: Only allow reviews from customers who actually bought the book from Amazon? That won’t eliminate all the questionable reviews but I’ll bet it would result in far fewer of them.

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Comments: 21

  1. Unfortunately, “you have to buy from Amazon to review” isn’t that good a solution, since it will lock out many of us who, if at all possible, buy our books elsewhere, but review on Amazon because it’s a “bully pulpit” to get our views out.

    • Right, I realize this limits things on both sides. Amazon prefers to get as many reviews as possible because it makes their site more attractive for customers and readers like to reach the largest audience with their reviews. That’s why I wish a service like Goodreads would become the go-to site for reviews and browsing. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent the same type of abuse there as Amazon has been dealing with. But if Amazon is serious about cutting down on the number of illegitimate reviews they should consider something more significant than simply removing the ones they believe aren’t real.

  2. Only allowing reviews from customers who bought the book on Amazon will never be accepted, for two main reasons:

    1. It would remove all ARC reviews (e.g. bloggers and reviewers who obtain advance copies of books from publishers or from NetGalley). Publishers rely on these reviews to get attention and sales traction for their new releases;

    2. There are already online review mills which promise to buy the book from Amazon (to get the Amazon Verified Purchase tag) before they post their fake five-star review.

    • I would argue the current implementation for item #1 is broken and needs to be fixed. Perhaps that’s as simple as having NetGalley connect directly to Amazon so that the latter can confirm the former actually got the book as a reviewer. Regarding point #2, Amazon could probably study the habits and trends of those reviewers to see which ones appear to be bogus. That’s probably what they’ve already started doing but it would be better if their model was more transparent. For example, how about leaving those reviews in place but flagging them as likely being illegitimate?

  3. The problem is that Amazon reviews aren’t really there for the readers or writers. They’re there for Amazon’s algorithms. Amazon dowsn’t really much care about your reputation as a reviewer or publisher. They just want to serve up books into your searches that you are more likely to buy.

    This means well written, thoughtful reviews that come from your platform might help readers discover you and reflect the true worrh of your writing, but thay don’t help amazon as much as a one-star, one word review from someone who downloads 1,200 freebies a week.

    • So perhaps Amazon needs to implement a rating system for the reviewers too. They currently show which reviewers actually bought the product on Amazon (“Amazon Verified Purchase”) but they don’t show the history of that reviewer’s ratings, how well-respected their reviews tend to be, etc. Perhaps they should just spend some time gathering data from all those “Was this review helpful to you?” questions and grade the reviewers right there on the same screen…

  4. Amazon acquired Shelfari which for a time was a competitor of Goodreads. Now, Shelfari is integrated with Amazon so that “book extras” entered at Shelfari populate to the Amazon book page for that book. Users now need to connect their Amazon account with Shelfari if they want to cross-pollinate in that way.  So, this helps shed some light on what Amazon may be thinking about how it sees reviews and where they should be sourced — because they have not made Shelfari the source of reviews  — probably for reasons pointed out by others.

    In addition, about a year ago now, Goodreads ended up divorcing from Amazon. They used to get their book data from Amazon and now they don’t.

    Here’s what I think is going on (and others have said a flavor of this) Amazon wants to be THE purchase destination. And what is one of the ways you get people there? By also being the product Information source — and that also means reviews.  Within a year or two of Amazon’s debut, publishers were using Amazon as a bibliographic data source. (It was more complete than Ingram.) Indeed, readers were doing the same thing and readers (aka buyers) also found the books they were looking for along with reviews. So shiny! Someone uses Amazon to research, and there’s all that lovely information that helps you decide what to buy. Why not click buy while you’re there?

    That’s not a honey-pot Amazon should give up (if I were Amazon). I think it would be a poor business practice indeed to outsource ownership of that data. If Goodreads owns it, Goodreads can cut them off. (Kind of like Amazon cut off Goodreads.)

    So, sadly, as awesome as it would be to do something like this, I think it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Unless Amaz also acquires GR.

  5. Not a bad idea.

    Here’s an end run: allow one-click ratings in addition to reviews. Weight them equally. The text reviews could still be gamed, but the overall rating will more accurately reflect customers’ aggregate opinion.

    Actually I think they’re moving in that direction already, since my KPW asks me to rate books at the end. Maybe they just want to get a bunch of data before they publicize it.

    •  Actually, though, I think “traditional” publishers would fight this tooth & nail. They send review copies all over the place. I would do the same, if I thought it would work. {8′>

      • I noted in another comment that this is where it might make sense to better connect a service like NetGalley to Amazon and other sites with reviews. If those reviewers could really be authenticated it would help. Even better: What if those reviewers who received free copies were identified as such next to their reviews, sort of like how the search engines separate the paid results from the non-paid results. Publishers also probably wouldn’t like this but at least we’d know who wrote a review based on a comp copy vs. those who had to pay.

    • If they allow one-click ratings for anyone we’d just have a bunch of bogus ratings in addition to all the bogus reviews, right? It seems like they’d need to moderate that somehow as well.

  6. Perhaps there should be a distinction made between “accredited” third party reviews and individual reader reviews, which might better be called comments. People could then give more credence to reviews and treat comments with the grain of salt they probably deserve.

  7. Amazon has a system in place that IDs someone who has bought the book via them. I disagree–leave them all up.

  8. I find I pay more attention to the 1-star reviews than the 5-star reviews. Glowing accolades seem more likely from folks trying to game the system than the negative spots. Of course, competitors might put in a bad review, but it seems a bit less likely than the fake positives. I also use the “Look inside” feature to read a few snippets prior to purchase, just like I would in a brick & mortar book store. I agree with Judith – leave ’em all there and let the buyer beware. Trying to weed out the bogus reviews threatens to eliminate authentic reviews from thoughtful and sincere reviewers, who will then be less likely to provide reviews and the whole system suffers…

  9. Joe – the line between reviewers and readers is pretty thin now. Many occasional reviewers have a blog name that makes electronic or printed Advance Reader Copies available to them. They might have a tiny audience and post their reviews on multiple sites to extend their influence. I think Amazon is the one that almost everyone posts to if they put their observations on multiple sites.

    Just as Amazon aggregates a lot of entry points into their algorithm – so do readers. We know when something smells fishy. If someone gets away with manufactured reviews for a bit it will come back to bite them.

  10. I say leave them all up, or like goodreads create a category that distinguishes friend from fan. I’m on the wrong end of policing. I just published my first book (Soul Walker) and passed out business cards to my neighbors. I don’t know anything about these people except their zip codes, but we all live in the same apartment complex. If they bought the book and loved it, why shouldn’t they be allowed to leave a review?

  11. I think they should be folks who bought the book.  You can tell when an author has authentic reviews and when they are manufactured. Let whole point of getting the word out about a book is helping the author tell their story.  If they allow anyone to post a review then perhaps they shouldn’t call it a review then. 

    •  Another problem crops up with the “purchased” books on Amazon. Authors naturally want to give books to reviewers, reflecting what goes on in print publishing. How do we accomplish this on Amazon? A gift card seems like it would do the trick. But wait. Amazon has made it clear in recent actions that if a known reviewer (known to Amazon) or a known editor, agent, or person otherwise employed in publishing, receives a gift card from anyone for Amazon purchases, they are on the list to be stricken from reviews. Nice, huh? Don’t give gift cards, for any reason, if the recipient might post or has ever posted an Amazon review. Send your reviewers a PDF by email. Keep it off the Amazon system.

  12. I never only judge from the reviews on amazon. Not only for books. But for books, maybe they should team up with goodreads, just saying

  13. I say leave them all as well–sometimes I review books that I’ve gotten from a friend or at a library (in addition to those I’ve purchased via Amazon), and I typically only review those that I liked (or completely hated–but in most of those cases, I never finished it, so wouldn’t written a review). I think the buyer should beware, and I HATE the idea of only allowing “accredited” reviewers to show up. Frankly, I disagree with many of the book reviews posted by “official” reviewers…I would much rather know what my peers think!

  14. This is such a sticky problem, Joe, it doesn’t have a “solution.” The biggest issue as I see it is that these are not reviews and they don’t function as reviews. They are “reader feedback.” If people looked at them as what they are, it would make infinitely more sense. Also, the 5 star system is inadequate, because Amazon views 3 stars and under as “negative” by their own set-up. People who like books and want to help authors are left with two options, 4 or 5 stars. I wrote about all of this in a short guide for my user group called Managing Reviews, which is on Amazon, and has had to be revised twice in 60 days to reflect the changing landscape. But some things remain absolutely relevant: Amazon OWNS all reviews posted into the site. So, for self published authors on Amazon, it’s critical to have your friendly, helpful, known reviewers give you their reviews so you can use them on your blog and many other places you market your books, including right in the Description area on the Amazon book page. Lots of people see the Description area and don’t even scroll down to the Amazon reviews. Keep your reviews, people, don’t have friends posting on Amazon. 

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