Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Yet Another Amazon Review Controversy


Last month there was yet another Amazon review kerfuffle, as it was revealed that Amazon has been undergoing a review purge aimed at friend-and-family rating manipulation and sockpuppetry.

On the one hand, like many others I cringed at the revelation that some well-respected authors have unabashedly paid for sockpuppet reviews.

At the same time, isn't it pretty easy to tell the difference between a critical review or a true rave from a fake one? Haven't we all honed our BS-detection skills to the extent that we find a representative review that we implicitly trust and manage to filter out the others?

What do you think? Are online reviews due for a necessary correction or should Amazon and others let us be the filter?

Art: The Puppet Show by Albert Rosenboom






51 comments:

rjkeller.org said...

"Haven't we all honed our BS-detection skills to the extent that we find a representative review that we implicitly trust and manage to filter out the others?"

Yes we have, especially avid readers (ie Amazon's prime customer base). Give us a little credit, guys.

Tapper said...

If a reviewer raves about the glory of a book, check to see if they gave specific reasons for loving it so deeply. If a reviewer pans a book, judge whether their complaints sound reasonable and fair. If someone suspects that there is blatant charlatanism going on there should be a way to flag Amazon to have it investigated, and I like the idea that Amazon would respond to such concerns. But for the most part, be skeptical, be kind, be human and sensible and, of course, read a sample page. All those elements will usually give you a good instinct for a book. It is nice to have recourse, even nicer to have good sense.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it another question, though, why has Amazon created this atmosphere where new authors are apparently *nothing* unless they have a gizzilion reviews?
I've tried to quietly ease myself into this 'game' without being annoying but the numbers say that without lots of reviews your novel isn't doing well, which ends up with people begging for reviews.
Personally I am not going to play that game. But, it annoys me immensely that Amazon are doing this. They created the damned scenario in the first place and are now taking down genuine reviews. Do they really have the right?
As an example I got an email from 'random stranger' today saying, if I don't win in your GR giveaway do send me a hardback because the only important reviews are on Amazon. No, I haven't replied...
Susan Curnow

David Jón Fuller said...

To be honest, I pay very little attention to a book's review on Amazon, even though I regularly buy from them. What carries far more weight is a review from someone I trust -- whether a friend, a book blogger or a book reviewer in the newspaper. For me, the review's worth isn't going to show up when I'm staring at the book on the shelves or on Amazon; it's what drove me to find a specific book on Amazon (or the bookstore, or the library) in the first place.

Mirka Breen said...

I dread the day when paying for reviews (PHOOEY, shame on you) will become just another ‘so what,’ the way many now have come to look at paying to be published, paying to have a professional book doctor re-do your sub before it leaves your door, paying a PR person to sing your praises, and even paying to be a finalists for an awards.
Yes, all the above have been going on for too long, and if we dare suggest it’s sleazy, we are called “Elitists.” New terms like “Indie,” “Subsidy” and “Co-op” are not to be challenged. Just pay baby, pay. Didn’t your father tell you you’ve got to pay money to make money? Oh, was it your mother who said that? Pardon me, for my un-PC assumption here.
O.K.- I’m starting the year in a ranty mode, which is also not the way to conduct oneself in public. But I find that way too much accepted behavior and its apologists have managed to get me off my genteel rocking chair. I better have a cup of tea, pronto.
Better now, sonny.

Deborah said...

I do like what Tapper says, but I'd also like to see some policing of the fake reviews, because it is so rampant and diminishes the real reviews.

As an author who is gratified by her positive reviews from strangers, I wonder how those authors who write or solicit sockpuppet reviews live with themselves. I take pride in the authentic feedback that reflects the effort I put into my book.

Tom Braun said...

Haven't we all honed our BS-detection skills to the extent that we find a representative review that we implicitly trust and manage to filter out the others?

Have we, though? In one of those articles someone asserts that 30% of reviews on the internet are fake. Personally, I don't think "FAKE!" about one third of the reviews I read. Am I naive? Or are those numbers overblown?

One takeaway from all this is that when I come across a book I genuinely enjoy, maybe I owe it to the author to give him or her a positive review. I probably don't do this nearly enough.

Jessica Hutchison said...

I'm not sure about this: exactly HOW is Amazon making the distinction between "real" and "fake" reviews?

Also, I've heard several complaints for other authors that Amazon has taken down the 5-star reviews, assuming they are fake, but leave malicious, non-constructive 1-star reviews. Doesn't make sense to me. If they are going to remove fake reviews, it should not be dependent on how many stars the review gave.

Also, how does this benefit Amazon? I'm just a little confused as to their motivation. Have they seen a drop in sales because customers don't trust reviews?

Brendan O'Meara said...

This is tricky, but I use a 5-step process for Amazon reviews:

1.Disregard the 5-stars (yes, some are legit, but try it). Assume all are fake.

2. The 4-star review is the new 5-star (40 is the new 30!)

3. Read the 3-star reviews as they have the most insight. These are "smart" reviews.

4. Recalibrate your thinking so that 3s aren't so bad.

5. Disregard most 1-star reviews as they are often inflammatory and come from extremely biased and pigeon-holed expectations.

Bret Schulte said...

Part of it, of course, is desperation to just get noticed. But another part of it is the lack of faith in the review system. I mean for those that believe that the big time publishers rig their reviews by making deals with reviewers and critics, targeting friendly or easy reviewers, getting their interns to write reviews online, or whatever, then it seems only fair for the little guys to do the same. Either way though, the sockpuppets are pretty obvious.

Jamie Beck said...

I don't give much weight to reviews by people I don't know. After all, so much of what we like is subjective. I rely mostly on friends or book bloggers I follow (in terms of finding new authors and new material). That said, if a book has a bunch of reviews and a cummulative 4 star + rating, then I may give it a sample. That's the beauty of the sample feature! I can tell within 30 pages if I'm going to be interested in the story or not. Amazon doesn't need to mess with reviews...we're not idiots.

Stoich91 said...

I think lying is lying and should be corrected for the sake of honesty being the best policy, REGARDLESS of how fabulously we incredibly avid readers have adapted to sock-puppetry over the years ;D

Lisa Lane said...

I lost a couple of reviews because they were written by family members--who also happened to be genuine, avid fans of my work. Amazon should let readers be the judge. Like you mentioned, most people are smart enough to see through a BS review. More importantly, honest reviews are being removed because Amazon thinks it knows best, and indie authors are the ones who ultimately suffer for it.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess said...

I think that if Amazon solicits reviews, they need to accept what they get. Asking for reviews and then removing them rather defeats the purpose of soliciting them in the first place.

Maya said...

I don't agree with sockpuppet reviews (feels like cheating), but I feel like you should be able to review your friends and family. Debut authors need all the support they can get!!! Someone has to get the ball rolling...and besides, they are still legitimate opinions.

Obviously, if you see a book with only a few reviews, and they are all five stars you probably assume they are friends and family. As the author builds more reviews, it's harder to tell, but I think a savvy reader will know that everyone has a few cheerleader type fans, and take that into account.

Tiana Smith said...

Yes and no. I mean, when the reviews are raving good, with very little information about the actual book itself, I think we can tell. However, I once worked for a company (quit a long time ago) that wanted to pay me to write reviews. They were very sneaky about what they wanted said and wanted us to include a negative point in order to make it more realistic. They wanted us to look at past reviews and mimic them, etc. So, if you got good writers, I think it would be hard to tell the difference. Hopefully the good writers also have a good conscience, and don't agree to write things like that, but I know there are a lot of sell outs and a lot of desperate people who need the money. So, yeah ... yes and no. I think it's a good sign though that Amazon is trying to step up anyway.

Iola said...

"Haven't we all honed our BS-detection skills to the extent that we find a representative review that we implicitly trust and manage to filter out the others?"

Some of us. But not all of us.

Not when reviews by Harriet Klausner still get positive votes.

Not when there are one-star reviews of books that say 'I thought this would be got because it has got so many five-star reviews, but it is full of typos. I think all the five star reviews must be from friends and family'.

Not when there are still clear cases of 'review swapping', where two authors give each other five-star reviews.

Not when there are dedicated groups on Goodreads promoting review swapping.


I like Brendan's guidelines above. Remember, on Amazon, a 3-star rating is 'OK'. It's a pass, not a fail.

Pauline B Jones said...

So I guess I'm left wondering who is allowed to like our books? No one? Every "fix" seems to worsen situation.

MHPAUTHOR said...

Don't forget that almost every product sold on the web at some fine establishment or another might just have a few reviews suggesting how great a "thing" they are selling is and how it will benefit your daily living. Some make you want to pull out your credit card and order the item while others make you wonder why the widget is still being offered. It is getting harder to accept anything on the net because so many have attempted to manipulate reviews and potential sales. Buyer beware...

As an aside, I would like to put out there the possibility that many of the phenoms of the last few years (you know them well) as well as seasoned authors probably have "review issues" with regards to their books. Don't trust the bloggers either...Nor the newspapers or magazines. Publishers often take out ads in the same periodicals where reviews of their latest offering take place. Nothing is new here, but perhaps Amazon bringing it to the fore front speaks volumes for how many authors, composers, publishers and manufactures have abused the system up to this point. Of course, as soon as a new review policy is put into place, those with ill thoughts as to how to manipulate it will start their operation. Deja Vu all over again...

Will Overby said...

Personally, I can understand Amazon not allowing reviews if the book wasn't purchased through their site. To me that's perfectly fine. But that's where their policing should stop. If someone's actually bought and paid for the book, they should be allowed - encouraged even - to leave a legitimate review, whether it's 1 or 5 stars.

Rick Daley said...

That's a slippery slope. I don't think they can police the reviews without error, and it's best to let all reviews stand.

Donna Hole said...

I agree, let people make up their own minds about a review. People are always going to find a way to defraud the system, others will just know its BS and move along.

Having a lot of reviews doesn't always relate to direct sales.

......dhole

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I base my online book purchases partly on reviews, because if a lot of the reviews are saying the same thing, I usually assume that I'll probably have a similar reaction. So I don't think it's fair for people to pay for good reviews, because those reviews don't mean anything. But on the other hand, I think that people generally should just decide for themselves on whether or not to buy a book, because it's not always just the review that's the deciding factor.

Holly Grant said...

If Amazon discovers an author paid for reviews, they should pull the book off the website.

HOWEVER, if you bought a book, you should be able to review it... and that includes the book your mother wrote and your competitor's book.

Sydney Jane Baily said...

As a newly published author on Amazon, I was dismayed to find two of my piddly five reviews removed. They were, as far as I could tell, real reviews, nice ones, too. I found out that I need five in order to advertise my book's digital version on some ebook websites. I was stuck at three for ages, and then another review popped up.

I have heard from author friends who lost pages and pages of reviews. I wouldn't mind so much a) if there was a real person doing it instead of a robot searching for something we know not what that triggers it to remove a review and b) if there was a course of appeal. There isn't. Once gone, always gone.

Anonymous said...

Is Amazon purging fake negative reviews, too?

Rebecca Taylor said...

I agree with the many who say, Let me figure it out on my own. I wasn't born yesterday, neither were you. If they are going to allow reviews from the nonprofessional reviewer, in the first place, then you're just going to have to deal with what's up there--nonprofessional reviews.

Note: I'm not saying that all these reviews are bad, many are very informed and articulate. But guess what--I know a well informed, articulate review when I read one.

I can also tell when there is a deluge of five star reviews from the publisher's employees, the author's best friends, Aunt Maddie, and their 4565 blog devotees.

I still read jacket flap.

I still read the first few pages.

I still listen to my friends' recommendations.

I'm still swayed by great cover art.

5 star Amazon reviews make a book more prominent on Amazon. I don't think it has the ability to propel a book for an extended stay on the NYT bestseller list. Aunt Maddie's review, quite simply, is not that compelling.

Bryan Russell said...

Amazon has reviews? Who knew.

Seeley James said...

Brendan O'Meara has a good method. I analyze reviews the same way without realizing it.

Real reviews come from paid reviewers who give a list of recommendations, some good some not. When you follow a professional reviewer, you can figure out whether you agree or not and sometimes go against their advice.

BUT -- indie books are only $3-5 so I just buy them and get a refund if I bail out in the first few pages.

Indie books are also a lot more innovative, like The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thompson, or WOOL by Hugh Howey.

Peace, Seeley

Chris Shaw said...

Actually it's pretty much proven at this point that no, we can't pick out the false reviews ourselves. I'm having trouble finding some of the studies, namely the one I came across when this controversy first came out, which says humans identify the false one about 50% of the time--no better than guessing. This study gives some good info on the poor performance of humans in this matter, due to truth bias (we'll say something is true 88% of the time... whoops). A couple articles say that 30% of reviews are fake, and this one says 70% of consumers trust online reviews, so I'm betting we're missing just a few of them. Google the work by Cornell, MIT, U of Illinois Chicago, and some national economics group to find even more studies affirming that humans suck at telling when reviews are fake.

Am I happy with what Amazon did? No. But it's warranted. Like it or not, we all actually were born yesterday in this game. It's the the best Amazon can do for us until they get more sophisticated at it (or one of those aforementioned universities gets their fake-fighting tech ready for prime time).

Adam Heine said...

I think this is necessary, not to remove the sock-puppets, but to remove false accusations of sock-puppetry. I've seen too many authors accused of using sock-puppet accounts where they never did. Maybe if Amazon culled them, this accusation would die.

Though I'm not sure how Amazon can determine this.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Many of the "trade" reviews--Kirkus comes to mind--are paid for. While a "positive" versus "negative" review is not decided upon prior to contracting to have a review done, the expectation naturally and normally would be that if the writer, especially, as opposed to a publisher (or maybe a publisher more, because of everyone's needs to cooperate to keep the money flowing?) pays for a review, the writer is more likely to be happy having spent the money on a favorable review by a respected (though fee-charging) service such as Kirkus.

I like the fact Amazon reviews seem to be readers' reviews--whether they're a writer's friends and family ("i'm sure your mother thinks it's great") or total strangers who actually read critically, I tend to put more faith in "independent," or at least free, vouching for someone or something than vouching done by someone who gets paid to do it.

I think it wise for Amazon to try and keep the playing field even between "indie" and "professional" writers and publishers, who have always paid for reviews except, perhaps, at the New York Times Book Review, rather than let money dictate peoples' tastes and buying habits as opposed to "honest" reviews.

Just my view.

Reina M. Williams said...

I think if Amazon wants to have only reviews from customers who purchased the book from their site, that makes sense. Taking down reviews the way they are now doesn't make sense. They take down legitimate reviews and leave others that clearly aren't. Also, I'm dismayed that people think a review which doesn't outline why the reviewer liked or didn't like the book isn't a legit review. Some people don't have the time or inclination to write a critical/comprehensive review, but just want to express that they liked or didn't like something...that should be okay too. It's their review.

elizabethmarianaranjo.com said...

Let us be the filter.

Peter Dudley said...

I do not think "we" will ever sufficiently hone our BS detectors. "We" is a lot bigger group than those of us educated at universities that won Rose Bowls (you) and universities that were at home watching on TV (me). I think that media literacy should be part of standard public school curriculum. Now they call it "Communications" (where they teach you how to manipulate the unwary through media). "Media Literacy" would be just down the hall, teaching kids how to recognize the manipulative tactics that have been proven over time to work so, so well on the masses. So no, I don't think "we" can recognize good fakes. Some people get paid well to lie well.

On the other hand, Amazon has been proven not that good at recognizing fakes, too. About six months ago, four legitimate reviews got deleted from my book's page. No amount of complaining to Amazon would get them to budge. "Get them to write a new review," they replied. But I hadn't kept track of WHO had written reviews, so I had no way to ask "them" to rewrite them.

Isn't there a middle ground? If Amazon has the resources to hunt down what they think are fake reviews, can't they go the extra couple of steps to apply some due diligence before deleting? Or perhaps they could publicly and clearly mark a review as "suspicious" until the reviewer provides some substantiation.

Ellen Etc said...

It bothered me enough that I launched an article on Wikihow.com, which others are free to edit:
http://www.wikihow.com/Spot-a-Fake-Review-on-Amazon.Com

WE may be savvy, but what about naive buyers -- the same ones who post hoaxes on Facebook without bothering to check Snopes or to google the facts?

Jane Turley said...

Since reading your article, Nathan, I have checked a review I wrote of a friend's book (which I had purchased through Amazon) and see that it has been removed.I know why it was removed - because my opening line was something to the effect of "John Doe is a friend of mine so whilst I realise I may be biased I am going to try and be as objective as possible." I then went on to give what I considered a balanced review. It was a difficult review to write as my friend's novel is very experimental and in no way targeted at a mainstream audience. However, I felt I did my very best to describe the book in a fair and honourable way and bearing in mind I'd openly admitted I was a friend I felt people would be able to make their own judgement call on my review. Consequently, I am very annoyed with Amazon's action. My friend's novel is published with a very small independent and I believed my review would help, even if only in a very small way.

I fully understand why Amazon might want to delete sock puppet reviews but I feel randomly deleting reviews of those who might possibly be friends or family is an act too far. ALL (unpaid) reviews are subjective anyway so I don't think anyone has the right to sit in judgement over whose reviews should or should not be published.

Rant over!

PS I love Amazon reviews by the way and I always read the one star reviews first and work my way up to the five star reviews - and like most sensible people I take everything I read with a pinch of salt.

Lindy Moone said...

It's disgusting that there are fake reviews, and that "fake reviewers" are making more money than honest authors trying to eke out a modest living. As a new (indie) author, I am thrilled to see the great reviews I've gotten so far -- and worried that they'll disappear. (To my shame, I'll admit to being paranoid enough to copy and paste them onto my bouncing baby website.)

So what's an honest writer to do? Start cranking out mediocre books to earn those coveted 3 stars, so the truly frightful books can be identified by their five star reviews? (Arrrrgggghhhh!) I'm not too worried about naive readers. They can return books they feel tricked into buying, as long as they start reading the book in the grace period. I do wonder why so many readers out there are reading endless reviews instead of the samples, though. "Look Inside", folks, and make up your own minds!

The answer isn't Amazon policing reviews, either -- at least not as currently practiced. One of my critique partners has had no luck whatsoever in getting an obviously illegitimate review removed, while others have lost many legitimate ones.

Cheryl said...

I scan reviews because sometimes they say more about the story than the blurb, but I buy books based on sample pages.

There is no way to fairly police reviews. While I sympathize with authors who've had bad reviews for some reason other than the book, and understand why desperate authors would pay to get good reviews up, the writing is what counts. In the end, no amount of good reviews will make a "bad" book (I don't mean books not everyone may care for, like Twilight or 50 Shades; I'm talking about poorly written, poorly edited, no plot/conflict, cardboard characters, poor storytelling, etc. type books) sell.

Don't we have enough of the Big Brother mentality in our lives already?

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Let us be the BS detector.

Sheila Cull said...

Amazon reviews? A joke, and I'll bet they never leave the reviews up to the reader. Stick with the New York Times Bestseller List.

Sheila Cull

Silke said...

It's tricky.
I know they took down a lot of author reviews, saying that there is a conflict of interest.
Well...I happen to be a reader, too, but apparently I'm not allowed to have an opinion (or rather speak my mind) about a book -- because I also write.
As for "All 5 star"...well, mine don't have many reviews, but there was a point where they were all 5* ones -- and it wasn't friends and family.
It's disheartening that there is so much cheating going on, but personally, every review I get puts a big smile on my face.
For Amazon to remove them is just...meh. Not happy.

DLM said...

Could someone explain what is unethical about an author asking someone they know who has read his/her book, who genuinely liked it, who would honestly rate it a 5, to put their comments on B & N or Amazon?

So long as the friend, acquaintance, or relative has read the book and is being honest about what they like about it, how is that being a sock-puppet???

River Byrnes said...

I too have asked friends to leave reviews - but have not asked them to do so in a particular way, completely leaving it up to them to decide what they write and how many stars to give them. With the millions of books and stories out there, having reviews can often be the only way to get noticed by readers...

Zakgirl said...

Seems strange that Amazon would be concerned about family members. I would have thought that family members could be the most honest and reliable. Sometimes even brutal.

Amazon should be more concerned about the paid content. Where made-up names akas etc are used and people are employed to write bogus reviews for XYZ.

As others have said it's pretty clear which are fake and which have supporting facts that let the average reader know which is reliable and which is, well, suspect?

I don't want to see everything over-governed. I'd rather be able to make my own decisions (mistakes) and live by them.

Really, what's the worse that can happen? It's your money. If you want to waste it - so be it.

Maybe there is a place for traditional publishers after all...

Ellie Heller said...

I like the idea of focusing on the three star reviews, I have a few tricks of my own I use. One, if someone is absolutely glowing about a book I check to see what else they've reviewed. All one author? Ding. All one pub company? Ding. Only 5 star reviews? Ding (actually read one recently which start 'this is a rare five star book... and she had six reivews up, five of them were five star).

I also look at *recent* reviews. The early ones/starters tend to be the family and friends and reciprocal reviews, so I ignore them entirely unless from a reputable review blog (which are also getting more difficult to find).

I've given up on Goodreads entirely, their review system needs a major overhaul.

Anonymous said...

Oh I'm so depressed. I just checked and found that every review that I remember writing (which is only a handfull) has been deleted. For the record, I was never asked, let alone paid, for any of these reviews, and though I am acquainted with two of the authors in question, one I didn't meet until years after I wrote the review, and the other is someone I knew briefly twenty years ago. Neither is anything like a close friend. It's true they were positive reviews, but only because if I hadn't liked the books, I wouldn't have finished them and I wouldn't have posted a review! Incidently, Harriet Klausner also reviews one of my favorite authors, and the facts in her reviews of those books are plenty and accurate, FWIW.

Anonymous said...

We haved learned BS skills, but the vast majority out there haven't. And there has been a lot of corruption in these early wild west days of the Internet that is not going over well anymore.

Geekamicus said...

It's so sad that it's come to this. You like to think that those around you have the same level of common sense that you do, but apparently not. The sad thing though, is that this sockpuppetry exists and is so widespread.

It's cheating. When did cheating become acceptable business practices in this industry? We complain about Bernie Madoff, but can't see that deceptive business practices are also paying someone to put up a phony product review? I know it's hard to break into the market, but what kind of accomplishment is it really if you cheat to get there?

If Amazon is going to start taking down reviews, they should take ALL the reviews down, change the rules and start over. For starters, other sites don't let you review unless you have purchased from that site. That would at least cut out those that got free copies from the author friend (hard to be objective when you actually like the person) and those that are reviewing a book they didn't actually read.

Jeremy Green said...

Its not just rave reviews, it seems that more and more strange one star reviews seem to be appearing, here are a couple that made me smile..

"This brings to mind other titles in the genre, such as, "I was a teenage SAS man." and "How I joined the SAS during my summer holidays." Both written by a chap called Walter Mitty. If you are older than twelve give this one a miss."

"what a complete waste of space badly writen very poor grammer sheer complete utter rubbish i would note give 1 star for this"

You have to have a really thick skin it seems to publish these days, but the trolls and carpet bombers seem to be on the March...

Last I heard is was estimated 60% of the reviews on Amazon were fake??

Jackie G Mills said...

The whole review saga is pretty depressing. And even though many readers say they don't look at reviews the problem is that without them the author's book lays dormant in a flood of other books. I can't even find mine unless I type my name in. As another commentator said, some websites don't allow you to list your book unless you have at least 5 positive reviews on Amazon. An Amazon says none of those can be friends or family even if they did love the book. Even though everyone else seems to know the review system on Amazon is flawed, the book advertising websites seemed to have not caught on.

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