A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran this article about whether Amazon reviews are paid for or made up. This is a topic I’ve been following closely in the last year because 1) I actually use the stars and reviews on Amazon, although with caution; and 2) this year I started posting my own reviews on Amazon and I’d hate to think people are out there questioning whether I’m being paid for my reviews.
The article says that Amazon went through and deleted thousands of reviews, without consulting with the reviewers or the authors of the books being reviewed. The criterion for elimination was whether the reviewer was a family member or had a financial interest in the book. But that can be fuzzy — Amazon seems to have taken this action without clearly explaining how they determined which reviews should be eliminated. Some writers claim that valid reviews by readers they have no relationship with were deleted. Unfortunately, this could hurt independent writers with a small fan base more than it hurts writers with big PR budgets.
In August, the NYT ran this article on the business of Amazon book reviews, how they are solicited, and how they influence purchasing. And a Google search of “false book reviews” brought up an embarrassing number of articles on reviews-for-hire, from sources like Forbes, Huffington Post, and The Telegraph. This is clearly a problem.
As a reviewer and a consumer, I’d love for Amazon to crack down on false or paid-for reviews. I’d like to think the star rating means something. But I think addressing the false review problem needs to be done transparently, with clear criteria for what reviews are allowed and disallowed. For example, one woman interviewed in the article has posted 25,000 reviews on Amazon, which has led a group of advocates to fight to ban her reviews (she says she just reads really easy books). Applying a limit on how many reviews one individual can post seems a fair way to reduce the number of fake reviews and people reviewing just for the money. I also have no problem with a rule that says no family members or people with a financial interest in the book’s sales should be allowed to post. Rules are a good thing, if applied clearly and fairly, and if reasonably designed to address the problem at hand.
However, one sticking point for a lot of people is that Amazon doesn’t care whether a person has actually read the book they are reviewing. I would much rather read the clearly-biased review of a family member than read a one-star review of a book that hasn’t been read, based on its price or packaging. I think Amazon would do much better to establish a policy that says you can’t review something unless you’ve actually used the product.
I also think there should be some sort of appeal process for when valid reviews are eliminated. Maybe that would be burdensome to Amazon – but if small publishers or self-published authors rely on these reviews, I’d like to see some fairness here. I can tell you that Amazon reviews are one of the first things I look at when an author sends me a review request. I don’t assume every review is valid or unbiased – but it does give me a sense of what people think about a book.
Ultimately, you have to read the reviews to decide whether you find someone’s opinion valid – I’d like to think I can tell from a review whether someone is applying a thoughtful, fair judgment rather than just hyping or slamming a book (or any other product). But can I tell? If someone writes thousands of fake reviews, they probably get pretty good at it. I’ve heard it suggested that all five-star or one-star reviews are likely to be false. But I give five-star reviews, just not often. Maybe identifying bad reviews is harder than we think.
I’d like to say I never sort by star rating – I know by now those stars are pretty meaningless. But when I’m scanning through books on my list, and don’t have a lot of time, I do look at the ratings. I have to keep reminding myself I can’t trust them. Which strikes me as very sad.