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How Amazon’s Addressing the Problem of Fake Book Reviews

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.

10 thoughts on “How Amazon’s Addressing the Problem of Fake Book Reviews

  1. Something else Amazon should address is the issue of people who give a review one star because it praises a book they didn’t personally like or had to read in school..

  2. Thank you for this candid commentary. In this age of electronic plagiarism and compromised integrity, it’s very challenging to track down the offenders and to support those with honest and credible opinions on large commercial sites like Amazon. That’s one reason I will continue to visit blogs like yours : I know that I can trust you.

    • Fake reviews are huge money for Amazon. They profit handsomely off this problem which has been brought up by countless consumers. I’ve not seen a book getting less than 4 stars on Amazon.

  3. I wouldn’t even mind if reviews from friends, family, or people with a financial interest in the book were allowed IF they disclosed that information. And I think the idea of posting a huge number of reviews (at least within a specific period of time) is a good way for them to eliminate those that are posting for profit and in cases where they clearly have not read the book.

  4. I’m so naive that I was dumbfounded when I first heard about all this hoopla. Like you, I don’t appreciate Amazon allowing people to write reviews of books they haven’t read. I read the article about the lady who has published so many reviews that she would have to be reading multiple books each day. She’s not hiding it and nobody’s stopping her. Makes me very angry.

  5. Frankly, I think reviews from family and friends are OK, as long as they are identified as such. It is strange, however, that Amazon allows reviews by people who have never read the book.

  6. I’m with Patti. I’m pretty naive, too, and this was all news to me. My pet peeve on Amazon is when someone gives a book one star and then writes “arrived damaged; customer service no help”. I want to yell: Hellooo?? Did you read the book??
    Like some of the commenters above, I have no problem if the person reviewing is a friend or family member of the author as long as they disclose that; but I have a BIG problem if people are reviewing without reading the book (must be the teacher in me – lol).
    Thanks for your thoughtful post!
    Beth 🙂

  7. Amazon allows 1 star reviews and removes all good reviews to further its own financial interests, and they are especially hard on smaller publishers, because Amazon is now in the business of publishing. When it obtained an interest in Frommers suddenly a skew of one star reviews appeared on Bellissima Kid’s Travel Guides–these are picture books that teach reading skills, but apparently adults thought these small 32 pages books should have more real information and were not appropriate for 9 year olds–These books are not meant for 9 year olds, and it took months just to get the age 9-12 Amazon had posted on these books. Another favorite 1 star review rfers to the ‘Northern Elephant Seals’ as “elephant sealions(sic)” among other things. Had this reviewer had as much as read the title of the book, he/she would have seen this obvious error– Bellissima has titles numbering over 330 and 18 writers–is a traditional small publishing house–and these same bad review books have good reviews in newspapers as well as author awards. It is a shame this is happening and Amazon is hurting innocent people and their dreams for the sake of profit.

  8. i’m a writer with a book up on amazon. the quality of my day is determined by those reviews. i have a pretty thick skin, though,so the only review that really killed me was the one star review that goes something like: “i don’t hate this book, haven’t read it, will get around to it.”
    i don’t even understand why someone would take the time to write this!
    i’m also a reader who reviews books on my blog and then posts on amazon and goodreads. i’m always honest. i’m much less concerned by reviewers who are biased because of connections to the author (you can usually tell who those are) and much more disgusted by reviewers who are paid.

  9. Pingback: Suggestions for Writers when Contacting Amazon Reviewers

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