Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why you shouldn't trust 'amateur' reviews

It seems a scandal is brewing over book reviews on They're supposed to be written by ordinary readers like you and I, but it seems publishers, and professional consultants, are ghost-writing them in order to boost their own products and diss those of their competitors. The Daily Mail reports:

Alongside details of a book for sale, the website offers supposedly independent verdicts from customers, including a rating of from one to five stars.

However, rival publishers are accused of hijacking the system to praise their own volumes and disparage the opposition.

Authors are turning on each other, agencies are charging up to £5,000 [about US $7,800] to place favourable fake reviews and Amazon has recruited a team of amateur critics to restore the balance.

. . .

Earlier this year historian Simon Winder forced Amazon to remove a critical review of his book Germania after he discovered it was written by a rival academic – Diane Purkiss, of Keble College, Oxford.

Guidelines set by Amazon state that reviews should not be posted by anyone with a financial interest or a competing book.

But the online giant accepts anonymous reviews from anyone with a customer account.

This has led PR firms to provide favourable reviews of new books, at a price.

Nathan Barker, of Reputation 24/7, offers a service starting at £5,000.

He said: ‘First we set up accounts. For a romance novel we’d pick seven female profiles and three males.

‘We’d say we like this book but add a tiny bit of criticism and compare it to another book.’

Mr Barker claims this is common practice among publishers.

There's more at the link.

I can't say I'm surprised to hear this. When it comes to making a buck, there aren't that many honest firms or salespeople out there. My personal 'guide' to assessing an Amazon review is to check how many that particular reviewer has written, and glance at a few of them to see if they're a mixture of positive and negative, or all positive, or all negative. If they all lean one way, I regard that reviewer's opinions as suspect. If they're balanced, that speaks well of the reviewer's integrity.

Just a thought.



FarmGirl said...

What I want to know is this: is the team of "amateur reviewers" that Amazon put together getting free books? And if so, where do I sign up??

Erik said...

I'm not sure it says much about a reviewer by looking at their history. If anyone is actually paid for writing false reviews, I'd guess they are smart enough to keep up appearances with their profiles.

It's really not that much work to create say 30 profiles with a short bio for each one, and then pick a few of them for each review, alternating between positive reviews of your books and negatives about others, and throw in a few more for books you dont really care about to make it more difficult to see a pattern.

I'm sure Amazon could use datamining to spot patterns like that, or at least the most obvious ones.

But you can usually get from the review itself if it's written in good faith, it's usually fairly transparent if it's not written by a person with their own opinions.

tpmoney said...

I have determined at least for most products (though I can't say how well this would work for book reviews) that the most enlightening reviews are always the negative reviews. By reading negative reviews you can determine whether the product is flawed, or whether the user has unreasonable expectations or otherwise didn't RTFM. Amateur positive reviews are for the most part useless.

Shrimp said...

Funny, but I've never let an anonymous (as in "a person unknown to me") book review determine my book buying decision. If my brother recommends a particular book or author, I'll give it a read. If Peter or Tam or Marko or Matt G (or any of a handful of other bloggers I usually read) recommends a book or auther, I would likewise tend to give it a go.

But, to buy a book based upon the reviews of people I've never met, nor had the time to read and "get to know" through their blog?? No way! That's how you end up reading crap like Twilight.