Have you ever stood in a bookstore aisle, trying to choose a book in your favorite genre? You weren’t influenced by customer reviews posted next to each book. The only customer input you saw was incredible praise for how awesome the book was on the back cover or first pages. There wasn’t anything negative posted about any of the books.
In the pre-internet days, if you wanted to see a written review, you had to browse newspapers and magazines. The only way to receive input from other customers who read the book was to meet them in person and ask them.
How times have changed! Now Amazon allows all customers to share their feedback, and this information is publicly posted on the book’s detail page.
Is this helpful? Let’s consider some of the major criticism. Note that Amazon has recently released an article clarifying, to some extent, what is or isn’t allowed in customer reviews. You can find this in Reference 1 at the bottom of this blog post.
(1) Authors and customers have abused the system with sock puppets and shill reviews.
A sock puppet is a false account that someone creates in order to deceive others with a false identity. Some authors have created sock puppets to give several good reviews to their own books, and some customers have created sock puppets to give multiple bad reviews to a book.
A shill review is written by someone else to help the agenda of another. Some authors have compelled family, close friends, and people with a financial interest in the book’s success to help promote their books by leaving shill reviews, and some customers have used shill reviews to bring a book down.
Fortunately, Amazon has taken steps to block and remove reviews suspected of being sock puppets or shills. A very large number of reviews have actually been removed. See Reference 2.
It’s not just authors trying to get good reviews of their own books that poses a problem. See Reference 3 for an example of large-scale swarming of negative reviews against a book about Michael Jackson. This shows that abuse with negative reviews can also be a major problem.
While sock puppets and shill reviews are a problem, Amazon’s actions to limit this have greatly improved the customer review system. Amazon has access to a great deal of information in its database, and apparently runs cross-references to help catch much of the possible abuse. When customers report possible abuse, Amazon also looks into this manually.
(2) Amazon is more likely to remove positive reviews than negative reviews.
Many authors have complained about the loss of four- and five-star reviews, and many authors have complained of one- and two-star reviews that seem to violate Amazon’s review guidelines which Amazon has refused to remove.
Some of the removed four- and five-star reviews that disappeared were removed because the reviewer was suspected of having a financial interest in the book. Yet, some legitimate reviews appear to have been removed as casualties in the process.
There are many one- and two-star reviews that are quite spiteful, and many others that spoil the ending. According to Amazon’s customer review guidelines (see Reference 4), spiteful remarks are not allowed, yet there are several reviews that make very spiteful remarks about the book or author that haven’t been removed (despite requests by authors and readers).
Highly spiteful remarks ruin the ambiance at Amazon. Wouldn’t it help Amazon’s image to remove these? Amazon could choose to remove the spiteful remarks, rather than removing the entire review. That would be a step in the right direction. Perhaps it would take too much manpower to remove all of the spiteful comments. When it’s well-known that most spiteful reviews won’t be removed, authors are less inclined to report them.
Is it helpful to leave reviews that spoil the ending? If a customer reads a review that gives the ending away, that customer is far less likely to buy the book. Wouldn’t it benefit Amazon to prevent this?
Is it helpful when suspicious four- and five-star reviews are much more likely to be removed than one- and two-star reviews that seem to clearly violate Amazon’s policies?
Customer reviews are most helpful when there are ample reviews that provide a good balance of opinions. When good reviews are more likely to be removed than bad reviews, doesn’t this offset the balance?
There may be two reasons behind this practice. First, four- and five-star review abuse is probably much more common than one- and two-star review abuse. Amazon has removed four- and five-star reviews because the abuse was out of hand; many customers were complaining and there were high-profile articles written on this subject. Perhaps negative review abuse hasn’t reached nearly the same level to demand such attention.
Also, it’s much easier for Amazon to block and remove abusive four- and five-star reviews. It’s easier for Amazon to cross-reference their database and see if a four- or five-star reviewer may have a connection with the author. It’s much more difficult to determine if a one- or two-star review has an agenda.
The vast majority of one- and two-star reviews come from customers who simply didn’t like the book. Most of the one- and two-star reviews were not written with ulterior motives in mind.
Fortunately, many of the one- and two-star reviews that arguably should be removed don’t have much credibility. Many customers can see through spitefulness, for example. Some of these reviews don’t explain what is wrong with the book. These types of negative reviews may actually help the book’s credibility, by adding balance to the reviews (if there are already good reviews present), while not being effective at persuading customers not to buy the book.
(3) No qualifications or experience necessary.
Anyone can review a book. You don’t need expertise to review a technical book. It isn’t necessary to be an avid romance reader to review a romance novel.
But that’s okay. You don’t have to be an expert to form an opinion. Many customers themselves aren’t experts, and would like to hear from other customers like themselves.
A reviewer who has expertise can mention this in the review, although there evidently isn’t any fact-checking. A customer reviewing a workbook might say that she has been a teacher for twenty years, but there is generally no way for potential buyers to know if this is true.
If customers want to find expert reviews, they can search online for professional book reviewers.
Not requiring expertise helps Amazon generate millions of reviews. More input is probably better than less input, in general. If only experts review books, then experts will basically be telling people what to and what not to read (kind of like editors who, prior to the self-publishing explosion, decided what was or wasn’t fit for the public to read).
(4) You don’t have to read a book in order to review it.
Just to be clear, you don’t have to read a single word of the book in order to be eligible to review it. We’re not talking about people who read the first two chapters and stopped reading in disgust. You don’t even have to open the cover. You don’t even have to buy the book. You don’t even have to see the book.
In Reference 2 at the bottom of this article, you can find this quote from an Amazon spokesman: “‘We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.’”
If you’re shopping for a book, it may be useful to know what other customers who have read the book (or at least tried to read the book) have to say about it.
But is it helpful, at all, to read the opinion of a customer who never even opened the cover? How does this help anyone?
This is a highly controversial point. Part of the reason for this may come down to proof: How do you know if a customer has read the book or not?
Occasionally, a customer review starts out, “Although I haven’t read the book yet…” In this case, it’s very easy to tell that the customer hasn’t read the book. Wouldn’t it be nice if Amazon would remove the reviews where there is no doubt that the customer hasn’t even opened the book? How can this opinion be useful to other customers?
This problem is abused two ways. Some popular authors (or their publishers) send out advanced review copies, encouraging customers to post reviews on the release date. Some customers actually leave a review before they read the book, knowing that they will love the book because they love the author’s other works. Does it really help other customers to do this? Why not actually read the book first and then post the review?
It is also abused with negative reviews from competing authors or publishers, jealous rivals or enemies, and anyone who doesn’t like the author personally. To be fair, if these reviewers actually read the book first, it probably won’t change their reviews.
Many people wonder why Amazon doesn’t require customers to make an Amazon Verified Purchase in order to leave a review. At least this way, people reading the review would know that they have bought the book.
The problem here is the large number of people who buy the book in a bookstore or read it in a library. Amazon doesn’t want to prevent this large group from posting reviews.
What about eBooks? Well, customers don’t have to buy them on Kindle. Amazon still wants their reviews. Plus, if the eBook and hardcopy are linked, a review on either edition shows up on both editions.
Customers who have bought the book from Amazon can lend their reviews more credibility by choosing to let Amazon mark them as Amazon Verified Purchases. Potential buyers can choose to just look at Amazon Verified Purchase reviews if they want to know who has actually purchased the book.
Here is what Amazon may be thinking (of course, only Amazon knows for sure). Customers who want to leave a good or bad review without actually reading the book will probably leave pretty much the same review whether or not they are required to read part of the book first. It might infuriate numerous authors and even some readers, but all in all, policing this would generally be very difficult and quite a hassle, and probably isn’t worth the effort.
If you force customers to buy a book in order to review it, guess what will happen. People will buy the book and return it for this privilege. It’s not in Amazon’s best interest to encourage returns. If you want to remove a customer’s review if he or she returns the book, now you run into the problem where the customer is returning the book because the book was bad: Amazon will want these customers to be able to express their opinions, too.
Simply encouraging anyone to review a book provides more input to the consumer. More input is generally better than less input.
(5) The review doesn’t have to be truthful.
It’s kind of like politics. A candidate for office can say anything, true or not. Somebody might check and report the facts, but the lie itself generally doesn’t get the candidate disqualified from the competition.
A customer can say that there are fifty typos on the first page, and the review will stand even if this is clearly false. In many cases, potential readers can cross-check a reviewer’s comments by reading the blurb and Look Inside. If the review complains of typos, but the Look Inside is very well written, the reviewer will lose credibility. On the other hand, many customers may not bother to check a reviewer’s statements. Some sales may be gained or lost by blatantly false reviews.
This has been abused with both good and bad reviews. A review can make a lousy book look great or a great book look lousy simply by bending the truth. There are tens of thousands of books with contradictory reviews. Almost all of the bestsellers seem to have inconsistent reviews.
From Amazon’s perspective, it would be a nightmare to try to check the facts of all of the reviews. Some things are easier to check than others. If a review is clearly false, other customers may vote it down with No votes (although the voting itself has been abused). It would take a great amount of resources just to check the facts where someone complains that a review may be false. It probably isn’t practical to enforce review truthfulness.
Most statements aren’t facts, but opinions. Readers will definitely differ in opinions. Any book that is read enough will have a large group of readers who love it and another large group who hate it. This is true among virtually all popular, bestselling authors. No book can please everyone. If you want to require all reviews to be honest, you will quickly find yourself in the gray area between facts and opinions.
Amazon wants to solicit all opinions. You can’t argue that an opinion is wrong. Most review statements aren’t clear-cut facts that are clearly right or wrong; most are opinions.
Again, more input is generally helpful, even if some of it is contradictory. Potential buyers can check the blurb and Look Inside to help determine which statements are correct. They can also try to judge the character of the reviewer from the writing sample. Any comments and the number of Yes versus No votes may also be helpful, although the voting system can also be abused.
Amazon’s review system isn’t perfect. There is room for improvement. However, the system does result in a great deal of feedback. The more reviews, the better for shoppers, authors, and publishers. Amazon’s customer review system, as it is, provides much more information than not having any reviews at all – like the pre-internet days of standing in a bookstore aisle. We just have to take the good with the bad.
Please feel free to share your opinions, even if you disagree, by posting a comment or replying to a comment. Your input is encouraged. What is your experience as a customer or author? What would you suggest to improve the system?
Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers