Amazon is currently cracking down on what it sees as inaccurate or reciprocal reviews and it appears, at least from recent posts I’ve read, a number of authors have been affected. Amazon are using an algorithm to identify what they term as suspect reviewing patterns, as well as identify reviewers who they believe know each other, and blocking those reviews. Once blocked, because Amazon believe the reviews broke their reviewing terms and conditions, the reviewer can no longer leave any future reviews. When challenged, Amazon have generally given automated responses along the lines of ‘we trust our algorithms and you have no right of appeal.’
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear I have every sympathy with the individuals concerned. Writing just one thoughtful book review takes time and effort, to do it over and over again is a considerable commitment. To be told, out of the blue, that everything you’ve written will be stripped from the site, would be one hell of a shock. Then there is the underlying accusation of cheating a system, one to which the reviewer has no right of reply, and the fact that once banned they can’t write any further reviews. It is being found guilty without trial and goes against everything we know as fair. Not only is it a personal affront, it means the authors of the books reviewed lose both the review and the rating as well. If (or possibly when) it happens to me, I would be furious too.
At the same time, Amazon has a problem. Customers no longer trust their review system and in some cases with justification. If you are selling a product on Amazon (any product, not just books) there are plenty of companies willing to give favourable reviews in return for a fee. The term for this type of behaviour is astroturfing and it happens on all the major sites where customer reviews play a part in the purchase decision making process. And it’s not just companies offering this service. I’ve been approached – both explicitly and implicitly – by authors asking to swap reviews. It hasn’t happened often, and I’ve always declined, but it does happen, and if a relatively obscure author such as myself has been approached then this is clearly something that some authors are happy to take part in. Astroturfing’s not a new process, it’s been happening since the first review sites were established and is employed by many companies large and small, but it has become so common in recent years it’s got to the point where customers have lost faith in product reviews.
The one thing you need to remember about Amazon is that their number one priority is to their customers. Everything they do is focussed on providing the best service to their customers. They are very good at this, and it’s the primary reason they have become so successful. Amazon regularly top the polls for best companies by as rated by consumers because they always put customers first, so it should come as no surprise that when their customers no longer trust the review system, Amazon decide to do something about it.
The problem for Amazon is how do they identify, out of the millions of products they sell and the tens or hundreds of millions of reviews on their system, which ones are the bad reviews. There are too many to analyse by person – I worked out that if you had one hundred million reviews and 1% were seen as problematic, it would take over one hundred man years to check them all – and it’s pure cost as far as Amazon are concerned. And it’s not easy. If you look at the books I’ve highlighted as Recommended Reads, each with a corresponding review on Amazon and Goodreads, almost all are by authors I don’t know personally, one or two are by authors I’d met previously through social media, and a number are by authors I’ve since got to know on social media, often because I’ve promoted their books. A handful have gone on to review my books. I’ve always been genuine with my praise and have never requested or expected a review in return – favourable or otherwise – but there are enough connections there for some people to question the validity of my reviews, adding to their mistrust of the system.
And customers regaining trust of the review system is at the heart of what Amazon are doing. So, rightly or wrongly, Amazon have decided to cut off the leg to save the body. They are doing this across all product areas, using an algorithm to identify suspect patterns and connections, and automatically removing reviews they believe could be false, banning those accounts highlighted from generating reviews. And this means some innocents will be caught up in the process. And while that’s bad news for those affected, Amazon see it as a small price to pay compared to their customer regaining trust in reviews.
But as an author, I want people to believe in the reviews of my books. I’m lucky enough to have received some great reviews, a number of them from other authors. I’d hate to lose these reviews but if it meant readers placed more trust in those that remain then so be it. We still have the opportunity of placing those reviews in the ‘Editorial Reviews’ section of the product page, it’s just they would no longer count as part of the overall star ratings and average.
Of course, I would prefer Amazon found a better way to clean up the review system, and as mentioned earlier, I have every sympathy for those wrongly caught up in this process, but if it provides a system readers trust, that can only be of benefit to all of us.
What do you think? Do you agree with me or do you think I’m completely wrong? What are your views on what Amazon is doing, or the review system in general? I’d love to hear from you.
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