Anonymous Reviews… Going to Court

Free Speech

The Battle

There is an interesting court battle in progress on the subject of anonymous customer reviews. In my humble opinion, each side has something important at stake:

  • If you, as a customer, are dissatisfied with a product, shouldn’t you have the freedom to express your opinion publicly without having to worry about backlash from the company? If so, reviewing anonymously helps to avoid possible backlash.
  • If you, as a business owner, have your reputation destroyed by fake anonymous reviews, shouldn’t you have the opportunity to defend your reputation? If so, competitors or enemies can abuse review anonymity in an effort to tarnish your reputation.

Pros and Cons

Personally, as a customer, I only review a product if I’m pleased with the product. If I’m dissatisfied with a product, I simply don’t review the product, don’t use the product again, don’t advise anyone to use that product, and don’t ever buy that brand again. I don’t say bad things about the product or company. I’d rather spend my time saying good things about products and companies that I like.

But, also as a customer, if I were about to make a major purchase, I’d really appreciate a heads-up from prior customers who were dissatisfied with a product. When valid, those critical reviews can be quite helpful. Customers are less likely to post honest bad reviews if they can’t do so anonymously or if they may be subject to lawsuits from the company that manufactures the product.

On the other hand, as a customer, I don’t want to be swayed by fake negative reviews from competitors. Anonymous reviews allow for this type of abuse.

In today’s world, business owners need honest customer reviews because consumers are consulting online reviews prior to making purchases. The customer review system only has integrity when it allows for both favorable and critical reviews. Anonymity helps to encourage honest critical reviews.

Unfortunately, anonymous reviewing also invites review abuse.

To me, it seems like a tough call. You can eliminate much review abuse by eliminating anonymity (or allowing the business to find the customer’s identity through subpoena when warranted). But then you lose review integrity because customers will be discouraged from saying anything bad due to possible legal repercussions.


A case of a business versus Yelp is currently headed to higher court. You can read an absolutely fascinating article about this at Yahoo! Finance with the following link:

While it is possible to abuse review anonymity, some people have been caught. The following New York Times article tells the story of people paying very hefty fines for planting fake reviews:

These legal battles represent the extremes; these are the worst-case scenarios.

Many businesses see the wisdom in avoiding such lawsuits. Suing customers doesn’t look good for a company’s image and may call attention to valid criticism.


Websites like have taken great strides toward removing and limiting fake positive reviews. Amazon, Yelp, and other customer-review-oriented websites have a strong incentive to remove and minimize review abuse: Their future success relies on customers being able to trust the customer review system.

Customers are becoming more aware of previous review abuse, both positive and negative. Therefore, customers are learning to be suspicious of all the reviews they see. They are suspicious of favorable reviews coming from friends and family, of critical reviews coming from competitors, and even neutral reviews that may have been planted by either party.

Businesses and authors have an incentive to avoid “recruiting” reviews. Such reviews often seem suspicious and may thus deter sales. When all the reviews are glowing, when the number of reviews seems high for the amount of sales (this can be gauged by comparing the sales rank and publication date to the review tally), or just the way recruited reviews are often worded may trigger buyer suspicion.

Competitors have incentives to avoid trashing the competition, and this goes beyond karma or possible litigation. For one, adding a negative review often results in increased sales. A negative review may add balance and create legitimacy. A negative review raises the overall review tally, making the product appear more popular. Critical reviews may arouse buyer suspicion. However, if a competitor succeeds in bringing down the competition, in many cases this hurts everybody’s sales, not just the company whose image was tarnished.

Such is the case with books, for example. When competing similar books sell well, their sales help to stimulate sales of other similar titles through customers-also-bought marketing tactics. When a foolish author succeeds in deterring sales of similar books, that author actually hurts his or her own sales by limiting the potential of customers-also-bought marketing.

Customers have the opportunity to help make the customer review system trustworthy. Take the time to post honest feedback of products and services that you use. The more customers who take the time to post honest reviews, the less effect abusive reviews will have.

Recently, I’ve noticed on Amazon that Kindle e-books aren’t showing the review tally and rating until I click on them. I’ve heard from others who’ve seen this too, shopping at, depending on the browser (which may not be consistent, i.e. one browser may work for one customer, but not another, and may be opposite for another pair of customers). I kind of like not having the reviews influence which books interest me. Whether Amazon is testing this out or if it’s a temporary glitch, it’s been an interesting experience.

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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18 comments on “Anonymous Reviews… Going to Court

  1. I tend to only read positive reviews when buying a book but rarely rely on any reviews for book buying. The description the author leaves is the selling point for me. And you are right on leaving bad reviews. I don’t and never had. Now that I have written a book myself I see how disheartening it can be to the author. After all it is only an opinion and everyone has different taste.

  2. Interesting observations I have not noticed on Amazon. I have not posted a review if I could not give the product or book a three star or better. If the item is stellar I want the world to know about it. It does bother me, though, that promotional advertisers of fiction often will NOT consider carrying your ad UNLESS you have X amount of four and five star reviews on Amazon. (Never mind the other platforms.) Some (exceptionally successful) authors have sent free copies to every book blogger on the web to get those numbers up, so they can place these ads and sell more books to, hopefully, raise them further. It is time consuming work.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of the anonymity – because I think people should be held accountable for what they say and do, be that in real life, or on the net. I guess then it should come as no surprise that I review on amazon under my full, real name, and I always post my honest opinion, be that negative or positive. It’s certainly a bit of a roller coaster, I’ll admit. I get a lot of negative votes on reviews that are negative initially, and I assume at least some of these come from the author, their friends, and their family, because usually my vote tallies start to rise drastically after a day or so. I kind of wish votes weren’t anonymous while we’re on the subject–but I do think negative votes play a part to help legitimize and balance out the reviews of a product… they can be painful to read, but without them reviews are kind of meaningless. When I look at a product I always check how many stars the product got (and how many of which rating to see where the majority of the votes reside!) and then I’ll read the most negative reviews first and work my way up to the positive ones. It’s usually easy to tell which negative reviews are hogwash, and which are honest…where as with positive reviews, it’s nearly impossible to tell.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience with leaving and interpreting reviews. Voting is interesting, too. I was surprised to learn that if an author complains about a review to Amazon, Amazon actually suggests that the author may vote and comment on the review.

  4. Great post. I think the anonymity is a double-edged sword. It makes people feel more comfortable reviewing, but a minority abuses it to be ‘Internet Tough Guys’. Though I just wish they would get rid of that Overall Rating thing.

    • I would rather not see reviews at all until I reach the product page. Then I would be content just to see the reviews; the average star rating and even the total number of reviews I could do without. (I could even get rid of stars all together and just read comments.)

      • Stars are a true pain. They’re the reason I have trouble writing reviews. I can do positive/negative, but I never know if my star system is the same as other people.

  5. I regularly post reviews on various sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords using my name, but it has always bothered me that when my reviews are copied from B&N to Nook UK they are shown as written by Anonymous 😦

  6. Regardless of whether reviews are anonymous or not, authors need to play the game well. While I frequently buy books that have their bad reviews outweighed by good reviews, I rarely buy books that have few reviews.

    • More reviews do give you a greater assortment of opinions to look at and may help to show that the book is selling well and that the author is marketing well. I think it depends a little on the nature of the book. For example, in a few nonfiction subjects I see that reviews tend to have low tallies even for books that sell quite well; it might look odd for a new author with a new book to have more reviews than an established seller. For most genres, I think around 20 reviews start to offer a good assortment of comments for readers to mull over. Thank you for sharing your perspective on reviews as a buyer. 🙂

  7. I read reviews of products on Amazon but not on the books. While I write reviews, they tend to be 5 stars because those are the stories I enjoyed and finished.

    The blurb used to be the criteria, but now with allowing a view inside the book, it is easy to determine within a page or three if I wish to spend the money and read. Leaving a low rating on a sample is a waste of my time as I am already looking into another book.

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