Imagine you suddenly have the job of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. Well, even then, you couldn’t do anything you wanted.
So let’s go a step further and grab a magic wand. That’s better. Now you can do anything. Wave your wand a couple of times to test it out.
If you could do it, what would you change at Amazon in order to improve it?
Don’t be selfish here. Don’t just think about bad reviews that you’d like to make vanish or advertisements for your book if you’re an author, or how to make products free for you as a consumer.
I’m not asking how you would make Amazon better for you alone. I’m asking how you would make Amazon better for everyone.
Not just customers. Giving everything away for free would greatly benefit the customers. For a few days, until the company went bankrupt. If you want Amazon to benefit customers in the long run, you must balance what’s best for both the consumers and the business.
Okay. Spend a few moments in fantasy land. Do absolutely anything to Amazon that you want with your magic wand. Then when you return to reality, think about changes that may be beneficial to all.
What would you like to change?
(1) The Amazon Customer Review System
Almost everyone who is familiar with customer reviews on Amazon can write down a few things that they don’t like about them.
Not everyone is in agreement on what should be changed, though. Authors, readers, product owners, editors, publishers. There are some conflicting perspectives here. Even just among customers.
If there is one feature of reviews that we can all agree on, perhaps it’s spitefulness. Some reviews are downright nasty. There are reviews that slander the author, but don’t even mention the book.
You’d think that Amazon would remove such spiteful reviews, right? It even says right there in the terms and conditions that spite is not allowed. But when spiteful reviews are reported – by the author or even a customer – much of the time Amazon simply responds to say that they understand your concern, but this review doesn’t violate the terms and conditions.
Evidently, a reviewer must be blatantly spiteful in order to warrant removal of the review.
How is this in Amazon’s best interest? That spitefulness is very negative. Wouldn’t Amazon create a more positive ambiance by removing that spite? By not removing it, they’re actually encouraging such behavior.
Would customers prefer to see the spite remain or be removed? Does such spitefulness help to brand Amazon’s image with a negative shopping environment? How does this help buyers determine which product to buy? How does it help Amazon sell products?
Maybe you can think of some reason to keep it.
I’ll suggest a couple of possibilities. For one, the spiteful reviews are mostly one and two star reviews. If you wave your magic wand and delete all of the spiteful reviews, millions of one and two star reviews will suddenly vanish. Some products, which only have a few reviews, will suddenly seem better liked than they actually are. The customer who loathed a product so much that he was very spiteful when he wrote the review did cast a vote when he gave it one star. Maybe Amazon wants to retain those votes of one or two stars associated with the spiteful reviews (perhaps there is a reason for this).
If Amazon would like to preserve the one star vote, it could be done while still removing the spite. Just edit out (or delete) the spiteful comments instead of the entire review.
Now we run into another possibility. Manpower. Amazon doesn’t have one of those magic wands to wave and quickly zap away all of the spite.
Remember, we’re not thinking of how to improve Amazon just for customers. We want to find changes that will improve Amazon for everyone. That means not going out of business.
How much would it cost Amazon to monitor the customer review system more closely than they already do? That’s what it would take to deal with spitefulness. Let alone other issues with reviews.
With the advent of self-publishing, there are presently hundreds of thousands of authors who feel that they have a bad review that should be removed for one reason or another. Some have multiple books and numerous reviews that they feel strongly about. Add to this number the legitimate reviews that clearly aren’t violations that some authors would also request to be removed.
Amazon already receives a staggering number of requests from authors for reviews to be removed. This occurs with the current policy in place. That is, it’s well-known that Amazon very rarely removes customer reviews, even when they’re fairly spiteful. Yet, they still receive a ton of requests every day.
Imagine how many, many, many, many, let’s add a few more many’s just for effect (but it may be realistic) more requests Amazon would receive if instead it were well-known that Amazon would remove a review if it were just mildly spiteful. Even if the requests didn’t crash the server, the manpower it would take to attend to these requests would be incredible.
Every day, there are numerous posts online on blogs, community forums, and elsewhere describing unfair customer reviews at Amazon. Bear in mind that the majority of authors don’t write posts about bad reviews because doing so would hurt their own author image and would help brand the image of self-publishing as unprofessional.
Have you ever seen an author get in a long debate with a reviewer using the comment system? It’s very unprofessional, but that’s not the point. My point is that, unfortunately, some authors tend to get highly emotional about reviews and find it difficult to stop arguing about them.
So just imagine those authors communicating with Amazon. They request to have a bad review removed. Amazon says no. They respond to Amazon in a long email. This would go back and forth for an eternity, just like they do in the comments, right?
Nope. Amazon learned not to waste resources on possibly endless communications. Amazon tells the author on their second response that they won’t be able to investigate the matter any further. That is, if the author sends a subsequent request, it will be ignored.
Consider that Amazon has this action in place. It suggests that manpower is already an issue. So is it worth the possible investment to deal with spite? Maybe this is one reason that it hasn’t already been done.
Maybe you can think of a way to deal with spite affordably. Perhaps there is a way.
(Amazon already responds to the request to say that they’ve looked at the review, and understand your concerns, but can’t remove the review. How much more work would it be to remove it? A lot. Because word would spread and the requests would pile up immensely.)
What about other changes to the customer review system?
We could eliminate shill reviews and sock puppets. That is, generating fake reviews to make a product seem better than it actually is. Actually, Amazon has already made this change to some extent. Amazon automatically blocks a very large number of reviews and has removed thousands – perhaps millions – of such reviews. This change was affordable, as a computer program could check for correlations between IP addresses and other information in their database between accounts. It may have removed some legitimate reviews, too, but overall the customer experience has been tremendously improved.
But there is still some review abuse, especially negative reviews that arise from jealousy of some sort (rival authors, ex-boyfriends). Can you think of a way to eliminate this?
A common suggestion is to require all reviews to be Amazon Verified Purchases. Why isn’t this done already? There may be reasons for it.
First of all, there are already millions of reviews that are unverified. Would you like to remove all of those? Perhaps those could be left there, and just impose this on new ones. There are still other issues.
Publishers send out a large number of advance review copies. Publishers provide big business for Amazon. It’s probably not good business for Amazon to prevent the recipients of advance review copies from reviewing books on Amazon, as they would all show as unverified purchases.
What about customers who buy the product elsewhere? A bestselling book might sell many more copies in bookstores than on Amazon. Bestselling authors – and Amazon, too – want all of those customers to be eligible to review the books on Amazon.
What about eBooks? Well, customers don’t have to use Kindle to read eBooks, but Amazon still allows them to post reviews. They can be gifted and lent, too.
But maybe there is one aspect of this that most of us would agree on. Amazon has made it clear that customers can review products even if they’ve never seen or used them.
Does this seem crazy to you? Imagine that you invented a machine and one of the first customers left a review saying, “I didn’t buy this, but just looking at it I can tell it wouldn’t work.” Okay, nobody who reads the review is going to take it seriously, but it does affect the average star value.
When a customer clearly states in the review that he or she hasn’t read the book or used the product, maybe those reviews could be removed. Wouldn’t this be a small improvement?
Amazon’s customer review system isn’t perfect, but it is pretty effective at soliciting opinions, and it does provide shoppers with diverse information that they can consider. Most of us may agree that it’s better than no reviews at all.
There may be other ways to improve the system. Remember, cost is a factor. You might want to hire external companies to leave neutral reviews instead of customer reviews, but with tens of millions of products, is that feasible?
I have a few suggestions. I’ve heard a few others express similar ideas. Maybe you have some other ideas that haven’t been addressed.
When you finish reading an eBook on Kindle, why can’t you type your review right then and there? Wouldn’t that be convenient? Why can’t you click on the book on the device and find a quick and easy place to post the review? I have the Kindle in front of me. I’m in the mood to review the book. It’s on my mind. But I must be inconvenienced to login to Amazon, which I would rather do on my pc. How many customers were ready to leave a review, but decided against it out of inconvenience?
I’ve typed reviews and stopped when I saw the preview, thinking I was done. I wonder how many other customers haven’t finished the review process, not realizing that they had to check the preview and approve it? Oops! Or maybe they rated it when they reached the end of a Kindle eBook, thinking that was a review? There may be a little room for improvement here.
How about separating the rating from the reviews? That is, let customers rate the book without reviewing it, like they can do at Goodreads. Some customers can put a number on a book, but feel uncomfortable describing it in words (including reaching the minimum word count).
If you want to drastically increase the frequency of customer reviews, offer a penny for every review. Or make it a nickel, dime, or a percent if you really want to see tons of reviews on Amazon. I bet many authors wouldn’t mind this being subtracted from their royalties to help encourage more reviews. But the discount (off a future purchase, perhaps) might inspire more sales.
(2) Self-Publishing Quality Control
First, let me say that I put this here because it’s a popular issue, not because I personally am in favor of this. I’ll try to show the pros and cons, and you can decide for yourself. Or maybe you will think of better ideas that I’ve left out.
If you could wave a magic wand to remove every book that doesn’t meet a minimum degree of editing, formatting, and writing, would you do it? As long as it’s a magic wand, rather than removing these books, maybe you could just make them magically look more professional.
But we can’t fix them with magic. It would take an insane amount of manpower to format and edit them. It would take an insane amount of manpower just to screen them. So just hiring a very large editing team isn’t feasible.
Amazon could charge a publishing fee to cover the cost. Some people would be in favor of this. But many people would also be against it. Currently, Amazon is free. Amazon has done an amazing thing, opening the doors of publishing to everybody. Amazon has an abundance of support from the self-publishing community for this. These authors – and their family, friends, and acquaintances – don’t just write books, most of them read books, too. Imposing an inhibitive fee may not be good for business in the grand scheme of things.
Even an optional fee has an issue. By being free, Amazon is differentiated from vanity presses.
Free publishing gives Amazon an unbelievable selection.
There are some books with formatting, editing, writing, and even storyline issues. These books are a problem for customers and also adversely affect the image of Kindle, Amazon, and self-publishing.
But how bad is the problem? I don’t mean this as a percentage of books. I mean that most customers check out the description, reviews, and Look Inside and generally are able to avoid such books. Those who don’t are apt to learn to do this through experience. These books tend to have lousy sales ranks. So are they selling enough to be so concerned about? Perhaps a few years ago when Kindle and self-publishing were newer, more customers were coming across such books. Perhaps it was a bigger problem before Amazon’s program started removing and blocking most of the shill reviews and sock puppets. Perhaps it’s not such a problem now. Especially, in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Or maybe you have a better suggestion.
Self-published authors have a strong incentive to improve their books as much as possible, as this will greatly improve their chances of success.
Also, customers can report formatting issues. This helps Amazon catch some of the more serious problems. They actually suspend sales of eBooks until the issues are resolved.
(3) Order of Search Results and Categories
This might be something to consider. Most book categories have thousands of books even in the final subcategory, yet only a dozen books show on the page. If you type a search, you sometimes receive interesting results. Obviously, Amazon wants to order the search results based on what consumers are most likely to buy as well as what is likely to please the customer. But it seems like there could be a better way to sort through tens of millions of products to find what you’re looking for. And there may be ways for people to abuse the system (i.e. to get their products to show higher in the search without merit). Fortunately, Amazon doesn’t publish their algorithm, and may revise it, which makes it harder to abuse.
Amazon is probably considering this on an ongoing basis. Categories have changed over the years, and they have probably revised the program which determines the order of search results. They have also added filters, like “most reviews,” so you can see which books have been reviewed most (whereas searching by the highest customer review would put a book with a single five star review ahead of a book that has hundreds of reviews that are mostly five stars); that’s a small improvement. Can you think of other ways to improve this?
(4) Other Changes
I selected a few popular topics to discuss. Maybe you can think of other areas where Amazon could be improved.
Some of the changes I’ve mentioned I have suggested to Amazon (not all at once). Feel free to send your own suggestions to Amazon. The more times Amazon receives the same suggestion, the more likely they are to realize that there is a demand for it. They claim to welcome feedback, and that customer feedback is invaluable. So apparently this is encouraged.
Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers