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.

Lawsuits

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:

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/yelp-reviews-brew-fight-over-233100483.html

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/technology/give-yourself-4-stars-online-it-might-cost-you.html

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.

Trust

Websites like Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com, 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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Amazon Customer Reviews—Simple Survey

Reviews 3

I’m curious how you, as a reader, feel about customer reviews at Amazon. I made this simple survey hoping to find out.

Please answer how you feel as a reader (not as an author).

This survey is just for informational purposes only.

Here is your chance to review the review system. 🙂

Pros:

  • You can learn about experiences that other customers have had with the product.
  • The number of reviews give some indication of how much a product has been purchased.
  • Feedback often includes a variety of opinions to consider.
  • You get to express your opinion about products where thousands of other shoppers can read it.
  • Critical reviews can help to prevent the sale of products that really aren’t fit for sale (though returns and complaints could achieve the same outcome).
  • Honest customer feedback has the opportunity to determine the success of a product.

Cons:

  • Opinions are often contradictory, making it a challenge to judge what to believe.
  • The system can be abused, both with favorable and critical reviews (though Amazon has made it much more difficult to do this compared to a couple of years ago).
  • There are sometimes spiteful remarks in the review section. This is one feature that seems to contradict Amazon’s focus on creating a positive shopping experience.
  • Customers aren’t required to either buy or use a product in order to review it.
  • Reviews can be posted anonymously. This is a pro in terms of internet security, but leaves room for occasional reviews that abuse the spirit of the review system.
  • Some external advertising services require a minimum number of reviews and average star rating, providing an incentive to recruit favorable reviews rather than encouraging reviews to come about naturally.

Overall:

  • Do you feel it’s beneficial, as a reader, to have customer reviews on the product page? That is, do the pros outweigh the cons?
  • Do you like the comments, the ratings, or both?
  • Do you feel that you could improve the customer review system? If so, how?

Vote:

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

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

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Recent Fines – Another Step toward Customer Review Integrity

Did you see this recent New York Times article, “Give Yourself 5 Stars? Online, It Might Cost You”?

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/technology/give-yourself-4-stars-online-it-might-cost-you.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(Funny how it says 5 in the title, but 4 in the link. I guess even NYT can goof.)

If you read the article, you’ll see that several businesses were fined large sums of money for using phony online reviews to make their businesses look more appealing to customers.

Most people are aware that there are phony reviews. What needs more publicity is the ongoing effort by various companies (and law enforcement) to remove, prevent, and punish the phony reviews.

For example, Amazon cracked down on phony, family, and close friend reviews a couple of years ago, and this has greatly helped to reduce the number of phony 4- and 5-star reviews. Most customers are aware of the problem, but aren’t aware that it has improved significantly. (Yes, it would be nice if Amazon also cracked down on the phony critical reviews to the same extent, but at least Amazon has made big strides.) Surely, there is still some review abuse, but it is appears to be much better than it was a few years ago.

Many other websites are similarly working to remove and prevent review abuse. Some are even eliminating critical review abuse in addition to favorable review abuse, which is another good sign.

The above article shows that steps are even being taken on the legal side of this issue. When any business senses that a significant amount of money is being lost due to review abuse, this becomes an incentive to help bring action against it.

Don’t lose any sleep over people who may be gaming the system. Things will catch up with them eventually.

Related Article:

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/508801/20130925/google-fine-yelp-fake-reviews-schneiderman-ny.htm

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Review Copies

Publishers and authors sometimes send out several advance review copies in an effort to try to build buzz for an upcoming book and, hopefully, generate some early reviews.

(If you’re interested in review copies for any of my books, please see the end of this post.)

Note that there are different types of book reviews. There are customer book reviews that can be posted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads, for example. Bloggers can post reviews on their blogs. Then there are media reviews that may appear in newspapers, magazines, etc.

Readers who receive an advance review copy are required to include a note in the review stating that they received a free review copy.

Amazon, for example, permits this as long as the reviewer isn’t compensated in any way other than a free review copy, it is made clear that the reviewer can leave a good or bad review, and the review doesn’t violate any of Amazon’s customer review guidelines. (Note that Amazon’s program is now pretty effective at blocking many reviews from close friends and family. They can help you generate buzz and promote your book, but aren’t eligible to review your book.)

There are a few ways that an indie author can give out advance review copies.

One way is to get fans to sign up to be on a mailing list for the chance to receive a review copy of your next book. When a fan contacts you, this is something you might offer. Or when you’re ready to send out a limited number of advance review copies, you can post an announcement. You could do this with paperback books or e-books.

Another way is to sign up for a Goodreads giveaway. Recipients are encouraged to post a review, but aren’t required to do so, and, of course, a review could be good or bad.

KDP Select provides an alternative means of giving away free copies with the hope of generating a few reviews. However, there is no guarantee that any reviews will come, and if they do, they may be good or bad. Actually, there is somewhat of an increased chance of getting a negative review because the freebie may attract readers from outside the genre, who aren’t familiar with what to expect, as well as readers who may not bother to read the description and check out the book as thoroughly as if they were to make a purchase. It’s also possible to give away hundreds of free e-books through a free promotion without getting a single review in return.

The KDP Select free promotion is more likely to be effective if you succeed at promoting the freebie to your target audience.

One nice benefit of the KDP Select freebie is that the reviewer may opt to have the Amazon customer review show as an Amazon verified purchase. Other kinds of customer reviews generated at Amazon from review copies will show as unverified purchases. Many reviews that show as unverified purchases may seem suspicious to buyers (although when they come from review copies, they are the result of additional marketing steps that the author or publisher has taken).

A month ago I announced that I was trying out the Goodreads giveaway program. Today I sent books out to 10 lucky winners. Now I cross my fingers.

If you weren’t one of the lucky winners, but are interested in receiving a copy for any of my books or future books, please let me know. One way to email me is to click my name where it shows the photo for the about.me on my blog (on the sidebar to the right). Or you can just leave a comment (but don’t post personal information in the comment), and I’ll try to contact you in return.

Please specify which types of books that I write interest you (or if you have any specific titles, feel free to make a special request) – e.g. self-publishing, math workbooks, etc. It doesn’t have to be for you – e.g. if you have or know some kids who could benefit from some good old-fashioned math practice.

It’s not really a review copy in that I don’t expect anything in return; I just hope the book will be put to good use (or at least firewood). 🙂 (Of course, if there turns out to be a high demand, I may have to be selective. I’ll be surprised – pleasantly – if this offer turns out to be that popular though.)

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Did You See These Funny Reviews Featured on Amazon?

Did you notice the new advertisement for funny reviews at Amazon? On the homepage, there is an ad that says, “You Guys Are Really Funny.” It’s not an external ad; it links to an Amazon page. The page features 10 different products (only the last one is a book). Each has 3 funny customer reviews.

If you haven’t seen these funny reviews, you should check them out:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1001250201

They are pretty hilarious.

Why did Amazon do this?

  • Perhaps to share something funny and put customers in a good mood.
  • Maybe to help try to improve the perception of customer reviews.
  • Possibly to encourage customers to write product reviews – showing that you can be creative and have fun with it.
  • It could be to generate more reviews of products other than books, since 9 out of 10 of the products featured weren’t books.
  • There might not be just one reason. Or it could just be the first point and we shouldn’t overanalyze this.

Regardless of the motive, this advertisement for funny reviews could have any of these effects. None of which would be a bad thing, really.

In the spirit of these reviews, maybe the real reason is to get more guys to buy products on Amazon, hoping the products will help them with the subject of women. 🙂

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Recent Improvements (?)

Have you noticed a few subtle changes, recently, to Amazon customer book reviews? Find any book on Amazon with several reviews and look closely.

First, let me back up a little, time-wise. On the product page, customer reviews show in two columns. The wider left column shows the top-rated customer reviews in full, while the narrower right column shows the first sentence (or so) of the most recent reviews, with the newest reviews at the top.

This has changed somewhat.

Until several months ago, Amazon used to only show the three top-voted customer reviews at the left. Now, more reviews show up in full at the left; the exact number depends on how many reviews there are all together. This was a nice improvement that many authors and customers had requested.

Another change that occurred several months ago was the inclusion of a few selected excerpts just above the review section. Until very recently, these quotes appeared one above the other in a list, and included a note of how many other customers made similar statements.

Very recently, this changed for one of my books. The excerpts now appear in callouts, and it no longer shows the number of customers who made similar remarks. If you click on one of the three callouts, Amazon takes you straight to that review.

Another of my books has the old list system instead of the callouts, and still shows the number of similar remarks. Maybe they are testing the callout system with selected books, maybe it will take time to change this for all books, or maybe only select books will feature the callouts.

Anyway, there is an interesting issue with the two-column format with more than three full-length reviews showing at the left. For any book that receives a bad review, this comment always carries weight while it’s the most recent review since it shows up at the top of the reviews in the right column. When eventually a good review comes in, it appears above the old bad review.

Unless… customers vote on the new good review, moving it over to the list at the left. Then the bad review reclaims its position at the top of the right column. When there were only three full-length reviews at the left, it wasn’t easy for a new good review to become popular enough to move onto that exclusive list. But now there may be several reviews on the left, so it’s easier for a review to make the transition.

It’s a rather subtle point, and probably not worth much consideration. I just thought it was interesting.

Another change that occurred several months back is what happens when you click the link to see all of the customer book reviews for a given book. Presently, it shows the top-rated favorable review and the top-rated critical review. In the old days, all of the critical reviews (or all of the favorable reviews) could potentially be buried at the bottom of the list, depending on the circumstances. This feature helps to show some balance. Customers are probably trying to weigh the pros versus the cons, so this may be helpful.

What I like most about the recent changes is that Amazon is evidently constantly assessing their customer review program and striving to improve it. The steps may be small, and it may not seem like an improvement to everybody, but I appreciate the effort – both as an author and a reader.

Amazon has made very significant changes in the past. One of the most notable occurred a few years ago when Amazon altered its program to help block suspected shill, sham, and household family member reviews. This change was implemented when they removed thousands (probably, millions) of suspicious reviews. The revision wasn’t perfect, I’m sure; there are probably a few still out there that didn’t meet the criteria of the program, and there were probably a few removed that should have stood. However, this was a significant change to improve the customer review system, and it appears to have made a marked difference.

Have you seen any other changes recently? What are your thoughts?

Who knows what will come in the future? Since Amazon is making periodic changes, we have reason to hope that it will continue to get better.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Comparing Book and Movie Reviews

I buy books (both paperback and e-book) at Amazon and rent movies from Redbox. As an author, reader, and movie watcher, I find the comparison interesting.

When I pull up Amazon’s home page, I see a customized list of thumbnail images of books. Every book has the average star rating beneath it. However, when I pull up Redbox’s home page, I see just the thumbnail images of the movies – no average star rating. Also, when I shop for movies at a physical Redbox, I don’t see the reviews at all.

The strategy is a little different. Amazon wants you to see the perceived popularity with other customers before you click on a book that looks interesting, while Redbox wants you to decide which movie looks interesting before seeing what other customers think.

At a physical Redbox, they evidently don’t want you to be influenced by reviews at all. Perhaps including highly visible reviews on the machine would slow down the process. Have you ever stood in line just to return your movie, but had to wait twenty minutes for someone who was shopping? If so, just imagine how long the wait would be if customers could read through hundreds of reviews there.

I like how – online – Redbox wants you to first select a movie of interest, and then check out the reviews. I prefer this to Amazon’s method of showing you the average star rating first. I kind of feel that I’m being told what to read: Buy what’s most popular… what everyone else has… we know what’s best for you…

Things become more interesting when you check out the reviews themselves. Movies tend to have very many reviews, and the critics can be harsh. It’s tough to find any movies – even with popular actors and actresses – that have very high average star ratings at Redbox. Sometimes a pretty good movie has an average star rating of around three.

The average review rating can actually be less than one star. Fortunately, the minimum customer review at Amazon is one star. I once clicked on movie that had a really cool cover and looked professional, but had a point-something star rating with over a hundred reviews. What? How could it be that nobody liked the movie?

Authors can gain a different perspective on customer book reviews by checking out some of the Redbox movie reviews. I’m glad I haven’t produced any movies.

Yet even if the movie has many of bad reviews and hardly any good ones, it still has numerous reviews. That is, many people watched it regardless of all those lousy reviews. If a book has many more bad reviews than good ones, customers probably won’t buy it. Its sales rank will plummet.

Ah, there’s another point. Amazon tells you the sales rank. So if a book that was selling regularly suddenly has a dry spell, the sales rank climbs up to a million and shoppers think, “That book must not be good.” If the book is lucky enough to get a sale, the sales rank improves to the hundred thousands, and sometimes that one sale triggers a couple of more sales. If the sales rank climbs to the low thousands, customers perceive it as popular. If it gets on the bestseller list, it must really be good, right? That’s the perception.

Redbox doesn’t tell customers the ‘rental rank.’ Redbox doesn’t tell you which movies are more or less popular. I like that it’s not a popularity contest. It’s just about what interests you.

At Redbox, you sort movies by release date or alphabetically. The order of search results is a little more… interesting.

Of course, Amazon has tens of millions of books to choose from, whereas Redbox can only fit so many recent movies in the machine (Netflix doesn’t have that limitation). A movie is also over in a couple of hours, while you may spend weeks reading a book.

I realize I’m comparing apples to oranges. Actually, the supermarket sells apples pretty much the same way they sell oranges. The difference between book sales and movie rentals is fairly significant.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Thank You, Reviewers

Thank You Pic

Thank you, Readers

For taking the time to review books,

To express what you enjoyed,

To suggest what could be better.

 

Thank you, Shoppers

For reading customer book reviews,

For trying to sort out which comments are helpful,

For comparing feedback to the Look Inside.

 

Thank you, Customers

For not being afraid to share your feedback,

Despite the few who don’t handle criticism well,

For realizing that most authors aren’t this way.

 

Thank you, Bloggers

For investing so much time to read many books,

For posting book reviews on your blogs,

For helping out so many authors.

 

Thank you, Authors

For not reviewing your own books,

For not blasting the competition,

For not lashing out at reviewers.

 

Thank you, Everyone

Who has taken time to post a review,

Who hasn’t abused the review guidelines,

Who supports the wonderful world of books.

 

We need you,

Readers, Customers, Bloggers, Reviewers.

We would be nowhere without you.

Thank you so much.

 

Chris McMullen

Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Author Controversies

Reviews Pic

Most authors are customers, too.

As customers, we want to see actual reviews written by actual customers, find a variety of balanced opinions, and be able to trust Amazon’s customer review system.

As authors, we see the benefits of having more customer reviews. Of course, we always cross our fingers that the reviews will be positive. However, we realize that we can’t please everybody, and we know that what’s good for the customer is good for authors and publishers, too.

If the reviews aren’t balanced or if customers aren’t able to trust the review system, then the system isn’t benefiting anyone – customers, authors, publishers, or Amazon.

Authors write many book reviews. That’s because authors are readers, too, and nobody understands how important reviews are more than authors.

So it’s important for authors to understand what is or isn’t allowed, and why.

Violations can lead to deleted reviews, loss of review privileges, account suspensions, books being unpublished, etc.

(1) Review Swapping: Jack reviews Jill’s book and Jill reviews Jack’s book.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t spell it out by saying, “Review swapping is not allowed.”

But it can be deduced from the guidelines (see References 1-3) as follows:

  • You’re not allowed to offer compensation for writing a review. If Jack offers to write a review of Jill’s book in exchange for a review of Jack’s book, then Jack is offering Jill compensation. This is a clear violation of the guidelines.

Amazon may catch it (perhaps through cross-referencing). If not, customers who observe it may report it to Amazon. There are stories of authors who have lost reviews and privileges.

What’s wrong with this? Doesn’t the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-my-back idea seem unscrupulous? How would this look to a customer who noticed what was going on? It doesn’t matter that the reviews could, in principle, be written objectively. The problem is that the review is written with compensation in mind, which provides an incentive for writing an unbiased review. It’s the incentive that matters, not the intent (incentive is also much more clear).

It is possible for a review swap to come about in other ways. For example, Jack might review Jill’s book. Jill checks out Jack’s profile and discovers that Jack is an author. Jill reads Jack’s book and reviews it. They didn’t agree to scratch each other’s backs. But how would Amazon know the difference? It still looks like a review swap.

If another author reviews your book, you might feel like reciprocating. But then it will look like a review swap. Instead, pay it forward: That is, read a book by someone you don’t know, and review that book.

Of course, it’s possible for two authors to review each other’s books and not even know it, especially if they don’t use their real names on their review profiles. The chances of this happening accidentally, however, are very slim. It still looks like a review swap to Amazon.

There is yet another way for a review swap to come about. Jack is an author who knows Jill. Jack asks Jill to read and review his book. Jill does. Months later, Jill has written a book. Naturally, Jill wants Jack to return the favor. Doesn’t this still look like a review swap?

(2) Advance Review Copies: Dave gives out free copies of his book, hoping to receive some reviews.

This may be legitimate. This is the one exception to compensating reviewers: Authors or publishers may give one free copy of the book to each potential reviewer. Publishers often have mailing lists for advance review copies. Goodreads has a giveaway program to help authors distribute advance review copies for print books.

However, there are restrictions:

  • You must make it clear that you welcome all feedback – positive or negative. For example, you’re not allowed to give a free book in exchange just for a good review.
  • You can only offer one free book. You can’t offer products, discounts, entries into a contest, bonus material, etc. as an incentive for writing the review.
  • You can’t tell the reviewer what to write, tell the reviewer to write a review if the feedback is positive but just email you any negative comments instead, etc.
  • The book must be given free up front; it can’t be contingent upon writing the review.

Giving out advance review copies encourages more reviews. More customer reviews is good for everyone, but only if they are unbiased.

Note that such reviews won’t show as Amazon Verified Purchases. (There is a possible exception. For example, if your book is free through KDP Select and the reviewer downloads your book when it’s free, and the reviewer checks the box to mark it as an Amazon Verified Purchase.)

(3) The Friend and Family Plan: Jane asks her many family members and friends to review her book.

If all authors did this, most of the reviews would be biased. Amazon can’t say that it’s only allowed if the reviews are unbiased: How can Amazon tell, in general? They can’t.

So instead, Amazon has guidelines for what is or isn’t allowed:

  • Definitely, anyone who shares a household with the author isn’t allowed to review the book.
  • Close friends aren’t allowed to review the book. (What makes friends ‘close’? Good question.) This surely includes close family members who don’t live with the author, too.
  • Anyone who has a financial interest in the book isn’t allowed to review it: spouse, children, publisher, editor, cover designer, etc. (Even if the cover designer doesn’t receive a percentage of royalties, the success of the book may help the cover designer through referrals.)
  • Obviously, the author isn’t allowed to review the author’s own book.
  • You’re not allowed to post reviews on behalf of others. For example, if you sell a book to someone in person who has no internet access, if they ask you to review the book on their behalf, you’re not allowed to do it.

Amazon blocks and deletes reviews that are suspected of being on the friend and family plan. They may have a program that checks for common addresses, IP addresses, etc.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/05/amazon-removes-book-reviews

In addition to Amazon, there are external parties checking reviews. For example, there are people publishing research who are examining the writing style of multiple reviewers to see if they may have been written by the same person, scrutinizing books with many reviews but only a few sales, etc. There are published cases of review abuse that have been discovered and exposed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/historian-orlando-figes-amazon-reviews-rivals

(4) Dogs Eating Dogs: Bob slams the competition by giving them negative reviews.

Authors are not allowed to review similar titles. This very clear from the guideline that says you can’t review a book if you have a financial interest in it. So if Bob gives Eric a bad review and that bad review might improve the sales of Bob’s book, that review is in violation of Amazon’s policies. You’re not allowed to slam the competition.

Aside from being unscrupulous, it’s just plain foolish to slam the competition. Most books are more complementary than competitive. Customers usually buy multiple books that are similar (if not all at once, then spread over time). It’s usually not Book A or Book B; it’s often both. So if you do something to cause similar books’ sales to decline, it might hurt your own book’s sales through Customers Also Bought and other marketing associations.

You’re also not allowed to give positive reviews of similar titles, since a good review of a similar book might improve the sales of your book through Customers Also Bought lists.

(5) Paid Reviews: Cindy pays Jeff to write a review of her book.

This clearly violates the rule about receiving compensation, with one exception.

Editorial reviews, such as Kirkus reviews, may be paid for. These appear as editorial reviews, however, and not as customer reviews. There is a separate section for editorial reviews, and they can be added through AuthorCentral. Editorial reviews don’t necessarily need to be written by editors and experts in the field, as explained in Note 4 of Reference 3.

https://authorcentral.amazon.com

Note: All of the names used to illustrate examples (Jack, Jill, Dave, etc.) are all fictitious. These names do not refer to actual people. If there happen to be authors with those names who have done the things described (or have been accused by others of doing so or who may have done related or similar things), it is purely coincidental.

References

1. Kindle Direct Publishing Newsletter, May 2013, Volume 26, Featured Resource, “Q & A on Amazon’s Customer Review Policies.”

http://hosted-p0.vresp.com/816983/84997531d8/ARCHIVE

2. Amazon.com: Customer Reviews Submission Guidelines.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-reviews-guidelines

3. Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors

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

How Would You Improve Amazon?

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.

Huh?

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.

What?

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