There’s an article doing the rounds at the moment from the Washington Post suggesting that the Amazon is undergoing some kind of fake review crisis. There are problems with Amazon reviews, of course, but this article is based on some pretty flawed data. At least in how it pertains to the world of books, which is what I know, and what I’ll focus on here. I can’t speak to the world of diet supplements or fake tan or giant tubs of lube – alas.
The article’s claims are largely based on a flaky site called ReviewMeta, which seems far better at getting publicity for itself than correctly analyzing the trustworthiness of reviews, which is a pity as it would be a wonderful tool if it was in any way accurate.
What is the cause of ReviewMeta’s inaccuracy? Gaughran experimented with the service. The results were pretty dismaying, but in the current climate, sadly not surprising.
Digging into this data, though, shows the extreme limitations of the site and the way it calculates the trustworthiness of reviews – at least how it pertains to the world of books. Perhaps it is more accurate for jellybeans or computer peripherals, I really can’t say. But when it comes to books, it makes a number of pejorative assumptions about what is legitimate reader behavior, such as reviewing Book 2 of a series after reviewing Book 1 or mentioning the title of the book in the review, and these routine reader actions cause ReviewMeta to flag these reviews as questionable or suspicious.
This then casts aspersions on the integrity of the authors of these books – who are self-employed people working in an industry where reputation and integrity are critically important, not huge faceless brands… if that matters. Worse still, the site has been aware of these issues for two years, and not only have they not corrected them, they reacted in a hostile way when presented with this information.
Basing a clickbait article on data from a service that flags reviews for normal reader behavior like reviewing two books in a series and mentioning a book’s name is to be expected of a fake news rag like the Washington Post. What’s troubling is Gaughran’s suspicion that Amazon’s own review-flagging algorithm might be using similar flawed criteria.
The sad thing about all of this is that Amazon does have a fake review problem, one which is compounded by Amazon deploying a fake review detection algorithm that seems about as accurate as the one from ReviewMeta, perhaps for similar reasons too. Which means that authors innocent of any wrongdoing get genuine, organic reviews from bona fide reviewers removed every day and the scammers and cheaters with fake reviews keep getting away with it. Sites like ReviewMeta aren’t helping with this problem, they are making it worse.
But the worst part of all, perhaps, is the complete misunderstanding of how Amazon algorithms work. Reviews don’t cause success, they are a symptom of it. Yes, a lot of overwhelmingly positive reviews will sway an on the fence-purchaser, but they don’t automatically lead to sales – not in the world of books, at least. Maybe if I’m looking for a phone charger and they are all more-or-less fungible, then reviews become the tie-breaker for a lot of people. Not with novels. I don’t care how many reviews the Da Vinci Code has, I’m never going to read it.
The continued media focus on “fake” reviews – driven in part by ReviewMeta’s relentless publicity drive – is taking attention away from much more serious issues that the media have not covered in any depth, such as clickfarming, bookstuffing, incentivized purchasing, and mass gifting.
Manipulation of rank and payouts, rather than reviews, is the truly serious issue here.
Trustworthy reviews are among the necessary features that make online commerce possible. Amazon would do well to examine their review flagging process to make sure it’s a) not punishing innocent readers and authors arbitrarily and b) catching real credibility threats like bot farms, paid reviews, and sock puppet accounts.
No one’s irreplaceable. If Bezos thinks Amazon can’t be disintermediated, he should log on to MySpace or AOL sometime.
In the meantime, check out my action-adventure novel The Ophian Rising, which currently enjoys a 4.9 star ranking from 100& real reviewers.
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