Is the Amazon Book Review System Broken?
Amazon customer book reviews have become an extremely powerful tool for the giant retailer. Crowdsourcing book reviews provides Amazon masses of free content, allows readers to participate in the bookselling and reading experience, and clearly helps sell a lot of books, giving Amazon yet one more advantage over bricks and mortar stores and even other online retailers who have been slower or less able to get their own customers to do the same.
Of course, since customer reviews have become so important, the system has been frequently gamed – many authors and publishers (and especially online marketers) quickly saw the benefits of having a large number of positive reviews for their books, and either got their friends and family members to write reviews, or went much further. Some less ethical souls have created fake reviews under other Amazon accounts, or asked employees to make it a part of their jobs to contribute reviews for company published books. And seeing a business opportunity, a number of entrepreneurs have created "paid review" businesses where anyone can get positive "customer" reviews posted to Amazon for a fee.
Over time, customer reviews have become integrated into the Amazon ecosystem. Amazon search results are based in part on the number and quality of customer reviews, and their search algorithms promote books with large numbers of positive reviews, creating a powerful network effect, where a large number of positive reviews not only signifies meaning, but can serve to drive sales geometrically.
How can anxious authors (and again some publishers) resist addressing the need to find a way to acquire large numbers of positive reviews, simply to avoid becoming lost in the Amazon shuffle? No amount of begging your fans will get enough reviews for your books. And very few writers and publishers have large enough networks to draw significant customer reviews over and over for every book they write.
How do we deal with the fact that unbeknownst to most Amazon customers, thousands of so-called customer reviews were written and posted for pay?
And there are other potentially damaging behaviors that have arisen in the customer review system at Amazon, including authors writing negative reviews of books that were competitive with their own, or readers (perhaps shilling for other writers and publishers) giving one star reviews to books for illegitimate or irrelevant reasons, thereby unfairly damaging the sales of certain books. Recently a jilted lover went on a campaign to give multiple one-star reviews to a writer.
Amazon knows it is bad for everyone if even some writers are known to buy reviews. In 2012, after a number of stories ran in national media, including the New York Times, the company tried to address the issue of paid reviews (as well as the related practice of targeted negative reviews aimed at competitive books) by banning not only paid reviews, but any review written by anyone with a perceived conflict of interest, including all authors and employees of publishing companies.
This broad stroke approach has not worked very well. There are innumerable stories of perfectly legitimate reviews being removed from book pages by Amazon, and thousands of paid reviews still pervade the Amazon bookstore. Authors reviewing other authors’ books has long been an accepted practice and now many authors wonder why all peer created literary reviews are simply disallowed. Meanwhile, unethical writers have found new ways to salt their review collections. And there are still plenty of bullies using the power of the one star review to drive down book visibility and thus sales.
The system of crowdsourced customer reviewing is at best a gathering of human beings that shows the power large numbers of people working together in community are capable of achieving. Unfortunately, crowdsourcing also fosters the illusion that self-regulating systems will bring peace and harmony to all. As soon as the door is open wide to everyone, along come those few individuals whose behaviors fracture the belief that purely unmanaged communities can conquer the dark side of human nature.
An abused (and sometimes abusive) system, especially one that was created for good purposes, needs to be managed. Amazon has benefitted immensely over the years by creating a socially driven system that has engendered the vast quantities of book related content to drive reader engagement and book sales. But now so much has gone wrong with the review system, it’s time for Amazon to step up and put more resources to bear on supervising and controlling the review system.
It’s going to be a tricky thing, as the latest uproar at Amazon-owned Goodreads demonstrates. Goodreads faces similar issues with managing its millions of members. Recently, Goodreads announced it would remove offensive reviews (“we recently recognized that we can do a better job enforcing them [their tenets], particularly in the small number of situations where tensions start to run high. We took a long, hard look at our guidelines and how we moderate Goodreads and identified some areas where we can be clearer and where we can improve.”) Managing community is no easy thing these days.
For Amazon it’s not going to be enough for them to simply enforce their regulations. Customer reviews have too much power, and Amazon is too monolithic and opaque in its relations with authors and publishers. Amazon is famously and brilliantly customer centric. Now it’s (past) time for Amazon to engage with its author and publishing community just as intelligently and creatively as it does with customers.