Fake Reviews

Friends have been notifying me of changes in the Amazon review policy. “Are they trying to eliminate indies?” a worried friend asked me.

Before I go into details, let me first explain the problem from Amazon’s point of view. As the Economist points out in a recent article, fake reviews are a big problem for websites that claim to be an impartial resource.

Fake review - Pinnochio | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: frostmediasolutions.com

“I will post an awesome review on your amazon product,” bess98 declared on Fiverr. On October 16th Amazon charged that bess98 and more than 1,000 others were illegally hawking customer reviews. The case comes just six months after Amazon sued the operator of four sites peddling similar stuff, including the subtly named buyamazonreviews.com.

Amazon is hardly alone in this. Other websites have fought fakes with lawsuits, carefully honed algorithms and even sting operations—Yelp has undercover staff answering ads from firms seeking glowing write-ups.

That is because such practices are particularly troubling to firms. “If consumers can’t rely on the content,” says Vince Sollitto of Yelp, “then the service is of no value.”

“While small in number,” Amazon contends in its new suit, “these reviews can significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon.”

Fake review | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: techwyse.com

Yet, despite the lawsuits, the problem persists.

So websites have tried to fight fakes. Algorithms comb reviews for suspicious wording. Expedia allows hotel recommendations only by those who have paid for a room there. Amazon tags a review as “verified” if the writer has indeed bought the product. Presumably such reviews are more reliable, though bess98 is one of many who claim to be able to game Amazon’s system.

The Problem

As a recent Seattle Times post points out, Amazon’s biggest challenge is figuring out the best way to discover violations of its reviews guidelines. It’s hardly a trivial task: the company is estimated to list about 365 million items at the time.

That’s far too many for humans to police, particularly for a company that prefers to automate as many business processes as possible. So Amazon has largely relied on algorithms to catch the worst offenders of its guidelines.

Fake review - baby meme | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

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To do so, the company is constantly tweaking its software, creating new rules. Goodreads claims that it has gotten its hands on the latest ones. Before we go into that, though, let’s be clear about one thing: Amazon doesn’t reveal the exact process it has for vetting reviews.  Its review moderator is quoted as saying:

“Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.”

Instead, they directed the Goodreads blogger to the company’s Review Guidelines.

Here’s, then, the official line:

We are unable to accept the following feedback:

Promotional Reviews – In order to preserve the integrity of Customer Reviews, we do not permit artists, authors, developers, manufacturers, publishers, sellers or vendors to write Customer Reviews for their own products or services, to post negative reviews on competing products or services, or to vote on the helpfulness of reviews. For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.

Paid Reviews – We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment (whether in the form of money or gift certificates), bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra product, or other gifts.

The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact.

Goodreads’ Take

Still, Goodreads claims to have the guidelines for what Amazon is looking for when a book review is posted. Specifically, they claim that Amazon will reject the following kinds of reviews:

1) A review by a book blogger whose blog is part of a paid blog tour, even if the book blogger is not paid. Often only the organizer of the tour gets paid, but the blog review is considered a “paid review,” so it can’t be posted on Amazon.

2) A review written in exchange for a gift card. Even if that card is only in the amount of the price of the book. A reviewer could possibly use the card for purchasing something else.

3) A review written in exchange for another review. Review trading is 100% forbidden.

4) A review written in expectation of a free book. A review copy must be given before the review is written or the book will be seen as payment for the review.

5) A review by a person you “know” online. Amazon can detect if someone leaving a review is following you on Twitter or befriended you on Facebook. Amazon’s expectation is that a fan will leave a biased review, so it wants only impartial people writing them.

It is the last one that has my friends up in arms. They point out that only traditional publishers have the means to reach people who don’t know the author. Indies must instead rely on organic growth, which means fans, social media followers and word-of-mouth advertising. So, what’s going on?

Has Amazon Gone Crazy?

Fake review - Dilbert | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: Dilbert

Before I give you my take, let’s first examine the facts, as I understand them:

  • Amazon has created the Indie book market with the creation of Kindle. It is their leverage against the Big Five – not to mention a profitable one. As such, it is not in their interest to destroy something it has fought to build.
  • Amazon does have a problem with fake reviews.
  • Goodreads makes a claim to have gotten its hands on the new rules, but this is unverified. Amazon’s own rules contradict their claim. It looks to me that Goodreads only offers an educated guess at what the rules might be.

All this leads me to believe that there’s no reason to reach for the pitchforks and torches just yet. It sounds more like Amazon wants some leeway in deciding which reviews to reject/delete, and is purposefully vague in its phrasing, to avoid creating loopholes.

I am not naive. I don’t think that Amazon is a friend of Indies. I do believe, however, that, as shown by successive Author Earning ReportsIndie works are a highly profitable segment of Amazon’s bookstore, and a company would have to be crazy to risk losing this.

My own experience suggests that Amazon is not crazy: over 80% of my reviews are for books whose authors I have met online and/or follow on social media. Less that 10% of these have ever been rejected/deleted, and these were for the authors that are, indeed, closest to me.

I’d be interested to hear your experience with this.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, be sure to check my post, How to Score Great Amazon Reviews: Resources and More for safe ways to get reviews.

Gisela’s Take

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksGisela Hausmann specializes in handbooks for Indie authors. Her NAKED TRUTHS About Getting Book Reviews Kindle Edition has been called a “must-read” by 8 Amazon Hall-of-Fame reviewers. Here’s what she has to say on the matter:

“Since paid reviews are no longer an option, all kinds of online venues have popped up where authors introduce their books with the purpose of getting reviews. They are trying to fill “the void.”
Some of them go about it in a good way, many others – not so much.

Regardless, each time, an “Amazon author” reviews another “Amazon author’s” book, both authors feed data into Amazon’s algorithm.

The basic gist of it is:

• First level: Amazon author reviews book (which is not nothing special, lots of authors read nonfiction to learn, and they read fiction to see what the competition does, for entertainment, or to learn from other authors, etc…)
• A more defined definition is: self-published author reviews books from other self-published author.
• An even more defined definition is: self-published author xyz’s book was reviewed 5 times in 10 days from 5 other self-published authors but nobody, who is not an author, AND, author xyz also reviewed the books from 2 of these 5 self-published authors. And, to make matters “worse,” all of them gave 5 star reviews only.

Now, keep in mind that Amazon churns the data from hundreds of thousands of authors and you can guess how that algorithm is able to identify patterns, and also why Amazon employees learn how to fine tune that algorithm based on the data they see.

So, what can authors do?

  1. Read and review other books published by big publishers.
  2. Do, what I suggested in my book: Contact Amazon top reviewers (they know how to get reviews right) and find readers/reviewers elsewhere. There are meet-up groups, book signings, get on local TV, or get your book featured in a print publication.
  3. Do a Goodreads give-away. I have described one way how to get a good turnout at a Goodreads giveaway in of my other books. Once a reader has reviewed your book on Goodreads you can contact him/her and ask the reviewer to copy and paste that review to Amazon’s site.
  4. Also, do twitter promotions, get your book reviewed by a book blogger, who can reach readers you don’t know – in other words, do what you can to reach people you are not connected with.
  5. At your Amazon author page post pictures of book signings, you being on local TV, and screen prints of publications where your work has been featured. This helps Amazon to see WHY your work is getting reviewed. The more often your work is featured anywhere, the more people will read and review it. Things have to make sense.

Amazon’s algorithm reads the data it receives. Thus, self-published authors need to avoid getting ONLY reviews from other self-published authors.

Additionally, as an Amazon Top Reviewer, I want to stress: Please approach reviewers and book bloggers in the proper way. More than 70% of the review requests I receive are no good, less than 10% are great requests. Here are some tips:

Write about your book and don’t just paste a link there. No top reviewer will research your book. Just recently, another top reviewer wrote in a review of one of my books, ” I probably get a dozen or so poorly written inquiries every day. If I don’t learn by the end of paragraph one what it is that the emailer wants me to review, I trash the email…”
• Avoid writing a me-mail with an abundance of I-my-me words. Your request is about your book and not about you.
• Don’t tell the reviewer that you would be honored and similar exclamations. Flattery does not lead to success.”