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Amazon reviews: the good, the bad and the ugly

Many of those who write here have commented in the past about the problem of “fake” reviews, or “buying” reviews, of books on Amazon.com.  It’s grown to be an enormous problem across that site, not just with books, but with anything where there’s an opportunity to con the consumer by making them think that a product is better than it really is.

A number of surveys have highlighted the problem in general.  Which? magazine in the UK said:

Of the hundreds of products analysed, many have a raft of five star customer ratings and thousands of glowing reviews, and many of these are from unverified purchasers – all telltale signs of ‘fake’ reviews. We found:

  • ‘Unknown’ brands dominating search results for popular tech
  • Tens of thousands of positive, unverified reviews
  • Hundreds of five-star, unverified reviews arriving on a product in a single day.
  • Products loaded with positive reviews for different items.

97% of shoppers rely on online customer reviews to help make a purchase, according to a survey we conducted in September 2018 of more than 2,000 adults. The CMA estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews.

Among others, the magazine advises these steps to see whether product reviews seem too good to be true:

  • Be suspicious of mostly large numbers of positive feedback;
  • Filter out unverified reviews (i.e. where no purchase is confirmed);
  • Look out for large numbers of reviews posted on the same day or in a short period of time.

Those three checks can affect us as writers, because of the nature of our product.

  • We often ask our readers and beta readers to provide Amazon reviews, to help boost sales when we launch a new book.  If a lot of them do so within the first few days of a launch, our review “pattern” might look suspicious.  (This has happened to me once before;  within days of the launch of “The Stones of Silence” last year, all its reviews “disappeared”.  They’d been removed for checking, because so many positive reviews appearing so quickly made it look like I’d been paying for them.  Within a day, after checking, they reappeared, so kudos to Amazon for that.)
  • Those who read our books via Kindle Unlimited (KU), Amazon’s subscription library, don’t actually buy them:  so, if they leave a review, it’s not tagged by Amazon as being from a verified purchaser.  If there are a lot more reviews from KU readers than from purchasers, this might seem suspicious.

The Hustle points out that the underground market for positive reviews on Amazon is alive and well, despite Amazon’s attempts to crack down.

The fake Amazon review economy is a thriving market, ripe with underground forums, “How To Game The Rankings!” tutorials, and websites with names like (now-defunct) “amazonverifiedreviews.com.”

But the favored hunting grounds for sellers on the prowl is Amazon’s fellow tech behemoth, Facebook.

In a recent two-week period, I identified more than 150 private Facebook groups where sellers openly exchange free products (and, in many cases, commissions) for 5-star reviews, sans disclosures.

. . .

Here’s how the process generally works:

  1. A seller posts an item to the discussion board with a message like, “FREE. refund + $5 commission for 5 STAR. PM for details.”
  2. An interested buyer sends the seller a private message.
  3. The seller directs the buyer to the product on Amazon using keywords.
  4. The buyer purchases the product and leaves a 5-star review.
  5. The seller sends the buyer a refund via PayPal, plus a commission (usually in the form of a $5-10 gift card).

. . .

Most reviewers stick to 3 or fewer positive reviews per week to avoid suspicion from Amazon. By exercising caution, some users have been able to make a consistent side income from the commissions.

“Make sure your reviews don’t sound overly fake and make sure you review other items too, not just from Chinese sellers,” cautioned Araceli Morales, who has left 112 5-star reviews for Amazon sellers through Facebook listings. “Never write ‘love.’”

One stay-at-home mom from Kentucky told me she makes $200-300 per month leaving positive reviews for things like sleep masks, light bulbs, and AV cables.

“Do you actually like the products?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she wrote. “I never use them.”

I’m sure that a similar dynamic applies to fake reviews for books.  Most of us, being indie authors with relatively low incomes, can’t afford to pay that much for fake reviews;  but I know it’s been done, and by some relatively well-known writers, too, some of whom have been unmasked and penalized by Amazon for doing so.  Other indie writers have been known to solicit favorable reviews from each other (“You give me a 5-star review, and I’ll give you a 5-star review”).  This is also illegal under Amazon’s terms of service, yet it’s pretty common.  Also common are the screams of outrage when the guilty parties are caught and punished!

I use the Fakespot Web site to analyze Amazon reviews.  It helps determine which products’ reviews are trustworthy, and which should be viewed with suspicion at best.  I’ve run my own books through it, and been gratified that it grades my reviews as trustworthy.  (Thanks, readers!)  To analyze your own books’ reviews, enter the Amazon URL for each book in Fakespot, and let it crunch the numbers.  I use Fakespot when buying other products, too, because I value user feedback as part of my selection criteria.  If a product looks good, I ask Fakespot how trustworthy its reviews are.  If they’re not A- or B-grade, I tend to leave it out of consideration.

It’s a sad world when cheating one’s way to success becomes the norm, rather than the exception . . . but I fear the world of e-commerce sees such cut-throat competition that cheating is becoming far too common, and far too widely accepted.  It’s up to us to remain honest, and to look for – indeed, demand – honesty from other sellers.  If we don’t, nobody else will do it for us!

21 Comments
  1. Luke #

    Today I learned of the existence of Fakespot.

    April 26, 2019
    • Draven #

      me2

      April 26, 2019
    • Likewise.
      Very handy. I do a lot of on-line shopping as well, and a way to analyze reviews is a useful tool.

      April 26, 2019
    • Thank you!

      April 27, 2019
  2. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Part of me says, “Wow, that’s unethical.” Another part says, “That’s good money . . .”

    April 26, 2019
    • The little one one shoulder and the littler devil on the other…

      April 26, 2019
      • Part of the reason why word of mouth is often still stronger than reviews.

        As for paid reviews:

        My parents liked Kirkus reviews, because good reviews from that bunch usually meant that they’d enjoy the book, but that was back in the day, before 2007. (I say that because that was the last time I remember us buying books based off Kirkus reviews.) Which makes me a little sad because for a long time, Kirkus reviews, even though we knew they were paid, were reliable reviews for us. Sometimes we’d pick up an unknown author with an interesting book blurb supported by a good Kirkus review.

        I am unsure of what they’re like these days.

        April 28, 2019
  3. “It’s a sad world when cheating one’s way to success becomes the norm, rather than the exception…”

    /rant engaged/

    Cheating your way to success is ALWAYS the norm. Always, and don’t ever forget it. What we here in North America enjoy, and do not value sufficiently, is the civilized self-restraint of our fellow citizens.

    Take one example, lining up for tickets at the theater. 99% of places you go, people line up in the order they arrived, and the few cheaters are invited to fuck off and go to the back. I’ve seen fisticuffs involved occasionally (like maybe twice in my whole life), when the offender is a belligerent drunk. On the vast majority of occasions, everything runs smoothly, and if the theater sells out, the disappointed people GO HOME. They say “oh well” and wander off back to the car, or whatever. This is civilized self-restraint, otherwise known as Normal Behavior.

    In Western countries and Japan (I think) this is considered the minimum acceptable for public activities. You wait your turn, and accept disappointment gracefully with a minimum of quiet complaint.

    In other countries, deaths by trampling in huge mobs is normal. There is no “line,” there is only a sea of people all trying to get their ticket, and quite happy to stomp on anybody smaller than them to get ahead. Aka uncivilized behavior.

    Any fool can be an uncivilized jackass. It takes WORK to be civilized. Increasingly the on-line world is populated mostly by jackasses.

    Which is why I don’t put much weight on reviews. Unscrupulous manufactures in foreign shit-hole countries gaming the system to get ahead. Actively aided and abetted by the type of people who cut in line and steal sugar packets at the McDonald’s counter.

    /rant-ends/

    I’m of the opinion that a good, fun book is one where line-cutters and sugar thieves either do not appear, or appear only for their fate to serve as a warning. Having them as the main character, I’m pretty sick of it.

    April 26, 2019
  4. Learnt something new. Thank you, Fakespot bookmarked.

    April 26, 2019
  5. Haw! I just used Fakespot on a certain three-time Hugo award winner, she gets an F on the first book of the trilogy. 23% authentic reviews.

    April 26, 2019
    • Synova #

      Considering what Max says below, the readers of a certain Hugo winner might not be guilty of fake reviews but only guilty of hive-mind and coded speech.

      April 26, 2019
      • 37 reviews that all say “This is the best thing EVAR!!!1!” They’re probably all real, all left by real fans. I just thought it was funny the algo said they 23% authentic.

        One more reason I don’t bother with reviews, 37 actual humans who thought that trilogy was a Great Work of Fiction in all superlatives “OMG you gotta read this!!11!”

        I read the blurb and the first two pages. I -know- what’s in it. ++Ungood.

        April 26, 2019
  6. Max #

    Fakespot isn’t infallible though. In fact, it’s pretty susceptible to calling false positives. I’ve seen titles given C and D rankings for reviews sharing words before. Words like “character” or “plot.” Not phrases. Just the words.

    I remember one title that was given a “D” review rating because more than half the few dozen reviews mentioned the author’s name, and Fakespot found that suspicious.

    Like everything else, Fakespot has to be taken with a hefty grain of salt because it’s just an algorithm, and all a fake review has to do to beat it is know what it looks for. Meanwhile, Fakespot’s recourse is to be more aggressive, which often results in real reviews being flagged as fake. Thankfully, Fakespot does (or did, last I checked) list what reasons it believes reviews are being faked, but if you play with it for a while it’s easily fooled. It worked for about the first week it came out.

    Human judgement is still the supreme tool for fake or real reviews.

    April 26, 2019
  7. ashkalar #

    This puts me in a quandary. I check out books from KU because I can’t afford to buy them. If I really like the book, I leave a review, usually 5-star, rarely 4-star. If I don’t care for the book I just don’t bother leaving a review. (So far I have not checked out anything so bad it demanded a scathing 1-star comment.)

    If Amazon does not count KU book reviews as coming from “verified customers” (which seems odd because the authors are paid based on pages read and Amazon tracks that for every book I have checked out) is it still worth it for me to leave reviews?

    For a couple of authors, I have written 5-star reviews for each book in a series as I read them, because I enjoyed them so much. It would upset me to find that consecutive 5-star reviews from the same reader would be suspect because not “verified customer”. It would also upset me to find my reviews questioned because I also post occasional comments on MGC and ATH, even tho I am not a writer.

    KU is a wonderful resource for those avid readers like myself who cannot afford to purchase books. While the majority of my ebooks are from the local library, I don’t bother to review them because most of them have been out for years or decades. The KU books, however, are more recent and good reviews can help sales, or borrows, encouraging indie authors to write more books!

    So – should I continue to review the books I like? Should I include a statement that I read it on KU so someone reading the review considers it legit even if Amazon doesn’t? Do you as authors consider KU reviews as valuable as those from “verified” readers?

    April 26, 2019
    • Peter Grant #

      I’d suggest you leave the review(s), but identify yourself as a KU reader in the first line or two, so that it’s clear why there’s no “Verified Purchase” tag on your review. That way, other readers will know that your comments are legitimate.

      April 26, 2019
      • Synova #

        I’ve started a review with “I bought this book at Barns and Noble” before. Or “I purchased this book from the author.”

        No one has to believe “I read this on KU” but I think that almost everyone would take that as legitimate.

        April 26, 2019
    • Max #

      It does legitimately bug me that Amazon can’t identify those reviews themselves. They HAVE the account data. They KNOW when a reviewer has read the book on KU. What’s the harm with identifying that?

      April 26, 2019
      • Mary #

        Fakers can fake reading a book on KU easier than they can buying it.

        April 26, 2019
    • You are a wonderful person who should keep leaving reviews. We writers need reviews, verified or unverified. They do help. First, it’s nice (well, usually). Second, the cumulative effect of more reviews offers “social proof” that people are reading the book.

      April 26, 2019
    • ashkalar #

      Thank you all, for your input on my questions. I will continue to write reviews, with the KU note in them. 😉

      April 27, 2019
  8. 23 skidoo

    May 4, 2019

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