2 September 2011 2 Comments

Corrupt online reviews

Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel bad, except yourself. I live by that rule. Particularly when it comes to reviews. And double-particularly when it comes to online reviews.

A recent Cornell University study found that 85 percent of amazon.com’s “top reviewers” had received free gifts from vendors. And 78 percent had reviewed the products. The “top reviewers” often strayed far from their expertise, if they even have one, boosting their productivity with reviews of minor domestic items so that they would maintain their “top reviewer” status and continue to receive free stuff.

It’s a corrupt system. Well, I live in the Middle East and I’ve become accustomed to corruption. So why have I had to bring Mrs. Roosevelt into the equation?

Because the corruption touches me personally, as it does every writer. Take the Amazon Vine program, which is mentioned in the Cornell study. As I understand it, Vine allows “top reviewers” to choose from a list of books, which they then receive free from the publisher on the understanding that they’ll write a review.

The publisher wants to participate because the number of reviews (as well as the quality of the reviews) seems to be part of amazon.com’s secret ranking system.

The problem appears to me to be that there’s a big difference between electing to pay for a book you want to read and clicking on a list of books you can receive free – and there’s likely to be just as big a difference in the kind of review you write.

A case in point was my third novel THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET. On amazon.co.uk the book was offered by my UK publisher Atlantic as part of the Vine program. Suddenly I had more than 10 times the number of reviews for this book than I’d had for my first two novels.

But the proportion of somewhat or very negative reviews was much higher. If you don’t put money on the line for a book, you’re clearly more likely to start reading with a lackluster attitude. You’re more likely to ditch the book after a few chapters, or to skim to the end. And indeed if you look at the reviews for THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET you’ll see that many of the 2 or 3 star reviews were written by Vine reviewers who state quite clearly that they either stopped reading after a chapter or two, or that they skimmed to the end. (By contrast my first two books received mostly 5 and 4 star reviews.)

The skimmers in particular seem to like pointing out problems with the plot and things they think I missed out – things which someone who wasn’t skimming the book would’ve seen were quite clearly there in print in the book. Other reviewers apologized for giving a negative review to a book they’d stopped reading after a few chapters, then gave it 1 star anyway.

This is an issue that goes beyond the number of stars a book receives on amazon – a factor which I now entirely ignore in my purchasing of books online. There are ill-paid mass reviewers on many online sites who write hundreds of tiny reviews a day. As the New York Times recently reported, studies show these bogus reviews are more likely to use the first person and exclamation points, but they’re still hard to spot.

From a psychological perspective, I also noticed a tendency among “top reviewers” to relate their reviews less to the book and more to the reviews of other “top reviewers.” That could cut both ways. There’s a herd mentality at work: everyone else likes it so I’ll give it three stars even though I didn’t read it. Or a contrariness that makes a reviewer stand out of the crowd: everyone else likes it, so I’ll give it 1 star even though I didn’t read it.

One might call this the ultimate example of the trick we all fall for every time we go online. We believe that the information online – including what we write for blogs or on Facebook – has a value in itself. In fact it’s only there as a buffer for the ads amazon and Google and Yahoo slip in amongst it. This is why all the Scandinavian “information wants to be free” idiots are the stupidest of libertarian pseudoanarchists – they’re doing the work of the big corporations by providing more information (free) which capitalists can translate into eyes online and cents per click.

The difference in the case of online reviews is that either they’re a form of payment for services received from the vendor or that they’re written by someone who’s even more deluded about the nature of his/her participation in the distribution of information than the sweatshoppers who’re paid to write the reviews.

One last stat from the Cornell study: 40 percent of online reviewers are actually writers. So you’d think the reviews would read better, wouldn’t you?

2 Responses to “Corrupt online reviews”

  1. Adam LeBor 2 September 2011 at 12:37 am #

    I partly agree. Too many of the online reviewers think that a review is a nitpicking dissection of often imagined faults and yes it is infuriating when the smug critic says he/she put the book down and did not finish it, imagining that this somehow bestows extra credibility, when really they are like spoilt kids with new toys that they cannot be bothered to learn how to operate.

    However, that’s not the whole story. Online reviews also open up and democratise the literary world, which is often very self serving and insular. I have had several lengthy, quite thoughtful pieces about my books where the reviewer (someone unknown to me) had read the whole thing through and had made some good and useful points. Amazon etc offer a platform for would be literary critics that they would never get in the newspaper.

    That said, clearly amazon vine does need some attention.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 2 September 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Now that’s the kind of thoughtful, balanced comment I’d like to see more of on the web, Adam! 😉


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