Monday, February 4, 2013

Concerted Amazon Attacks

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

An article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago raised an issue of the deliberate, concerted and malicious use of negative Amazon reviews to 'sink' a new book. 

The book in question was "Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson" by Randall Sullivan and apparently a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit people to bombard Amazon with negative one-star reviews of the book in what appeared to be a concerted campaign to derail book sales. The result was that many favorable reviews were taken down and Amazon even removed the book from sale for a brief period. 

Needless to say the book did not achieve the book sales  anticipated (3,000 copies sold according to the NYT article compared to the 16,000 copies the publisher distributed to bookstores) despite high-profile promotion - the book was even selected by Amazon as one of the best books of the year. But books often fail to achieve anticipated sales, so who knows whether the 100+ one-star reviews were really responsible for the book's poor performance. The author's did however cite major concerns over the factually inaccurate nature of many of the negative reviews.  

Now there has been a lot of controversy recently about Amazon reviews, from authors using 'sock puppets' to write favorable reviews, to Amazon taking down or refusing to post genuine reviews. The specter of a deliberate and concerted campaign to attack a book muddies the 'Amazon review' water even further. There are those who state that it is almost impossible to distinguish a malicious campaign from genuine negative reviews and those who argue that people shouldn't be able to make flagrantly false comments and attacks that in effect suppress an author's right to free speech (then of course there are those who argue for the right of the reviewers to free speech). 

So what do you think? How should Amazon deal with the potential for deliberate malicious 'review' attacks?  How should authors deal with this issue and can Amazon really be expected to police this kind of thing?

23 comments:

  1. The internet is so tough to police. I wish it were possible for Amazon to track the IP Addresses of these people and then ban them, but I don't think that would work.

    I think people should only be able to write reviews if they've logged in via Facebook or something. Maybe then each comment/review would be easier to track and audit then? Having said that, then you'd find people creating fake Facebook accounts to create false reviews. Suffice to say, I don't think there's any way around it.

    But, my personal thoughts are, if I see too many five star reviews I just think they're lies.

    I just don't trust the reviews on Amazon at all to be honest.

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  2. The problem with trying to track IP Addresses is that most users have a floating IP address provided by their ISP.

    The best approach is for Amazon to require that only users who have actually purchased the book from Amazon can write a review. That won't prevent people from writing 100 reviews, but they'll have to purchase 100 copies of the book to do it.

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    1. I don't like that approach. That means that I can't review paper books I got from Barnes & Noble, or from the library, or at Christmas, or from giveaways, and the distribution of ebook review copies will become way, way, harder (ie, reviewers can only have one format, book must be on Amazon and gifted by author, must be done manually).

      At this time, it's just too limiting, since not everyone buys books from Amazon.

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    2. This topic was folded, spindled and mutilated on The Passive Voice not too long ago and the opinions were all split. I have to agree with Mr. Fish, if the review were to require a verified purchase that would go a long way toward adding credibility. If the reader did not make their purchase at Amazon there are a ton of other outlets they can utilize if they desire to review the book they just read.

      This is about Amazon reviews and Amazon should do something to clean them up. One would think this would be an easy policy to implement.

      But do they want to? After all, the review process as it is benefits Amazon as much as it does the authors. They may have recently taken some steps to better police the site, but I doubt we'll ever see them take the step of requiring a purchase.

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  3. I agree with Fish. If Amazon even desires to improve the integrity of their review system, they need to lock it down.

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  4. When my publisher discounted my first three books to $.99 for the ebooks, I learned of a new thing that kids do online. They've targeted B&N because they still allow anonymous reviews. But kids will pick a title and hit it with their chats, silly remarks, or they connect with each other--and give the book stars that range from 1-5.

    My book stayed in the top 100 at B&N for months & racked up tons of these strange, completely unrelated "reviews." Thankfully real readers seemed to ignore those type of reviews. I reported them to B&N but never got a response & as far as I know, they've not be removed. It must happen so often that B &N has an automatic box to check on their contact form, something about "kids chatter" on reviews that don't pertain to the book.

    Bottom line is that a reader can't rely solely on reviews from strangers. They have to make up their own mind after they've done their research however they feel comfortable doing it. Word of mouth from people/friends they respect is a good way. But there will always be lemmings who only look at the overall star rating & assume a low rating means the book is bad & stop right there. Or they buy only 5 star books & assume the book will be good. It always amazes me that some readers don't realize how subjective books are, that one person's experience ( whether good or bad), doesn't mean they should automatically assume they will draw the same conclusion.

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  5. It does seem very hard to police and it's so hard to trust any of the reviews on Amazon these days - good or bad! I must admit I was taken aback at the idea of a group making a concerted effort to sink a book and worry about hate campaigns becoming the norm for any kind of 'controversial' book.

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  6. This question was abstract for me until recently. I have noticed one person (screen name just "k") has posted reviews accusing me of writing "racist" books and that I "hate white people." (My character is biracial and sometimes this factors into the plot line). This person has not read the books (she even admits it in one review). I reported it to Amazon. No response yet. I understand Chihuahua's stance (above) that she should be able to review a book if she has bought it elsewhere but I have to vote for Amazon confirming sales before allowing posts. It's just too destructive.

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    1. Hope you hear back from them - disturbing especially since the reviewer hasn't even read the books!

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  7. I honestly don't see what Amazon could do even if they wanted to. Maybe what needs to change isn't the review system, but the public awareness of it.

    Right now, it seems like only writers are talking about these problems with reviews while the general public is still heavily basing their decisions on them. A "Review-gate" would be tough in the short run but maybe that's what readers need to start them thinking more critically about where they select their books.

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  8. We see this sort of thing all over the net, not just on Amazon. It comes back to the buyer. We cannot assume that reviews are done with good intentions. The last thing we want is for Amazon to start picking and choosing what they deem to be a "real" review. Next thing you know authors will insist on government involvement. God help us if that happens. It's something we'll have to learn to combat as authors. I'd rather take care of my own battles.

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    1. I think awareness of the problem will be enough - I certainly don't advocate government involvement but the public need to understand the limitations in the Amazon review process (I'm sure many do - I certainly take most reviews on Amazon with a grain of salt)

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    2. Especially when you can look up Moby Dick and find 1 star reviews.

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  9. It may not matter at all. Data shows that most online books are bought based on recommendations and word of mouth. Hardly any from browsing and looking at reviews. So the idea that a million people are looking at our star ratings and 998,756 pass because of bad reviews, is not reality.

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  10. Make us use our real names when we post reviews. I'm LeNore in Ft. Worth.

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    1. Amen LeNore! If you haven't got the guts to put your name on it, you shouldn't be posting.

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  11. Where's Dirty Harry when we need him? What I'm hearing here is the plot for an interesting book. What if a writer gets ***-slammed by some phony review and decides to reaaaly retaliate?

    The thing is for authors NOT to respond to negative "spammy" reviews. Hard to resist, but don't take the bait. You'll get pulled down into this strange rabbit hole . . . and it won't be a happy time, either. It will be a major distraction from writing.

    A friend of mine, got caught up in this on GoodReads. The perp even had a virus loaded into her profile. Traps all over the place. Don't take the bait. Fugedaboudit!

    And y'all have a nice day, now :)

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  12. Yeah, this is a tough situation. Isn't there a similar thing going on over on Good Reads (organized mass negative reviews for personal reasons)?

    I do think that using real names on reviews would help a bit. And maybe some sort of system where the reviewer has to input a piece of information from the book--that at least shows that they are looking at the book when reviewing it. E.g., "write the third word from the 2nd paragraph of p. 122 in the designated box"--something like that.

    This kind of premeditated attack is gross. Unfortunately, there are a zillion other people who write negative reviews for stupid reasons. The book cover was purple and they hate purple, or whatever. As an author (cookbook), I look at my Amazon reviews with a bit of trepidation. I know my book is good and most of the reviews reflect that, but there are always a few dolts that give a negative review for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual content of the book.

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    1. Too true! Sad to hear also happening on GoodReads.

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  13. It has been happening on eBay for years. I've been suspended because of petty negative feedback comments.

    eBay did finally tie it to actual transactions ending stuff like "The #$%^hole outbid me in the last second" stuff. But it is still rampant. I had one guy make a series of individual $1 purchases over several weeks, forcing me to lose $$ on every sale in shipping and fees and then he would come back a couple of weeks later and bomb the feedback with nasty snide comments.

    Step 1 is to tie it to a confirmed purchase. You got it somewhere else, review is somewhere else.

    Step 2 is to take no punitive action against the writer or the book until the writer has been notified and has X-number of days to respond. If 1000 people say that every other word is a typo and that is true, then the writer should have the chance to pull it down and edit rather than Amazon doing it.

    Finally, there has to be a way to create search algorithms to bring this to light. Stuff like the chat-bombing would be easy. They already have the one the searches out sock-puppets with the "X-number of reviews said the same thing." And if the review includes the word "Amazon" it should be automatically reviewed. That would catch the one-star "I hate Amazon, they took too long to ship this book and then the cover was creases reviews."

    Funny thing is that a good review I left for one of John Gilstrap's books was immediately attacked by a negative reviewer who accused me of being related to him. And, I had a typo in my review. She went to great lengths to explain how someone as obviously ignorant as I am would, of course, like a Gilstrap book. *eyeroll*

    Terri

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  14. I second the idea of using real names in reviews. People would become much more responsible about what they post if they were unable to hide behind pseudonyms.

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  15. I think that Amazon should leave all reviews, not remove them, but should have reviewers QUALIFY themselves in some way so that readers can judge for themselves how valid those reviews are. Is this your real name? Are you related to the author? Are you a friend of the author? Are you a fellow author? That kind of thing. I mean, certainly people can lie, I guess, but if they're found out their credibility is gone.

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  16. I'm one of those oddballs who read the negative reviews first - and frequently end up downloading an ebook because of it! Often the negative reviewers obviously haven't even read the book or they come across as complete idiots, and I figure that if they didn't like it, I probably will. LOL The only negative reviews I actually take into account are well thought out ones from literate commenters. Just saying "it sucked" or "I don't like this genre but I bought it anyway and hated it" count for absolutely nothing.

    I do agree that there should be some sort of accountability. Sock puppets need to be shot along with the spammers.

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