We’ve known for a while that competitors on Amazon are paying for reviews. It’s obvious when a mostly plagiarized and poorly edited book gets hundreds of 5-star reviews, many of which have the same wording.
With Amazon’s introduction of ratings―where buyers can simply leave a number of stars and not write anything or display their name―fake customers are even stealthier.
It’s not difficult to buy reviews. Sites like this openly offer paid Amazon review services:
Now there comes a new problem, which is paying for bad reviews on another person’s product. AppSally offers this service, too:
To get around the “Verified Purchase” hurdle, these sites require their clients to send money to purchase the product (although one can ask that the product be returned). Kindles are especially easy, since there’s no waiting for delivery and no delivery costs. “Buyers” may even pretend it was an accidental purchase and return it, possibly still being able to leave a rating. I don’t know if Amazon’s algorithms are able to catch this, but I’m sure these sites have tried.
In addition, the site does not just drop a bunch of reviews at once. They drip them out over time to make them appear more real.
Recently our book, Case Master, came under such an attack. After months of very steady sales, its Kindle sales quadrupled last week. Concurrently, it received a little slug of 3-star and 4-star ratings. In addition, about two weeks before before this we received a suspicious 4-star review from Germany that was written to drive traffic to a competitor’s website, also based in Germany.
So what can be done? Well, if you call Amazon, they send you over to the Community group, which only communicates by email. Our inquiries about suspicious sales and ratings, as well as about the foreign review, received the response that they “couldn’t find the review.” Our replies to these emails have not been answered at the time of this writing, and Amazon doesn’t seem to have a way to combat paid reviews. For the moment, we’ve drastically raised the price of our Kindle, which has stopped downloads and hopefully discouraged planned attacks.
This is not to say that Amazon is completely unwilling or unable to combat fraud. They have removed an abusive review and a plagiarized book for us before. In fact, Amazon may be a bit too eager to remove reviews in some cases: we’ve noticed that certain competitors are clearing off negative reviews as soon as they appear, even when they are detailed, polite, and clearly written by actual readers.
Savvy customers have long known to be aware of fake hype, and any measure of actual popularity or quality is quickly exploited. I remember a great aunt and uncle who would only eat at restaurants where there were lots of other cars; but many a long line at a velvet rope leads to an empty club. Amazon reviews and ratings can contain useful information, but they will become increasingly meaningless if Amazon cannot find a way to identify and lock out fake customers.