Amazon Freaks Out About Sock Puppet Reviews And Deletes A Bunch Of Real Reviews

from the collateral-damage dept

For a while now, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle at Amazon over so called "sock puppet reviews" or reviews purchased by an author to help pad their books' rankings. We hadn't been covering any of it because, frankly, it was a non-story. There never was a threat to the publishing industry and it was always questionable how widespread the problem really was. Additionally, the idea that a writer would have to pay to get reviews was just a sign that those writers held no real confidence in their work.

Unfortunately, Amazon took these complaints a little too seriously. It would seem that those complaining were loud enough that Amazon heard them and did a couple of things to tackle the non-issue. First it revised its rules for review writing. to make such purchased reviews against the rules. Then it removed a bunch of reviews seemingly at random. Joe Konrath shares his experience upon reading about this:
I've been buried in a book deadline for all of October, and haven't been paying much attention to anything else. When I finally took some time to catch up reading email, I noticed I had many authors (more than twenty) contacting me because their Amazon reviews were disappearing. Some were the ones they wrote. Some were for their books. One author told me that reviews her fans had written--fans that were completely unknown to her--had been deleted.

I took a look at the reviews I'd written, and saw more than fifty of them had been removed, namely reviews I did of my peers. I don't read reviews people give me, but I do keep track of numbers and averages, and I've also lost a fair amount of reviews.
Why did Amazon go nuts deleting reviews? Well, Konrath assumes, based on his responses from Amazon, that this was the result of a new automated sock puppet detection program. Apparently, it works in much the same way as Google's ContentID: flag anything and everything and see what sticks. Actually, no. This is way worse than ContentID. At least ContentID has some kind of -- admittedly weak -- notification, human review and appeals process. That is entirely absent from Amazon's deletion program, as Konrath explains in his letter to Amazon.
My reviews followed all of Amazon's guidelines, and had received hundreds of helpful votes. They informed customers, and they helped sell books. They represented a significant time investment on my part, and they were honest and accurate and fully disclosed my relationships with the author I reviewed if I happened to know them. And these reviews were deleted without warning or explanation.
Next, in his letter, he explains just why Amazon's actions were the wrong thing to do. Primarily because this action harmed more authors than sock puppet reviews ever did.
Obviously Amazon can do whatever it wants to on its site. It isn't up to me to dictate policy. It's your company, your rules, and I fully respect that. But I believe Jeff Bezos is very much about treating customers fairly, and I've heard it said many times that Amazon considers its authors to be valuable customers. So you should know that I'm just one of dozens of authors who are saddened by this, and those are just the ones who have emailed me.

The community you're trying hard to nurture is upset by your actions. They feel those actions are unwarranted and harmful.

Please express our disappointment in Amazon to anyone who needs hear it, and let them know I'll be blogging about it. People are seriously disappointed in how Amazon handled this. It was a knee-jerk, inappropriate reaction to a ridiculous case of unjustified moral panic, and a Big Fail.
Admittedly, this act by Amazon was in response to a number of authors who complained about the problem. However, as I wrote above, it was a problem of egos, not actual harm to any specific authors or group of authors -- or as Konrath put it, an unjustified moral panic. Authors freaked out over news stories of people being paid to write reviews and it ballooned from there. And just like every other moral panic before it, this one did tons of unnecessary collateral damage.

So not only do a bunch of legitimate reviews just up and disappear, there is also further damage to Amazon and the authors it works with. Readers will be less likely to write thoughtful and meaningful reviews in the future. If your review that you spent an hour writing could just up and disappear, why bother? Is this really what Amazon and these authors want -- people less willing to review books they read? That would seem to be a far worse situation than an unconfirmed number of sock puppet reviews.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Scote, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 10:54am

    "For a while now, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle at Amazon over so called "sock puppet reviews" or reviews purchased by an author to help pad their books' rankings. We hadn't been covering any of it because, frankly, it was a non-story. "


    It may be a non-story to you, but as someone who reads Amazon reviews to try to get an idea of whether I'd like a book or not it is a story to me.

    I rely on amazon reviews. I know they are subject to sock puppeting and shills, so I try to read them with that in mind. But I also want amazon to try to filter out fakes as much as possible. Not sure why you are so indifferent to this. And, no, I don't want to see any collateral damage to legit reviews--but right there is the issue. There are reviews that **are not legitimate**, and they should be removed.

     

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  2.  
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    Another AC, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:08am

    Really Enjoyed this one!

    This article was great, I give it 4 stars out of 5 and I would definitely recommend it to friends!

     

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  3.  
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    Baldaur Regis (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:08am

    Re:

    While legitimate reviews on Amazon may be disappearing, paragraphs in TechDirt articles are not. There are 12 paragraphs here; your summary comments are addressed therein.

     

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  4.  
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    Lamb Chop, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:11am

    My opinion

    Sock puppets deserve to have their opinion heard too ya know.

     

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  5.  
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    sehlat (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:16am

    They can't fire us. Slaves have to be sold.

    Why shouldn't Amazon trash reviews at will? After all, it's not as if they pay people to write them.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:21am

    Re:

    I think Zack's problem is that their trying to delete fake reviews, but that the way their deleting fake review indecisive. Legitimate reviews are being taken down and their are probably fakes staying up.

     

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  7.  
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    Mr. Socko, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:30am

    Re: My opinion

    You tell 'em Chop.

     

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  8.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:31am

    Re: My opinion

    So long as you don't start singing. I just got the songs from yesterday out of my head.

     

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  9.  
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    Jon Lawrence (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:34am

    Sooo disappointed

    I actually was hoping they were reviews by *real* sock puppets. That's a review I would watch; if perhaps not really listen to...

     

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  10.  
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    TroutFishingUSA, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:34am

    So not only do a bunch of legitimate reviews just up and disappear, there is also further damage to Amazon and the authors it works with. Readers will be less likely to write thoughtful and meaningful reviews in the future. If your review that you spent an hour writing could just up and disappear, why bother?


    Seriously?! Well good riddance to those "reviewers" who see no value in their work beyond its running alongside a product. TRUE reviewers do it for the love of the craft and nothing else. For those who feel entitled to having their ten-minute taste test of a product shoved in front of millions of eyeballs: maybe having their reviews removed will make them craft better reviews, that are more likely to be "enjoyed" by Amazon's bots, and the world will unquestionably be a better place.

    Saying that readers will be less likely to write thoughtful reviews is a matter of taste, of course. Who decides what is "thoughtful?" And do you have any evidence to back this claim up? I would prefer multiple questionable studies, produced by interested parties, and which have been roundly debunked by the rest of the blogosphere; those would be ideal. Oooh! Can you give me something from Oberholzer et al? Perhaps book reviewers should go into reviewing beer, in hopes of freebies?

    How can you with an honest heart even make this claim of a doom and gloom future where fewer people review products? To wit: reviews have already been taken down by Amazon, BUT MORE REVIEWS THAN EVER IN HISTORY (EVERRR!!!) are being released every day.

    And what makes legitimate reviews more valid than illegitimate ones? That's fairly anachronistic. You need to be far more post-post-modern (especially for a tech blogger). You have to aggregate the legit reviews with the illegitimate, and then listen for the reviews that aren't being made, man. It's all about the stars they're not giving.

    And "what if your review that you spent an hour on disappears?" That's nonsense. Reviews can't "disappear." Text on a screen can, but not the review. It's only a collection of ideas. A review can't be contained, it's only a review when it's being shared with others. You're focusing on the perceived legitimacy of the medium, rather than the message itself.

     

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  11.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:35am

    Well, Amazon is now big enough that it doesn't have to care:

    That's why big is bad in and of itself, kids.

    Here's a good question, though: "If your review that you spent an hour writing could just up and disappear, why bother?" -- Well, don't! Real question is WHY are you aiding a giant corporation? It may be good for now but as you see will become increasily draconian as its power increases. You have been warned plenty by me at least, but seem unable to grasp the principle.

    The supine groveling to a corporation here is much of the problem:
    "Obviously Amazon can do whatever it wants to on its site. It isn't up to me to dictate policy. It's your company, your rules, and I fully respect that."
    That's not true: corporations are subject to laws and even rules of common decency: they're permitted to exist, have no intrinsic rights. At the least, Amazon isn't free to refuse its service to anyone without good cause justified under common law. So just demand that Amazon do better: it or any corporation has no justification for existence at all when doesn't serve public interest so well as possible.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:37am

    I am supremely disappointed that this article is not about reviews of sock puppets.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:37am

    I am supremely disappointed that this article is not about reviews of sock puppets.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:37am

    I am supremely disappointed that this article is not about reviews of sock puppets.

     

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  15.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:39am

    Re:

    Until I saw your comment, I agreed with this being a non-story. I simply assumed that nobody seriously used Amazon's reviews. I read the funny ones, but personally find them pretty worthless in terms of figuring out whether a given product is right for me or not.

     

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  16.  
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    Rick Smith (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:43am

    Re: They can't fire us. Slaves have to be sold.

    They can if they want, but that would seem to not be in their best interest. While reviews are not really their business, I know many people (myself included) that use them as kind of unofficial review site, and not just about books. I would think that the avilablity of reviews is one of the major traffic drivers for them. So if they have questionable review policing policies they may in fact reduce their own traffic.

     

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  17.  
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    Chris Kellen (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 11:48am

    You may have just given me the best idea for a series of YouTube videos.

     

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  18.  
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    Nate, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 12:11pm

    Dumb...

    The amount of fake reviews must be worse than we can see in this small outcry of false-positives - because it is really in Amazon's best interest to keep the reviews on their site.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 12:26pm

    Re: Re: Correction

    I think Zack's problem is NOT that their trying to delete fake reviews, but that the way their deleting fake review indecisive. Legitimate reviews are being taken down and their are probably fakes staying up!

     

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  20.  
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    dennis deems, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 12:34pm

    "it was a non-story"

    The 'kerfuffle' was hardly limited to Amazon, but full marks for establishing as trivial a frame as possible for the gloss you want to apply. It wasn't a non-story. It was prominently reported in the Guardian and the New York Times and many other places. A few writers of international stature have damaged their own reputations, possibly permanently, and several other writers of international stature felt moved to voice their opinions on the matter. TechDirt didn't comment on the scandal because apparently no-one at TechDirt figured there was a TechDirt angle, and there's nothing wrong with admitting that. But calling it a non-story just makes you look like a smug douche.

     

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  21.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 1:30pm

    Re: "it was a non-story"

    It was prominently reported in the Guardian and the New York Times and many other places.

    Do you really want to try to make the case that major media newpapers never prominently report on pointless non-stories?

     

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  22.  
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    Chris Rhodes (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 1:38pm

    Re:

    TroutFishing, you say? I see what you did there.

    A++

     

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  23.  
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    Chris Rhodes (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 1:39pm

    Re: Well, Amazon is now big enough that it doesn't have to care:

    Seek help. Seriously.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 1:44pm

    Re: Re:

    trout trolling in amerika

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 1:46pm

    Re: Well, Amazon is now big enough that it doesn't have to care:

    so close to sanity once again

     

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  26.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 2:02pm

    Re: "it was a non-story"

    TechDirt didn't comment on the scandal because apparently no-one at TechDirt figured there was a TechDirt angle


    I doubt this. The TD angle of this sort of story is patently obvious. I think it's more likely because it's a story of almost no actual importance.

    A few writers of international stature have damaged their own reputations


    Even if true, such "damage" would be limited to Amazon World, though, and I have a hard time believing it would be significant damage.

    What really damages a writer's reputation is crappy writing.

     

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  27.  
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    David Skarjune, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 2:25pm

    Carolyn Kellogg just covered this for the LA Times: "Why is Amazon deleting writers' reviews of other authors' books?".

    It seems this is about more than just sock puppet reviews. Beyond paid reviews, the Amazon policy restricts directly competing products and third-party merchants. One has to wonder if Amazon is detecting writers as third-party merchants or promoters, if they have links to other authors on their sites or blogs. Or, has Amazon extended the competing products provision to cover not just negative reviews but 5-star glowing reviews from authors in collusion?

    It's clear that Amazon is clamping down, and they have to, somehow, given that there are so many fake and gratuitous reviews. There is a fantastic community of independent authors and independent publishers. But when people buy fake reviews and fake twitter followers, and we receive their marketing messages day after day, and sometimes minute by minute, or even when there's an orgy of gratuitous mutual reviews, that's not a healthy community.

    This reminds me of how bloggers changed the game for SEO by exchanging links faster than any websites had ever imagined to get to the top of Google SERPs. Now indie authors have been gaming Amazon to become "best-selling" authors with virtual reams of 5* reviews. Google keeps leveling the playing field for SEO, and Amazon will continue to rethink the playing field for authors.

    But, there may be life beyond Amazon for indie books. At least let's hope so.

     

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  28.  
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    dennis deems, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 2:29pm

    Re: Re: "it was a non-story"

    Even if true, such "damage" would be limited to Amazon World, though, and I have a hard time believing it would be significant damage.
    John, you can usually see (with refreshing clarity) past the end of your nose, which makes your response here rather disappointing. Should you care to look, here are just a few places to start. I think it's an understatement to say that the damage to Ellory's reputation extends far beyond "Amazon World", however the boundaries of that splendid realm may be defined.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9515593/RJ-Ellory-detected-crime-write r-who-faked-his-own-glowing-reviews.html
    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/09/sockp uppet-reviews-arent-just-unethicaltheyre-also-unconvincing/56499/
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwch armananderson/2012/09/03/amazon-reviews-rj-ellory-apologises-for-fakery/
    http://articles.latimes.co m/2012/sep/04/news/la-jc-the-furor-over-sock-puppet-amazon-book-reviews-20120904
    http://techcrunch. com/2012/09/08/sock-puppet-spectacular-are-online-reviews-completely-worthless-or-only-mostly-worthl ess/

    "Significant" is of course a matter of opinion, but it would be more honest of you to say you haven't given the matter much thought and you don't really care one way or the other.

     

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  29.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 3:50pm

    Re: Re: Re: "it was a non-story"

    Well, I've been sick and a fuzzy, so forgive me my lack of clarity on this. thanks for the compliment, btw!

    I have read the links you supplied, and think I know where we differ. Yes, in one sense, his reputation suffered, but it seems only in a fairly select circle. Not that this is totally unimportant, but it seems fairly minor to me in the larger scheme of things.

    "Significant" is of course a matter of opinion, but it would be more honest of you to say you haven't given the matter much thought and you don't really care one way or the other.


    here, you are 2/3 right, though, and I offer my humble apology. Below a certain level of impact, "significant" is a subjective measure, and I don't really care about fake reviews one way or the other.

    However, the issue of fake reviews is one I've thought a lot about in the past (not with Amazon, but the principle is identical).

    The reason that I don't care about fake reviews is because reviews that people put on commerce sites are, in the final analysis, mostly worthless anyway, regardless of whether or not they are faked.

    Reviews are only of value when the reviewer has tastes & needs that are similar to yours. When random people review something, there is no way to know if they have the required overlap.

     

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  30.  
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    sehlat (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 4:00pm

    Re: Sooo disappointed

    "It's time to play the re-views,
    It's time to start the fights..."

    Oops! He said sock Puppets, not sock Muppets!

     

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  31.  
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    Derek, Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 4:02pm

    one-star

    Seems to me it would be far more helpful, for both Amazon and authors, if blatantly irrelevant reviews were deleted. The most obvious example of these are the widespread one-stars that complain about shipping, returns, or some other unrelated problem.

    If I were an author, I'd be much more concerned by books being down-rated for reasons irrelevant to the content than by books being up-rated because the writer needed to buy a good review.

     

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  32.  
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    nasch (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 4:34pm

    Re: Re:

    Until I saw your comment, I agreed with this being a non-story. I simply assumed that nobody seriously used Amazon's reviews.

    If that were true, neither sock-puppet reviews nor deleting legit reviews would matter. I haven't used their reviews of books much, but in general the reviews are a big reason I use Amazon as much as I do.

    How do you decide whether to buy something without seeing it, if it hasn't been reviewed by a journalist or something like Consumer Reports? Or do you not do that?

     

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  33.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Nov 2nd, 2012 @ 7:46pm

    Re: one-star

    Yes but see that would take actual work, and couldn't (reasonably) be handled solely by a deletion-bot.

     

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  34.  
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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Nov 3rd, 2012 @ 11:21am

    Re: Re: Well, Amazon is now big enough that it doesn't have to care:

    Uh.. say what??? Relatively speaking perhaps.

     

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  35.  
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    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), Nov 3rd, 2012 @ 12:02pm

    Re: "it was a non-story"

    The 'kerfuffle' was hardly limited to Amazon, but full marks for establishing as trivial a frame as possible for the gloss you want to apply.
    Speaking of spin, that's a big bit right there and it looks to me like you're reading what you want into it. It doesn't say anywhere I can see that anything was "limited to Amazon", but is talking about the effect that very clearly happened on Amazon.
    It wasn't a non-story. It was prominently reported in the Guardian and the New York Times and many other places.
    I suppose that depends what you mean by "non story". I skimmed the links you provided and as far as I can see they all talk about one author that's been caught doing this and some about 1 other that is accused (but also counter-accuses his accuser it seems). If you measure by "amount of reporting" I guess it could be considered a major story, but 3 authors out of how many on Amazon? Personally I'd want a somewhat higher percentage of naughtyness than "barely measurable" before I'd call it major.
    Maybe I missed the rest of "sock-puppeting" authors? I'll admit I didn't go looking for any more outside the links you gave but reading them, the (lack of substantive) content suggests to me that they are as much as anything an excuse to use the term "sock-puppeting". One article even goes as far as to wonder whether it matters at all.
    A few writers of international stature have damaged their own reputations,
    Again I counted 2 maybe 3. Are there more I missed?
    several other writers of international stature felt moved to voice their opinions on the matter.
    Which is the subject of the piece is it not? How a handful of people's "moral outrage" produced a wildly out-of-proportion response from Amazon?
    TechDirt didn't comment on the scandal because apparently no-one at TechDirt figured there was a TechDirt angle
    Well I can't speak for Techdirt, but from my take on what they mostly write about "several authors" complaining about false reviews:
    Has no real technical angle - it could just as easily have been a print review, unless you're going to try and say that an author has never for example paid off a journalist for a favourable review which would be very similar in effect.
    Has no copyright angle
    Has no patent angle
    Has no IP legal angle
    Has no business model angle - until, that is, Amazon affect their business model of customer reviews by taking action, which appears to have been written about.
    But calling it a non-story just makes you look like a smug douche.
    Ad homenims unnecessary, especially when a "glass houses and stones" argument could be made.

     

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  36.  
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    Pen, Nov 3rd, 2012 @ 10:04pm

    Yeah, sorry, but I lost all respect for Joe Konrath decided his right to be a troll on Amazon trumped readers right to fair reviews. When you fully support lying to your customers, because it's the internet and that's just the way the internet works, your opinion isn't worth a thing.

    The guy's a troll. The fact that his reviews are being deleted... I couldn't care less.

     

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  37.  
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    Keva, Nov 4th, 2012 @ 5:07am

    What about Dianetics?

    You want to see some sockpuppetry go read the reviews for Dianetics (L. Ron Hubbard). Scientologist all over the world have fluffed that one up real good and file complaints with Amazon if anyone posts negative reviews. I tried posting a negative review of the book once. It lasted about 3 weeks then disappeared.

     

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  38.  
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    dennis deems (profile), Nov 5th, 2012 @ 7:16am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: "it was a non-story"

    If it were only a problem of fake reviews, then I might agree with you. The real problem isn't the value of the reviews themselves, but the ratings attached to them and how Amazon uses those ratings to push content at its customers. I don't know Amazon's sooper-secret algorithm, of course, but as I understand it, the more stars a title has, the more pairs of eyes it gets floated in front of. More visibility means more potential buyers. In short, Amazon ratings translate to sales. Were this not the case, it would not have been possible to make money selling them. Can you not agree that clandestinely puffing up one's own book's ratings at the expense of other writers' sales is, at the very least, a practice that ought to be discouraged? Can you not agree that seeking to harm the sales of another writer by whatever means is, at the very least, an action worthy of comment?

     

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  39.  
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    yodel (profile), Nov 5th, 2012 @ 10:37am

    Reviews from other authors

    There is no greater sock puppet reviews then the mutual admiration society of authors at a publishing house. "Consultants" and business book authors are often the worse of these: the larger publishing houses have their own authors rave and rave about a book, most of which are recycled rehashed and redone ideas with a new cover. Why doesn't Amazon take them in hand? But nooo, they spend too much with Amazon so we will continue to have inflicted upon us that this book or that book is just the greatest, when in fact it's just horrible with no new thoughts whatsoever.Now that's Sock Puppets Writ Large.

     

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  40.  
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    Xon, Nov 5th, 2012 @ 12:43pm

    Re:

    Funny enough, his fake reviews are still up, or they were at the time of his writing the blog post.

     

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  41.  
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    Beth Ward, Nov 6th, 2012 @ 4:47pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: "it was a non-story"

    Thank you, Dennis. As a first time author, that was what I was wondering. I don't have many reviews, but the ones I have are good (so far). I am grateful for the kindness some readers have shown.

    I can't compete against those who pay for reviews. If good reviews put one book ahead of another, then paying for reviews is no different than doping before a race like Lance Armstrong. It makes for an uneven playing field.

    Unlike some, I don't have the money to pay for reviews, nor do I have an org or publishing house behind me. I need to excel on the quality of my writing alone.

    So to the writer of this blog - if the Amazon algorithms translate stars into sales, then yes, it appears that the sock puppets can definitely hurt others.

    I agree that Amazon needs to find a better way to deal with them, but appreciate that they are trying.

     

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  42.  
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    cathymacleod, Nov 6th, 2012 @ 11:37pm

    sock-puppet reviews

    It does not matter who writes a book review, because tastes and opinions differ anyway. The simple and safe way to avoid being duped is to get a free sample before purchase.

     

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    identicon
    william, Jan 31st, 2013 @ 7:54am

    Amazon is deleting legitimate positive reviews without any sort of trial or explanation and allowing fraudulent negative reviews to remain, even though they are clearly from competitors or from people who clearly haven't read the book in question. And now they are removing the tags that help readers find books.

    What else are they going to do to destroy the independent author market?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 29th, 2013 @ 7:26am

    Re: Well, Amazon is now big enough that it doesn't have to care:

    Too big to jail, too big to fail....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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