Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why Shill Reviewers Are Untouchable on Amazon

The Amazon reviews system is designed, programmed, and operated in a way that gives advantage to book-hyping shills indwelling the place — this is a suspicion that's impossible to avoid after paying careful attention to its workings for a while. For example consider this nuance: a reviewer can at any time delete a review of his own. In itself, this is good and sensible: why not, it's his review, maybe he doesn't like it anymore. But how about this: the same reviewer can repost this very same review, and — attention please — this review will appear as posted on the original posting date (of the deleted review). That is the case even if the review was several years old. Now, this is strange, isn't it? I mean, if you deleted something, it's probably because you didn't like it (for whatever reason) — and it's gone! You'd think the new review should appear marked as posted on the date when it was actually posted. That's not how it works on, and the way it does work is very strange. Why would this be done this way?

I think an example will give a hint:

(1) Here's a review by Harriet Klausner (of the book One Step Over the Border: A Novel) as it appears right now, i.e. this is how a newcomer to the site will see it.

(2) And here is the google-cached version of it; it appears as it was a month or so ago. Please note that there are a number of comments in this version. 1

Have you noticed that the current version does not have ANYTHING at all in the Comments section? It is pristine; it looks like no one ever posted anything there. And yet there were posts — and not just any posts, but posts questioning the credibility of the reviewer (in this case, HK). Where did these posts go? How did they disappear?

Here's how: the reviewer deleted and reposted this review. This operation does not preserve the comments yet the review appears posted on its original posting date: there's no sign of this reviews' having been tampered with, and — how convenient! — there's not a hint that there used to be comments under this review (and, needless to say, what they said, and why, and so on). In other words: a reviewer can get rid of comments posted under his review and he can do it unobtrusively, 'cleanly' as it were; w/o leaving any traces of any comments' having ever been there to begin with.

Eureka? Effectively, a reviewer is in full control of comments made by others for his review. He can censor and expurgate them any time and for any reason. Suppose you've been shilling for a publisher, posting, say, two dozen five-star reviews every day for the said publisher's books. Now suppose someone notices that and posts a comment expressing his outrage. Bummer! You've been outted! Well, you don't need the public alerted to your shilling of course, and the good news is, Amazon is on your side: all you need to do is delete and repost this review — the unwelcome comments will be gone, the review will appear untouched, a common Joe reading this particular book's page will supect nothing. Not knowing that what he's reading is hype by shills, he may even be swayed by the positive rankings and buy the book.
1. [Read this only if the cached page comes up w/o comments] Alas, no longer: no sooner have we mentioned this cached version as it disappeared: the link to cached page now displays the regular (current) page. Someone must be monitoring this blog really carefully and taking action where possible; well, OK, it's nice to see we're read :-) Anyway, the point is, there were a number of comments in the older version of this page (I'll see if I saved the cached page: if I did, I'll post it here; if I didn't, just take my word for it: there were comments there).

2. Yes, I found it: here it is (loads slowly, give it a few seconds).


scotdog98 said...

Again, you make me think.

I just deleted a review under kellyjeanthebeautyqueen - I didn't think it would be that easy. It was.

I really need to figure out how to turn my 1 book a day obsession into either - free books or money for reviewing.

Thanks for keeping me thinking!

Barbara Delaney said...


I hope you're kidding. I can't think of a worse use to put reading to, as a money making venture. The library is free and I would never want to read a book for any other motive than the desire to experience whatever part of life's tapestry an author can share with their reader.

Finding the Amazon reviews has over all been a horrific experience for me. I wish I had never read the first one. The valuable ones are so hugely outweighed by the shills and it's such a dispiriting discovery to find out that there are people so hungry for some recognition that they would lie about the books they've read.

I can't imagine a life without books. To me, seeing them diminished by people writing bogus reviews in order to climb the greasy pole of Amazon rankings has been a disgusting spectacle.

scotdog98 said...

No I wasn't kidding. I get 100% of my books from Goodwill, Second hand shops, garage sales & the library. I have read so many that I have tapped out my local small town library. I am honestly trying to come up with a way to either trade/sell/barter with others who like the same books. A book a day habit isn’t cheap. I should not have said I would like to get paid for reviewing (anyone who has read my reviews would know I won't ever get paid or receive freebies) but I would really like to figure something out with resorting to eBay.

My experience with Harriet has not been a good one but I believe at least 50% of the reviewers on Amazon are actually giving an honest review.


Malleus said...

Scotdog, since you actually read these books, I think there'd be nothing wrong with your reviewing them (well, assuming you actually take the trouble of sharing your thoughts inspired by the books). That, in my view, includes your being paid for it -- provided you mention that fact in your reviews.

> I can't imagine a life without books. To me,
> seeing them diminished by people writing
> bogus reviews in order to climb the greasy
> pole of Amazon rankings has been
> a disgusting spectacle.
Right on. And how brazenly: are we, the collective Gentle Reader, supposed to be that stupid?

Malleus said...

> I believe at least 50% of the reviewers
> on Amazon are actually giving
> an honest review.
Kelly, how did you come up with this number?

Malleus said...

A blog reader sent us a letter, in which he defends the way Amazon designed their delete/repost mechanism. It works that way, he says, not in order to enable a Klausneresque reviewer to censor comments, but to prevent the same reviewer from moving his review up the page where it presumably will gather more 'helpful' votes.


We can make guesses about Amazon's intents... Or, we can simply observe the effects. I prefer to deal with empirical evidence, and the evidence is clear: the delete/repost mechanism can be -- and is -- used by fake reviewers to blow away unwanted comments that give away their game.

If Amazon wanted to prevent reviewers' leapfrogging ahead of others, they could simply disallow such reposting, or watch and warn and maybe even ban reviewers who attempt to do that thing repeatedly and with an obvious intent.

Also, the new page layout would render attempts of such leapfrogging useless: the reviews on books' front-pages are now randomized, i.e. not shown in the chronological order anyway.

And finally: there's no connection between leapfrogging and comments! The software could do what it does AND preserve the comments in reposted reviews... yet this is not the way it works. So... like we said before: it just happens to favour the shill -- as it usually does (of which we will post more soon).