Ok, so I know I’ve been away for the last week. Apart from some personal stuff I’m still taking care of, I’ve been struggling to read or write anything for a post in my spare time. On Wednesday Amazon UK decided to delete a whole bunch of reviews and I saw more than 60 of my reviews just disappear. To be fair they did this to many top reviewers. A mass deletion of reviews for free products (don’t worry, my book reviews are safe), but their deletion process made no sense. Some reviews have been deleted while others stay. Customer service answers have been generic and useless. Enquiries on the forums and get you insulted. Amazon’s not the place I thought it was. You need a thick skin just to be a reviewer there. And if you upset an employee or a fellow reviewer, you can be in for some revenge….Here’s the real truth about amazon reviewing.
I’m going to talk a fair bit about my experiences with amazon. Things I don’t agree with hope you might find this post of some use to you, but if it comes across a bit ‘ranty’ then forgive me, I’m in that sort of mood towards amazon right now…
A bit of Background info
Before I start this post (and perhaps to explain why I’m feeling so down) if you don’t already follow my blog and know, I suffer from depression and began reviewing on amazon as a way of keeping my mind off the horrible things I’d been through. I don’t want to go into more detail at the moment but will be happy to do so in future if requested.
Ever seen those buttons under a review that ask you whether a review is helpful or not? Voting a review as helpful is giving it one point. The more helpful votes a review has the more likely it will appear at the top of a product page. Although amazon factor in a bunch of reasons for a review being seen as ‘helpful’, including how new a review is, whether it’s a verified purchase, reviewer’s ranking etc.(This depends on each individual amazon site). It’s generally seen as more helpful the more ‘helpful’ votes it has.
When someone votes a review as unhelpful though the review can quickly fall off the front page. The reason for this is the unfair ratio that amazon applies to unhelpful votes. One unhelpful vote is worth 3 helpful ones.
1 Unhelpful = 3 Helpful
No matter how great a review may have been for a book, for example, it wouldn’t take many unhelpful votes from an angry troll to knock the good review to the bottom of the pile.
Unfortunately for ‘top reviewers’ it’s often the case that our own reviews get voted down by sellers who didn’t like our reviews (because maybe they weren’t perfect 5* ones) or worse…Fellow reviewers who want to see their reviews on top!
I’d recently revealed to author friend Nicholas Rossis, the awful truth of what is known as ‘review washing’. In his recent blog post about the amazon rule changes he explains what it is to his blog readers. I was a bit surprised by the response of the other amazon reviewer who cited that it’s sometimes okay to review wash. To read this blog post click here, but I will explain it all here:
Review washing is the act of deleting a review that has amassed negative (unhelpful) votes and then re-posting it. This clears out any helpful votes too, but is a favourable practice of some reviewers in the past.
The good news is that review washing has been banned on amazon US. It’s seen as a bad thing that upsets the reviewing system. But it’s NOT banned in the UK, and many reviewers do this to abuse the system.
Review Washing = Deleting and re-posting your review – wiping out all votes, particularly negative ones
I’ve never ‘washed’ a review in my life, to the cost of both my rank and helpfulness score. On amazon my own rank has never climbed higher than the 200s and I’m considered only 87% helpful. Far less than the top 10 average. One top 10 reviewer in the past (now banned) took to voting down my reviews with the help of many friends and fake accounts. This led to my reviews dropping below theirs. And anytime they incurred a negative vote they simply ‘washed’ the review. I didn’t. I just never saw it as a good thing to do.
When review washing is ok…
Now, review washing, as has been pointed out in the post by a vine reviewer, isn’t as black and white….It can sometimes be a good thing….But when?
Well there’s a lot of bullying by both sellers (can be authors too) and fellow reviewers. They can vote down your reviews and even post nasty comments on your review. These can become really nasty and you can choose to delete your review – which I have no problems in doing. But then, it’s been suggested that you can re-post a ‘washed’ review free of all the negativity and add an extra quote that your review is being attacked. This Does make sense. But I still struggle with this idea. Sometimes the downvoting can be legitimate. Sometimes customers may genuinely dislike a review and want to vote it down. Is it our choice as reviewers to decide which votes are genuine or not? Amazon US doesn’t think so.
As an author you’ve written a book and someone’s trolling it with a horrible review which attacks you and not the book. A fan of yours votes it down, maybe several of your readers decide to do this. Is it okay for that review to be ‘washed’ again and again to make it appear on the front page all the time? I don’t think so.
The amazon forums are a nightmare place to go to, especially if you are a sensitive individual.
Post on the forums at your own peril.
As a new reviewer I posted on the forums a lot, asking for help with simple things I didn’t understand. While there are helpful and nice people out there who are ready to talk to you. There are others who love nothing better than to insult you or stalk your profile.
Stalking a profile involves following your reviews and voting them down as often as possible. Many trolls on amazon decide to do this by creating multiple ‘sock puppet’ accounts. These accounts are used to vote down on rival reviews and vote up their own. Amazon is attempting to fix the situation but it’s still something that happens…a lot.
Other forms of online bullying occur off the amazon platform altogether. I’ve heard of one occassion where certain individuals ( some now banned) who like to threaten others, reveal personal information such as real names (not usernames) of other amazon reviewers. There are more incidents like this than just one and it makes you nervous to review when you realise how crazy some people can be.
My own experience:
I’ve suffered a lot of abuse from others during my (nearly) two years of reviewing on amazon. I’ve had people troll my account and give me multiple negative votes and weird and nasty comments on some reviews. Although I’ve gotten some positive votes too and been given some lovely comments on some colouring book reviews (these I really appreciate and thank each time). I’ve experienced some really nasty behaviour too. Behaviour that makes me question whether reviewing on amazon is worth it.
Do Amazon’s New Rules Fix Things?
So, as I said before amazon has decided to delete a large amount of my own reviews. These were all reviews for free products. In the same way I get free copies of books to review, I also received free items. Yes, I know, some people may believe that the new rules banning all incentivized reviews is a good thing. And it’s true, something had to be done to stop the crazy culture that was growing on amazon. But what exactly caused all of this?
There are two main culprits: Big sellers and Coupon Clubs.
Big sellers who mainly come from China have been upsetting the reviewing system for years. These sellers (most often from China) would email top reviewers, offering a free item in exchange for a review. Many of these Big Sellers would send items to hundreds of top reviewers and with me ranked in the 200s I was received upwards of 30 emails a day offering things for review (at some point I was receiving over 60 emails daily – but these were from Germany and the US amazon’s I couldn’t review for)
These Big Sellers solicited reviews for far too many things, and far too many reviewers. But it is widely known and believed that most – not all- but most sellers would only offer you more free items if you gave them a positive review. Plenty of reviewers, especially new ones, would happily oblige, giving out four and five star reviews for products in order to get more. However many reviewers such as me did give an honest 3 or lower star review if the products weren’t very good.
These were the other big thing which I believe tipped the reviewing culture over the edge in recent years, and forced amazon to do something to stop the corruption. Coupon clubs are websites that people could join where you could get free stuff if you left a review on amazon. You didn’t need to be a top reviewer to get stuff to review. As long as you signed up to these websites you could get free stuff. The sites would then offer you a coupon to use at the amazon check out which would make an item you were buying free or heavily discounted.
Many of these ‘coupon clubs’ as they’ve come to be known, would put conditions on your reviewing. Such as ‘Don’t leave negative reviews, tell us instead’. The culture of these coupon clubs was – get stuff and keep getting stuff if you leave positive reviews. Unfortunately many people were innocently taken in by these clubs. Plenty of them made it seem that they were a part of amazon itself and that duped a lot of people into believing they were doing nothing wrong. But they were.
I can sympathise with coupon club members because….I used to belong to one.
After becoming a top reviewer I was invited to join one such club, called iLovetoreview. It didn’t seem like a bad setup, a sort of middleman between me and the sellers. What ilovetoreview had going for it (and perhaps why I was duped by the hype) was that it accepted negative reviews. They were happy for you to leave an honest review but after signing up to their list, it wasn’t long before their rules started to change.
One new rule made me nervous of staying: Leave your ‘I got this for free’ disclosure at the BOTTOM of your review NOT at the top. Now amazon doesn’t have a rule on where to leave this, but it made me uncomfortable reviewing for them, they wanted me to dupe customers, forcing the customer to read through to the bottom of my review before they’d find out I got something free (not the way I usually review). I wasn’t happy with this and quickly left iLovetoreview. A move I’m proud I made. However the culture continued and before long there were hundreds if not thousands of people writing positive reviews for free things.
So to curb the corruption Amazon banned all reviews for free things (bar books, music and video).
This seems like a sensible action. But was it the right thing to do. Many would argue yes. There was deep corruption and this has put an end to it….But has it really?
Reviewing still continues
Plenty of people can and will still review things they got for free. You are allowed 5 non-verified purchase reviews a week, and what’s to stop people from still reviewing items they got for free….Only NOT declaring that fact?
Although amazon may be looking into certain sellers and reviewers. I already see plenty of reviews going up for ‘freebie’ items (as they are know) just without a disclosure stating it was free. Imagine you are purchasing a new blender or whatever on amazon, would you like to know that the person whose review you are reading and enjoying got the item free…I would. But with amazon’s new rule, corrupt reviewers and sellers WILL continue…There’s nothing to stop them, not if they are careful!
Small Sellers like Indie Authors
I have little or no sympathy for the big sellers whose behaviour has led to this ‘ban’ on freebie reviews. But what about small sellers, especially those from our own countries? As well as plenty of chinese items, I’ve also been offered gadgets and things from small indie sellers here in the UK. These people are like indie authors. They’ve set up a new business and (given how big the online shopping market is today) have tried to sell their wares on amazon. One such seller contacted me and told me that nobody will touch his products until he has a few reviews which guarantee that the product is as it looks on the main product page. Without initial reviews his things rarely sell.
Some small indie sellers, like indie authors rely on reviews for any sales
Amazon’s new rules have put a supposed end to the big seller corruption, but at what cost to the small sellers?
Another interesting point
Another aspect of this is also that many of the big sellers, sold very decent products which were on a par with the likes of Sony and other famous names. I was amazed at the sound quality of a particular pair of headphones I’m still using today which I was offered for a review. These are an unknown brand in the UK but will have little chance of selling if a few items can’t be released for reviewers to test and show off. (I’m not talking about releasing thousands of items, but a small few which the amazon vine program does too).
Amazon has in place something called the vine program. Much like with previous sellers, people who are part of the vine program get items for free to review and then can write up reviews for them. As nice and good as some vine reviewers are. There are plenty that aren’t. Some vine reviewers give what seem like useless reviews and it makes you wonder what criteria amazon has for their vine program.
I believe the mass deletion of reviews has been a step in fixing the broken and corrupted reviewing system. A recent online article suggested that there are more positive reviews for products which have been offered for free, than for products on amazon where there’s been no offer of a free item. If this is true then amazon are trying to balance out the positive reviews, by deleting a lot of them.
However…Why my reviews and not another’s? While many top reviewers suffered some review deletion. I’ve checked back the reviews that have been deleted (I have copies of most of my reviews) and the review deletion makes no sense. Here’s one review I did for a camera. And here’s another for a piece of kitchen equipment. (Yes if you visit it’s my unofficial launch of my other blog I guess!) These reviews were honest and while these particular ones were positive detail some problems with the products. But amazon have deleted them, while they have left others in tact. Other reviewers ‘freebie’ reviews are still listed as you can see from this link-scrolldown, (with some reviewers not declaring the item was free) but mine are gone…? (as were some other reviewers).
Okay so you might think that this was a personal rant about my reviews. Maybe it was, but I can’t help but be a little upset. I took a lot of time to write up those reviews and test out the items. A lot of the stuff I’ve reviewed has been passed on to someone else. I’ve made no profit from the reviews, my buzz came from helping people and I’ve spent countless hours on product pages, answering questions about items and answering comments left on my reviews. I’ve only ever tried to help people, the same way I hope my book reviews help people decide whether a book is right for them or not.
So…(This post’s nearly finished if you’re getting fed up!)
While I can’t do anything about my reviews and many of the people reading this post may be happy to hear they are gone, I wonder, if amazon keeps changing their rules and policies, what next?
What worries me is – what next?
Amazon is always changing its rules. And while they are open to book reviews and are largely in favour of keeping the bookmarket as it is….What if one day they change their minds? What if one day they (wrongly) suspect certain book reviews to be corrupt. Will they do a mass deletion of them too?
Amazon already deletes book reviews
An indie author friend has shared with me a horror story about their own experience with amazon. After enquiring about something, amazon didn’t answer her questions, instead they decided to do a deletion of several of her positive book reviews, citing a connection between author and reviewer. These connections were wrongly assumed but even after complaining amazon has not reversed their decision, and has yet to answer the original enquiry question.
The problem is amazon is mostly run by robots.
The main issue is that amazon is mostly run by robots. Computer programs decide whether reviews are wrongfully written, if authors and reviewers are connected. Computer programs are in charge of most of amazon’s systems. Sometimes you can reason with a person when calling customer service. But more often than not, in both my experience and many others….computer programs run everything….And computer programs CAN make mistakes. Computer programs can’t think outside of the logics of their own programming. And if robots are going to be used to decide what is corrupt and what is not…Corruption is likely to stay.
What have I learned since becoming a ‘top reviewer’ at amazon? That while it’s fun to carry the title of top reviewer, and fun to be offered opportunities to review both items (in the past) and books. It’s also a hard place to be. It’s a place full of people trying to cheat the system. And while there are plenty of well-meaning and nice people out there, who write honest reviews. There are others who cheat, lie and enjoy playing a ‘game’. And while amazon allows corrupt individuals to exist on its site, it will always be a corrupt system that’ll never get fixed.
Should we all be afraid of amazon and avoid it? No, of course not. But given how much power they have, the domination over the market. It does make me worry for the future. Both for the integrity of reviews and for my author friends who use the site. Will they one day wrongfully assume an author is corrupt and ban them altogether? Will they decide some brand new rules and then do a mass deletion of old book reviews? Will anything or anyone be able to stop amazon from doing whatever it wants?…… All I know is, I’m struggling to care anymore!
Please let me know your thoughts, if any, in the comments below. I welcome all thoughts whether you agree or disagree with me but please keep the conversation friendly…If just because I’m a little emotional today.
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