The strange world of Amazon reviews

The strange world of Amazon reviews

Image of fireworksLast night my Amazon reviewer ranking jumped from 9th to 6th. I’ve been in the top ten for a while now, since they changed how the rankings are calculated. But other people are obviously better at making their ranking stick, because I’d declined from 3rd to 9th, and was hovering between 9th and 10th. Of course, I posted a few reviews recently, but it seems the real reason is that a highly ranked reviewer has been summarily deleted by Amazon.

Chunky Wilberforce, who until last night was #2 reviewer, is no longer on the rankings. Many reviewers have found that they’ve shed a significant number of negative votes against them. This was accompanied by various odd effects on the Amazon site – more likely evidence that they were having a spring-clean rather than Macbeth-style signs and portents.

Amazon reviews are user-contributed views on any of the wide range of products that Amazon.co.uk offers (the American and other sites have a similar system, but the reviews themselves have to be posted on the relevant site — they aren’t just shipped across). They range from the virtually useless one-liners, such as “This is a great product” or “Arrived 4 days late. Rubbish” to short essays which are as good as anything you’d find in a commercial magazine. Anyone who is registered and logged into Amazon can review, and, if you’ve made at least one purchase, you can vote on other people’s reviews, either negative or positive. You can also leave comments, but more on that anon.

This highly democratic citizen-reviewer system, though, has long been open to abuse by ‘shilling’, where a company, trader, or even the author and their family, register multiple accounts in order to vote up the reviews that favour their products, and vote down the negatives, and to leave their own 5-star reviews to bump up the averages. Shillers tend to be quite unsophisticated: their reviews are generally short, and the language and content is little altered from one review to the next. Every so often Amazon detects these, and reviews silently vanish.

The other day I found what appears to be ‘black-hat’ shilling, where a number of reviewers all with (suspiciously) no other reviews on Amazon, or at the most one or two, decided to give a particular product one star. All the reviews are short, and the content is fairly identical. Amazon has been informed, and we may see some movement.

But manipulation of the voting to promote a particular reviewer (and, of course, this has not been announced by Amazon as what has happened) is rather harder to detect and deal with. A few months ago Amazon USA introduced a new ranking system designed to combat this, and Amazon UK followed suit afterwards. If you’re interested, this was the point at which I jumped from Reviewer #96 to #3. Amazon doesn’t disclose exactly how the rankings are calculated — this would encourage the shillers — but it’s understood that any more than 10 votes on your account by the same person mean that none of the votes from that person are counted. So too bad if your mum hangs on your every word and always votes for you. Some people shed hundreds of negative votes, while others were dumped down the rankings in some cases by 10,000s of levels.

Evidently, though, Amazon still believe that manipulation is taking place, and are taking action. Or maybe it’s just a computer glitch.

The other thing is comments. It’s always nice to have someone write a few words telling you how they enjoyed the review. But not all commentators are benign. I learned a long time ago that there is absolutely no point reviewing books on controversial topics or where there is a cult following. Books by Richard Dawkins garner only 1-star and 5-star reviews, and the comments on the reviews are generally diatribes against the reviewer.

I was a bit surprised, though, to get a string of increasingly abusive comments after reviewing the Nikon 35mm f2 AF-D lens. I mentioned that this is a relatively unusual lens, as the normal lens is 50mm, and the standard ‘wide’ lens is 28mm or even 24mm. Stay with me on this one. I didn’t say that the lens was ‘rare’, ‘unobtainable’ or anything more than that. But there were howls of protest from people insisting this was the commonest lens after the 110mm, that it was an absolute standard for street photography, and that my comments about the disappointing aperture (no f1.4) were completely out of court. The truth is, very few cameras these days are sold with non-zoom lenses at all, and if you’ve ever tried to buy one of these, then you’ll know they are actually quite hard to get hold of. Quite hard. Not very hard, nor ridiculously hard, nor unobtainable hard. Just quite hard.

For some reason, qualifications like ‘quite’ and ‘relatively’ bring out the worst in these kind of commentators, who immediately — in their comments — represent the review as taking up an extremist position.

Eventually, after the latest comment, I just deleted the review. It had gathered 46 positive votes out of 56, and I think that pretty much everyone who had voted negatively had left a comment. But the abusive language was getting a bit much.

Others have fared worse — a couple of my colleagues in Amazon Vine, a specialist review programme, have been cyber-stalked after they angered a commentator, discovering that one by one all of their reviews were attacked by the person. In one case, the stalker went as far as to contact the reviewer off Amazon. Potentially nasty stuff.

Amazon does not announce judgements from its own internal review process, so we may never know what has happened to ‘Chunky’. But, for them at the very least, it appears they recognise the dangers of manipulated voting getting out of hand.

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