Buyer Beware: Malicious reviews on Amazon.com

One of the very best features of Amazon.com, one of the reasons that it’s a tremendously successful online bookstore, is that anyone who wants can post a book review. No longer the exclusive purview of The New York Times Review of Books, Amazon lets anyone become a book reviewer, attaining the promise of a truly egalitarian online society. But, like anything else, there’s a dark side to the open nature of online reviews, and when the following messages from two of my favorite authors arrived in my mailbox, I asked them if I could republish their notes. They said yes, so here’s what Robert Bruce Thompson shared:
Now I’m pissed. Ordinarily I shrug off bad reviews, but I just read one on Amazon posted today for my book Building the Perfect PC, which has 35 reviews averaging five stars….


The “review” awarded our book one star, and made numerous false statements about it. The review was written by “Flying Tiger”. Clicking on the link for Flying Tiger reports that this person’s name is actually Mark Chambers. The first hit on an author search for “Mark Chambers” is:
    Building a PC for Dummies, Fourth Edition
    by Mark L. Chambers (Paperback – September 2, 2003)
    Avg. Customer Rating: 3.0 out of 5 stars
A bit more sniffing around convinces me that this is the same person. Note that the Amazon nickname is “mlcbooks”. Going to www.mlcbooks.com displays “The Home of Books Written by Mark L. Chambers”. I’ve already reported this to my publisher and to Amazon.com, but I wonder what else, if anything, I can or should do.
Dave: One could ostensibly argue that authors are subject matter experts, so who better to post reviews of other books, but when a single review is so out of step with all the competing reviews, something’s clearly awry. Further, since authors already are subject matter experts, they’re not the target market for how-to and tutorial books anyway. But even if you don’t agree, concealing your identity as a competing author is indefensible, in my view.
Another author pal of mine, Kathy Sierra, author of the wildly popular Head First Java, has been plagued by this sort of problem too. Here’s her response to the situation:
Amazon will absolutely remove this. If you have evidence that a competing author wrote the review (and you have more than enough), this violates Amazon’s official review policy, and you should have no trouble removing it. I never let these things stay up… just on principle. If an author is unethical enough to do this (and it happened to me plenty of times), they shouldn’t be rewarded for it.
Did you get a response from Amazon? Usually you hear back from them within a day or two. If you get the standard form letter about the review being within their guidelines, write back! Sometimes it takes that second note… but they will remove it. It can take 5 days or more from the time they tell you it was removed before you actually see it disappear from your page.
We all have to accept the legit bad reviews, but I see no reason to not take a stand on the fake ones. You’re lucky that this reviewer didn’t do enough to cover his tracks : )
There’s great power to the “vox populi” of the Internet, but it should be no surprise that unscrupulous people subvert the system for their own goals. The challenge is for the rest of us to differentiate between legitimate, credible content and bogus or overtly biased material. Ironically, reading Amazon reviews proves to be no different from reading weblogs or any other material online.

14 comments on “Buyer Beware: Malicious reviews on Amazon.com

  1. As an author, I have absolutely zero issues with whether people post positive or negative reviews. I don’t even care if they come from competing authors and in fact encourage it as long as the competing author actually bought and read the book.
    I think you bring into question whether many of the reviews on Amazon were from people who have actually read the book or are simply posting garbage. Amazon can shut this type of thing down quickly by simply only allowing folks to comment on things they bought directly from them.
    The one thing I would push back on is assuming that the folks posting fake reviews happen to be competing authors. This is purely speculation, there are no facts to support this and shouldn’t be encouraged.
    For example, me and you don’t compete but lets say I don’t like you because you live in Colorado. I could post a fake review on one of your competing books in your name or make it sound like you.
    How about an author posting negative reviews on their own books. This helps authors in the community gain attention to their own books and sell more copies. Kinda like a bride who was supposedly missing. If it backfires, they could always ask Amazon to remove it.
    Authors should be driven by facts and not speculation…

  2. James, you misrepresent the situation. Robert wasn’t just “assuming that fake reviews happen to be competing authors”, he tracked backwards and presents what I (and Amazon, for that matter) believe is a credible case that the spurious review of his book was indeed posted by the author of a competing title.
    As of today, the review has been removed from the Amazon.com list of reviews for Robert’s book.
    But to say that authors should be driven by facts is to agree with my position here, which is mainly that there’s no way for us to ascertain the veracity of reviews, good or bad, at a site like Amazon, so before lots of positive (or negative) reviews strongly biases a purchaser, it’s smart to stop for a moment and ask if they’re all legitimate.
    Finally, I believe that your proposed solution of only allowing people who have purchased a book to review it would be a form of commercial censorship and would undercut the value and tremendous boon of having a public reviews forum. For example, I have some favorite books that I have owned for years: If I happened to go to those pages on Amazon, I might well be inclined to share why I think those books are so wonderful. Surely that’s a valid and valuable review to include?

  3. Bottom line is that there is no perfect way to do the Amazon reviewing system that will eliminate fraud. There are three issues going on. There’s the posting of fraud reviews, the ranking of the books, and then there’s the voting on the reviews…
    For awhile, Amazon tried to verify the reviewers and required credit card information and a valid Amazon account. Many of the top reviewers objected in that they reviewed for Amazon, but didn’t buy from Amazon. And from Ammy’s perspective, they get value from both reviews and purchases, so why should they shut out quality reviewers just because they don’t want to part with their credit card info? That whole requirement died a quick and quiet death. They’ve also tried to implement a “real name” tag to allow readers to verify that the reviewer is who they say they are. After the reviewers got done laughing, that also died off…
    And for the ratings… I seriously don’t see any way around this one. I’ll love a book, you’ll hate it, and sometimes for the exact same reason. The best I can do as a reviewer is to give a reasoned explanation about why I feel the way I do, and let that guide the reader and potential purchaser into their own decision. I once had an off-line discussion with someone who was seriously offended by Kathy Sierra’s Head First Java book and objected to the fact I mentioned that I had not found anyone who didn’t like it. It became quickly apparent that this person had some “issues” that went far beyond this book. So long as Amazon has a free and open reviewing system, these types of people will have a voice, and the best you can do is self-police the system and hope for a range of reviews that allow readers to judge for themselves.
    And I’ll touch on my hotpoint… The “helpful” votes on reviews. I’m a very active reviewer on Amazon (especially in the tech book area), and I’m getting close to breaking into the top 200 in Amazon reviewers. Those rankings are based on how people vote on our reviews. The wording is “Did you find this review helpful?” Unfortunately, many voters read this as “Did I agree with the reviewer, or did I like the book or not?”. So often a critical review, regardless of how well written or considered, is absolutely trashed in the voting. Again, it’s another area of abuse, as people (and even authors) use the voting to defend their favorite books.
    It’s unfortunate that these practices exist. There are other reviewing outlets that control this better through registration and such, but their impact is far less than Amazon’s point of sale information. I think this is just one of those areas where authors have to be vigilant to police their own titles and take action where necessary, reviewers have to watch for abuse and cry foul to Amazon when necessary, and readers have to realize that very little in life is completely non-biased…

  4. Wikipedia teaches us that outliers like this are taken care of by the community. People will post reviews in response that correct what is clearly a deliberate pan and biased review by a competing author. And the bad pr in the book author community (this guy has got to have his ears burning after having his behavior exposed on Studio B) will also have a corrective effect. (BTW, the person you ought to be asking for comment is Richard Swadley, Mark Chambers’ publisher! I don’t have his email, but I’m sure you could get it from David Rogelberg or the Studio B list.)
    In this particular case, I agree with Kathy that the review from this source looks sufficiently egregious that the review will be removed by Amazon. It would be interesting for Amazon to have some greater level of sanction, such as removing all of the reviewer’s posts, or giving them some kind of black mark (kind of like they mark “top 50 reviewers”, mark fraudulent reviewers when found. I guess that might be dangerous legally, but it would be cool if it were something that amazon enabled for users to do, rather than something they did themselves. Reviewer ratings wouldn’t be a bad idea.)

  5. I have noted that often reviews of books on religion, especially Christianity, have an interesting pattern. If the author is conservative and conventional, the reviews are frequently glowing. If the author is “liberal” and challenging, many of the reviews will be negative and in very general and vague ways. Nor in such reviews do I find anything indicating that the reviewer actually read the book.
    Perhaps after I retire I will have the time to do some more detailed studies on this and have something to contribute which is more than annecdotal evidence.

  6. One of the areas I’m researching as a future part of my “MathematicalAnalysis.com” project is an algorithm that would “read” text and analyze it in comparison with a larger body of archived historical documents, the goal being to identify sets of documents that are likely to have been composed by the same author. My original purpose for this is to help fight terrorism by providing the CIA and other organizations with an automated means to sift through the huge amounts of data they collect each day.
    The observations here make me think such an algorithm might have much broader application, for fighting the types of fraud that seem to be appearing on almost any web site that provides an opportunity for people of unverified identity to freely post information that is then automatically published for the world to see. Spammers targeting Blogs, fraudulent reviewers targeting Amazon, email spam clogging the internet and in boxes — these are problems that seem only to be getting worse, and at an accelerating pace. (This is why Dave tests our arithmetic skills with each post, for example.)
    This type of manipulation, I would think, is criminal — since it damages another person’s income and reputation. But of course, proving this in an individual case would be quite difficult today.

  7. It’s unfortunate that some authors feel the need to sabotage competing books like this. But, as Kathy Sierra notes, if you point this out to Amazon they’re highly likely to remove the post. Again, I hate to admit that this sort of thing happens from time to time, but at least there’s a fairly efficient way to clean it up. At the end of the day, the good books wind up with strong reviews and great rankings, no matter how hard a competing author tries to undermine things.

  8. I know of an author who had his first novel published in 2005. The book was not particularly well received. The review from Publishers Weekly was lukewarm, to put it mildly. I then noticed that this book was receiving many 5 star reviews on Amazon, obviously from friends and relatives of the author. None of these people had ever reviewed another book on Amazon. The one review that was not positive was the only one by an experienced reviewer. It makes me wonder about the whole Amazon review system.

  9. This is a huge issue. I remember I was looking at Amazon to find good dental marketing books for some of my clients as well as for my practice. Unfortunately, many reviews are fake. Here is how to check their authenticity. Click on the name of the reviewer. See how many reviews he posted before. If he has only one review for let’s say a dental practice marketing book the I would be worried. Does that mean that he read only one book and wrote an excellent review for it and then stopped?
    I’ve seen this happen many times with different marketing and business books I’ve purchased through out the years.

  10. Hi
    I bumped into this site while searching book reviewers for a new book of mine. Well I am happy you metion this about malicious reviewers. It happened to me too on two occasions. I did not care about one because as you say- we learn from negative reviews too. All in all my reviews on my publications were great and really better than I even expected. However, one reviewer was outright malicious and used obscenities. I brought this to the attention of Amazon.com and they promptly removed the review. I have worked with Amazon.com for years and they always answered my letters too.

  11. The things I come across in my daily misadventures online! As both a publisher and book reviewer, I am always interested in articles and discussions involving book reviews. The malicious reviews at Amazon are a problem to be sure. But there is larger problem that many readers may not be aware of, and that is fake reviews posted by writers themselves to their own books!
    This generally comes from new writers from either very small indie publishers or self-published authors. I myself have caught many writers not only posting reviews to their own books, but encouraging other writers to do this in writer forums! If I can just remind any fellow writers who see this that they are doing both themselves and other writers a disservice with this type of self-promotion.
    Also, the Amazon review process is not for plugging your own book, either. I often see writers who post a 5 star review for a book on the same topic as their own with a review like: “This was a great book! And if you like this book you will also like (insert name of their own book here).” Just remember, readers are smarter than this, and you make yourself and the other writer look bad with this type of stuff.

  12. I recently saw a very biased and malicious review
    of one of my books on Amazon.com. The review stated
    outrageously false statements that were totally
    unfounded. My book received excellent reviews in
    professional journals. I do not know who the author
    of that review was. But, he is obviously a disgruntled person who has some grudge against me.
    Can you tell me how to contact Amazon.com to register my grave concerns about this matter?
    Thanks.
    Andre’ Khuri

  13. I have no problem with reviews yet, however, I have had an unpleasant experience with tags. An author in the same genre as I has posted two tags on both of my books saying “garbage” and “suckish”. Even going as far as listing my book in a suck listmania! You can even google it and trace it back to her. It’s ridiculous that an author not only has to explain her book but explain why another author has bad ethics!

  14. I am aware that Amazon.com is more professional and fair with how they monitor reviews. However, Amazon.co.uk seem to be uninterested in abuse of their review system.
    Recently a reviewer continuously posted 1 Star inaccurate and malicious reviews against one of my books. Amazon did delete these initial reviews due to the profanities expressed. Then the reviewer toned down the remarks in their most recent review to fall with Amazon guidelines, still though rating the book 1 Star. When this was published I once again contacted Amazon and respectfully requested that as the reviewer had posted so many malicious reviews, even if the latest fell within their guidelines, they should remove it. I was stunned to receive their reply which stated that they would not delete the review adding “As a retailer we are interested in cultivating a diversity of opinion in our reviews”.
    So if this happens to you, don’t expect support from Amazon.co.uk, their understanding and loyalty to authors is very tenuous!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.