Home » Amazon, Reviews » Et Tu, Amazon?

Et Tu, Amazon?

19 October 2012

From author Michelle Gagnon:

Apparently these fans tried to submit reviews of my book on Amazon, and their reviews either a) never appeared, or b) were abruptly taken down.

Two of the fans sent transcripts of the reviews, and they were standard (and positive, thankfully): nothing offensive at all in terms of content.

One of the fans took the time and trouble to write to Amazon, asking why his review was removed. He received this form letter reply:

I’m sorry for any previous concerns regarding your reviews on our site. We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product.

We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines.  We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

Now, I’ve known this fan for years–he’s read (and reviewed!) all of my other books. And he has no financial stake in my work. He also doesn’t sell anything on Amazon, ever–never mind competing products (which would be what, exactly? Other books? Does this mean that I’m no longer allowed to review thrillers by my contemporaries?)

From there, it became even more disturbing. When the fan wrote back and pointed out that he’s never sold anything on Amazon, and doesn’t have any financial interest in my books, they sent another letter–and in this one, the powers that be declared that if he tried to contact them again about reposting, they would REMOVE MY BOOK FROM THE SITE.

That’s right, remove my book. Even though, had he not written, I wouldn’t have a clue that any of this was transpiring.

Link to the rest at The Kill Zone and thanks to R.L. for the tip.

Michelle thinks this is an attempt by Amazon to deal with sock puppet reviews that has gone badly wrong. PG is inclined to agree.

A badly-designed algorithm combined with second-rate human backup is not a good solution to any problem.

Amazon, Reviews

49 Comments to “Et Tu, Amazon?”

  1. I’m all for dealing with sock puppet reviews, but there are at least a dozen other ways Amazon could’ve handled this. For one, refusing to go into further details is ridiculous; they’re not the FBI, and users have a right to know what their supposed violation is. (Maybe not from a legal perspective, but certainly from a moral one, if you want to be seen as a good company with good customer service.)

    • Not just Amazon.

      I spent probably about eight hours over several months trying to find out why a review I posted at Barnes & Noble suddenly disappeared. It was for a great older book I discovered and reviewed at my blog, Goodreads, Powell’s Amazon, etc. It’s only missing from B&N.

      They won’t tell me why it was taken down. When I tried to edit the review, they say I can’t do that. When I check other avenues (like a new review) they tell me to edit the review! But — I can’t access that review, no matter what browser I use. Customer Service told me to try back in a week or so!

      Then I got grumpy and tried to get this resolved, one way or another. Through Tech Support; through a CS person who I obviously knew more about how the system worked than she did. Finally, I was given an email to contact the “reviews” department.

      They never answered.

      So — no more B&N reviews, and if Amazon pulls this crap with me, no more reviews for them, either. I try to post to anything (that has less than 20 reviews) that I liked and did a review for elsewhere, but I don’t have time for games.

      I don’t bother reviewing something unless I really like it, either. It takes away from writing time! I WANT B&N to succeed, if only for competition to Amazon. I like Nook better than Kindle.

      But I don’t have time to chase them.

      • I can’t say I blame you.

        I loathe sockpuppet reviews, but I think companies are taking them way too seriously. As a consumer, I’m smart enough to tell the difference. I appreciate the efforts they already had in place. Over-policing is just going to frustrate honest customers. Dishonest customers will always find a way to game the system.

  2. And I thought the insurance companies had bad customer service. This tops the cake.

  3. This happened to a friend of mine over the past week. Amazon turned into the 800 pound gorilla and threatened to remove all the reviews and IIRC unpublish the book as well.

  4. I once tried to post a review for an oversized sweater I liked, but returned because the color did not match what was shown in the product photo. The headline on my review was:

    Large and soft but…

    (then body text went on to talk about the color).

    Amazon removed my review and the only thing I could figure out was that they thought I was talking about a large, soft butt. The rejection email mentioned my language.

  5. To some extent, I can understand Amazon’s reluctance to “go into the detail” in email exchanges. That could become quite labor intensive if they have to have back and forth exchanges with a lot of reviewers as to why their review was taken down.

    Also, if they suspect they are sock puppets for the author, they likely don’t want to let them know what to avoid in the future to giving away that they are one. Like in this case, one group speculated maybe this person has only reviewed that author’s work, which would be a red flag to Amazon. So all a real sock puppet reviewer would have to do is make sure they review some other books and products.

    That said, threatening to take down the book, believing the person they were responding to was really the author, opens up the system to further abuse. Now all an author angry at another author has to do is pretend and make it obvious he is a sock puppet, complain when his review gets taken down enough that Amazon removes the book, and the combative author has successfully taken down his “competitor.”

    The problem for Amazon is, the more they get into policing this, the more complicated it gets, and the more people they will make angry who get trampled on in the process, both customers to their products and content providers. As noted here, bottom line, this is not the customer service Amazon is noted for. They shouldn’t let zeal in one area cancel their good points in others.

  6. Find a problem. Fix a problem. Create a new problem. Hide under desk.

  7. “Find a problem. Fix a problem. Create a new problem. Hide under desk.”

    The programmer’s algorithm. 🙂

  8. The thing to remember is that Amazon wants to be Google — and it looks like they are imitating Google’s enforcement policies for Adwords.

    Adwords ads are pay-per-click, so obviously publishers who display such ads are not supposed to click on those ads. Ever. Even if they are interested in the product. And if you do, there is no trial, no appeal, you are simply banned from Adwords for life.

    But it goes a lot deeper than that. If ANYONE clicks on your ads in a pattern of use that is suspicious, you will be banned from Adwords for life. (There is one appeal, you must prove that person was doing it maliciously. Proof that it was a friend who was trying to help you, unknown to you, is not sufficient.) Furthermore, if they can identify the other person, that person will be banned from Adwords for life.

    And it goes deeper yet:

    If you tell anyone, on or offline, about your Adwords ads and how they earn money for you, you run the risk of being banned for life just for saying something that would entice people to click on the ads to help you.

    Now here is the thing: with pay-per-click, the need to keep the clicks genuine is crucial. Google’s advertising customers have to pay for those shenanigans.

    This is not so with Amazon reviews.

    So the zero-tolerance, guilty until proven innocent and by the way there is no trial or way to prove innocence, policy isn’t appropriate, and it only invites lawsuits, as some stalker uses this policy to hurt someone’s career. (Even Google has a process for that one. Amazon clearly doesn’t.)

    However, this is another reason for authors to beware of telling readers that reviews are SOOOOO crucial to their success. It’s for the same reason that Google tells Adwords publishers not to tell people how important clicks on ads are to making a living: even if you say “but only do it if you are genuinely interested!” you are still encouraging readers to review for the wrong reasons… and that shows up in the algorithms.

    I would assume that this friend in the original post was probably reviewing everything by this favorite author, and not reviewing anything else, or reviewing other things in an odd pattern that readers who aren’t trying to help individual authors don’t do. Might even be rating down the competition, etc. Fans can act an awful lot like sock puppets.

    • This is a brilliant analysis. I mean, it really changed the way I’m thinking about all this. No sarcasm. I “get” it.

    • Camille, you analysis is good but you are forgetting that Amazon is acting in a conflict of interest and reviewing patterns of their own books do not seem to be fall under the same scrutiny. Here is a comment from Michelle’s blog post that I thought was rather insightful:

      “”Why is Amazon leaving these fake reviews up and pulling regular reader reviews?”

      Because they have motive to delete positive book reviews on other books now. They started their own publishing house. I’m not talking about the publishing platform. I’m talking about their publishing HOUSE. One such book published through them is Angelfall (published through “Amazon Children’s Publishing”).

      917 reviews and 4.6 average, which is great, except if you look at the reviews on that book you will see people who rate that book excellent then rate other books in the genre very poorly.

      I know people have different tastes in books, but should we believe that everyone who loves Angelfall then hates any other book that is doing well in that genre? And I don’t see amazon deleting any of the positive reviews on that book.

      Why? Because they have something to gain by keeping any positive reviews on that book, as well as something to gain by deleting positive reviews from other competing books.

      There is a conflict of interest. How many other book stores are also publishers? Only Amazon, as far as I know. Of course publishers also have online stores with their own titles, but that is different from carrying all titles but some of those titles being YOUR OWN.

      I can’t speak for everyone but think of it this way: If you go to site X which is maker of product X and see tons of great reviews, do you ever wonder if they are allowing the ratings to be skewed? Meanwhile, imagine now that they carry other products of the same category, and are deleting positive reviews from those products only? What conclusion would you make?”

  9. I’m wondering if and when Amazon will take down the hilarious reviews for binders that are up now. Check them out before they get disappeared!

  10. I had this same problem reviewing a book. Even though I had no financial interest, because I had checked it for typos for the gal and disclosed this up-front, they decided I was a sock-puppet. Nice.

  11. Thanks for drawing attention to this. I’ve had two reviews removed in the last week, and I received the same response from Amazon. Both reviews were 100% legitimate and were not solicited. They were apparently in breech of Amazon’s rules because I had also reviewed the reviewers’ books in the past. My reviews were also removed from their pages.
    I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand I appreciate Amazon trying to regulate the reviews that appear, but on the other hand, if authors can’t review one another’s books, that’s a sad, sad situation. Especially since my book is FOR authors! It feels a little overbearing and controlling, no? One more reason not to put all of your eggs in the Amazon basket.

  12. Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Not just Amazon.

    R. L. Copple: Now all an author angry at another author has to do is pretend and make it obvious he is a sock puppet, complain when his review gets taken down enough that Amazon removes the book, and the combative author has successfully taken down his “competitor.”

    And people wonder why it might, just possibly, be a long-term bad idea to go exclusive with any one ebook seller. Anyone who has argued with Kris Rusch on that topic owes her some beer money, I think.

  13. Is there any case to be made, though, for using a single vendor as a trial place when you take your first book indie? I haven’t the time to jump through 6 different formats right now, so my tentative plan is to just get it onto AMZ first, see how things go, and then forge ahead with the other platforms. Those of you who’ve already trod the indie path, is there any good reason not to do it this way?

    Now, of course, I’m visualizing my e-mail to all my former reviewers, asking them not to review the new title because I’m afraid I’ll get banned…

    • Take the time to learn the formats. They aren’t that difficult. Honest.

      1. Create an HTML version from your Word doc
      2. Use Caliber to create epub and mobi versions

      And….you’re done. You’ve just created a version for B&N, Kobo, (both use the same format) and Amazon, if you don’t want to try to get through the Smashwords meatgrinder (which takes Word files.)

      I don’t understand why you wouldn’t take the time to do it right. It’s not that hard. And putting your book out in more than one marketplace, IMO, makes you look more like a professional.

    • I would second Leah’s comments. But I would take a slightly different route, only because Word’s HTML is cluttery and will introduce font formatting into it.

      My suggested method is to download Open Office or Libre Office if you don’t have it already. Open your Word file in that, then save it in the native format, ODT. Import that into Calibre and use it to create the epub and mobi files that can be uploaded to the various sites.

      Or you can just write your work in Open Office like you do, and that first step you don’t have to worry about.

    • I go through Smashwords and Amazon, and am prepping some PDFs for DriveThruFiction. (Ahahahahahaa, fear me! I can use fonts and almost-real dropcaps in a PDF!)

      To be really sure that Smashwords didn’t cut you off, you’d want to go through Kobo and B&N directly, probably — but I started with short stories, and going through Smashwords gets me more for those, from B&N, than going through B&N directly. (And now I’ve become fed up with B&N’s technical support, and don’t want to deal with them directly anyway…)

      But, yes, learn at least enough HTML to run a search-and-destroy, er, search-and-replace to get rid of the horrible things Word does, or how to put in the raw HTML sufficiently to convert, or how to use Calibre (it will also convert RTF files, I believe?), or more than one of the above. It’s important; Amazon’s conversion of Word files is EVIL these days, possinly as bad as Word’s own translations into HTML, and will bloat your files and add to the amount they charge for delivery.

  14. I have a couple thoughts on where some of these problems could come from. These are not based on any inside knowledge of Amazon. Just me thinking out loud.

    Amazon has lots of computer-savvy people who have lots and lots of info at their disposal. They clearly recognize the value of all info, even seemingly trivial info, and this is reflected in the language in their agreements as well as in their press statements and various actions that they take. Amazon has both an appreciation for data and the large-scale computational capability to do some amazing things with it.

    One oft-overlooked firehose of knowledge that Amazon potentially has is the ability to monitor all files that you load onto your Kindle via their email system. If you send a draft of your WIP to a friend or relative or editor or beta reader or biggest fan, and they sideload it via anything other than USB, Amazon can tell if they bother to look. Even with USB, they could still easily check the contents on your Kindle. I do not know for certain that they do, but I would be surprised if they do not have a look at the files flying by. The sideloading of a copy of your work onto a Kindle before its publication may establish in Amazon’s mind a close personal link between the author and that party. Remember that they look for duplicate content in Select and on other stores and on the web and so on. This is pretty much the same technology that they would need to monitor the files you sideload. Why wouldn’t they do it?

    Also, I would bet that Amazon watches who receives shipments from given credit cards and who lives at the same addresses. If your mom buys you a sweater and has it shipped to you, bam, Amazon probably thinks (not unreasonably) that your mom is closely linked to you. Has she ever reviewed your book? Maybe her friend Judy did, and maybe she also sent Judy a present. Is Judy trying to be dishonest? Probably not, but is Judy as impartial as a total stranger would be? Might Amazon think they should remove Judy’s review?

    Maybe you once lived with your friend Tom and now live across the world from him. He reviewed your book from France, but Amazon knows that he once shared an address with you a decade ago. Or maybe he was visiting you last summer and logged into his Amazon account from the same IP address that you used that week. Does Amazon now think you and Tom are the same person? Or, in fairness, is Tom really as impartial as a total stranger?

    I am not sure how far they would go in establishing these suspected links. If I were an Amazonian tasked with squishing sock puppets, those are two places I would look… shared CC/address info, and sideloading of documents with texts substantially similar to yours. I would not be in a hurry to tell the world that I was snooping in this manner, so my replies would tend to be vague and possibly intimidating (okay, *my* replies would not be intimidating, but that’s me talking before having to deal with 5000 authors who want to nitpick my removal of a review that I can see in front of me is 99% certain linked to them personally). I would be slow to actually unpublish anything, though. In fact, I have never heard of amazon yanking down a book over something like this. I suspect that it takes a higher level person to actually unpublish a book. And hopefully such a person would be a little better at telling what is a duck and what just happened to quack once. But if a huge fan gets to beta-read something via sideloading and then goes on to review it, it could lead to a story like this one.

    I do not envy Amazon the task of monitoring reviews. Whatever they do behind closed doors to keep out the bogus reviews, I do think that they do much better at it than some other retailers I won’t name. I still think many (most?) books have review distributions that suggest author or publisher manipulation, and some real reviews do get deleted. But it is still possible to sort through it all to find enough real reviews to be an overall useful review system, IMHO.

    This is scary, but I think authors should take a deep breath and keep in mind that Amazon are not stupid. They will surely not allow third parties to have books unpublished simply by reviewing them or by corresponding too much with Amazon about a removed review. If they were to do that, imagine the deluge of reviews and emails they would suddenly get over controversial books from hostile parties trying to appear to be sock puppets. They’d pay bigtime for that in terms of workload. I don’t think they would actually allow that. I could be wrong, but I think Amazon would really like to avoid such a situation.

    • Another possible source of info is all the junk in the tail end of some Amazon URIs. I believe if you log in as yourself, do a search for a book, then email that link on to someone saying “Hey, can you review this” then Amazon could, if so inclined, check whose account that link originated with based on the junk in the URI.

      On the other hand, you could also innocently post that link on your own website to help people find your book. Then fans who follow it would appear to have gotten the link from you. That might lead to some false positives. Just speculating.

      • If you’re right — and I think your logic is pretty darn good for thinking out loud — this could get really ugly.

        I really don’t like the idea of Amazon breathing down my neck that way. I sideload pretty often, mostly because I have a PC and iPhone, and my PC is old; I’m wary of viruses transferring to my phone, so I ask fellow authors to email me ebooks when they ask if I want a review e-copy.

        Someone below made a good point about having a KDP account and reviewing. As authors, we’re all trying to help each other out, but if Amazon is scrutinizing which reviews come from KDP-linked accounts, we’re more than likely hurting each other. This is why I agree with Camille; the most priceless thank you from a reader is a blogged review.

    • However, they also have access to all this information with naturally occurring reviews and behavior. They can cross check the data a lot.

      The thing it comes down to… authors tend to game reviews. We do it according to the rules that publishing has always accepted as fair: sending out review copies and asking fans for reviews. But Amazon is not Big Publishing. Their system isn’t about giving one book an advantage over another, so they want to see more spontaneous behavior, and not manipulated behavior (which is what requesting reviews does).

      IMHO, the most valuable kind of review out there isn’t an Amazon review anyway: it’s when a blogger with an audience decides to talk about your book. Because that’s how you get discovered. People can’t find your Amazon review unless they’ve already found your book.

    • I agree that it’s very likely that Amazon is doing this level of data mining. However, would a three degrees of separation link to someone justify removing a review? How about four? I frequently review friends’ books–not because I like them, but because I liked their book (and if I don’t like the book, I don’t review it, period). Also, Amazon actively encourages authors to review each others’ works. For instance, check out this review of Michael Koryta’s book THE PROPHET by Dean Koontz, posted at the top of the book page as an “Amazon Review”:http://www.amazon.com/Prophet-Michael-Koryta/dp/0316122610/ref=la_B001IOFBB0_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350944651&sr=1-1

      Dean and Michael most likely know each other- most of the people in our field do. He received a similar interview from Steve Hamilton for an earlier book. Yet despite the fact that there’s a personal relationship, not only are these reviews present, they’re given prime placement. So, by that reasoning, if they’re trusting these authors ability to maintain professionalism, why not other reviewers? Where, precisely, are they drawing the line, and why? That’s the kind of explanation I feel is owed to every author that has had reviews pulled off their book pages.

    • Not to mention the fact that if that level of data mining is occurring, it’s disturbing in and of itself.

  15. I suspect this well get worse before it gets better.


    Bang head under desk…

  16. This just happened to my mom and two of my reviews were taken down. A friend has lost 4 of hers. It’s happening a lot more then they are willing to admit to. I think there are problems within the system besides the evident policy problem.
    As an author I need them to get this fixed. I expect them to get this fixed. But I think it’s a pipe dream. *sigh*

  17. This is happening to a *lot* of authors I know. I think people need to start making waves about Amazon removing legitimate reviews. If it’s happened to you, send emails and, even better, get on the phone through your Author Central account first thing Monday morning.

    • Amazon’s guidelines are pretty clear about what’s not allowed:

      Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)

      It seems pretty clear that they have decided to start enforcing this for authors.

      I suspect what’s happening is that Amazon is removing reviews from everyone with a KDP account. That would be the easiest and quickest way for Amazon to start enforcing this policy.

      Question for folks with a KDP account. When was the last time you go an email from Amazon asking you to review a book you bought on Amazon? I got one on Oct. 6, but haven’t got one since.

  18. I suspect we will find the best way to deal with sock puppet reviews is to forget about them. Consumers aren’t stupid. They will find ways to choose books. They don’t need our help.

    • yup.

      No matter how good your system people will find ways to game it. So make it easy and then it will be obvious to all that it is being gamed.

      This could even be Amazon’s way of saying, “Look, we ‘can’ stop sock-puppets, but are you sure you want us too?”

  19. My experience has been that Amazon has gotten rid of legitimate reviews as well as sock puppet reviews. It’s the legitimate ones I’m worried about. How are they distinguishing? I’m afraid to complain as I might have my book removed. Very frustrating and Big Brotherish.

  20. Here is another blog post on this topic. STGRB talks about authors who have contacted them about the same thing. They also talk about Amazon’s Blurb Index:

  21. I would just like to point out that Amazon published authors like myself (Thomas and Mercer) are NOT immune from reviews being removed by Amazon. I have had several reviews removed (all 4 and 5 star) with no rhyme or reason.

  22. This impartial thing is a little off track too. A single 1 star review can cancel out EIGHT 5 star reviews. Most books get trolled with some 1 star reviews so even if you had your whole family review your book chances are that won’t outweight the trolling 1 star reviews, that, by the way, rarely get deleted even when evidence is presented that the review was no genuine.

  23. I have had legitimate positive reviews removed from my book page–the Amazon police state has declared them illegitimate without trial or evidence. They do, however, refuse to remove clearly malicious reviews from people who clearly haven’t read the book or who are competition.

    Amazon should restore all reviews at once.

  24. I have lost about a dozen reviews in the past week. Yes, it is funny that they seem to remove the 5* and yet they will leave the obviously “trollish” 1* reviews–untouched!

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