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That Review is Fake! “No It’s Not!” Rock, Paper, Scissors…

2 January, 2013 in Articles

Some reviews that appear to be glaringly fake turn out to be genuine enthusiasm or critique (neither of which necessarily equates to taste). Others that seem quite real are simply well-crafted words meant to deceive you. Right now, it’s like a giant game of Roshambo between authors, retailers, and reviewers (although who plays what role is up for debate).

Photo courtesy of Mark Turnauckas on Flickr

Photo courtesy of Mark Turnauckas on Flickr

There has to be a better way. But how?

Unfortunately, there is no “good” answer to this question and no perfect solution to this problem. But it is a problem – so much so, in fact, that retailers are scrambling for a reliable way to detect and eliminate them (sometimes to a fault).

With hundreds of thousands of books being released every year and millions of potential reviews, it will be tough for companies to create an accurate algorithm, have sufficient policies in place to protect genuine reviews that are falsely flagged, and create penalties for those that abuse their services.

So what do you do in the meantime?

For now, judgment is passed with our wallets. Here are some things to consider before spending your votes.

  • How many reviews does the book have?

  • If it has less than 10, chances are it is a fairly new release. This alone does not call the reviewers’ or author’s ethics into question, but it is worth noting that each review at this level has a huge impact on the ratings and can change dramatically with one or two reviews, be they from the author’s friends or competitors. Reviews that are too positive or too negative at this stage might need to be taken with a grain of salt – but not always. Use your better judgment.

  • Are they all 5 stars?

  • Any book with a lot of ratings will always have negative reviews. Always. In fact, researchers at Cornell are pioneering ways to detect a review’s legitimacy based on key words and phrases (which is explained very well here). Hint: It has something to do with the letter “J”.

    Although still in its infancy when it comes to book reviews, retailers have taken note – per Forbes, Google even asked the PhD candidate behind the research for his résumé.

  • How many reviews has this reviewer written?

  • Just one? And it’s 1 star or 5 stars? Hmm… How about almost 30,000 reviews? And they’re overwhelmingly positive?? What the… No one can possibly read that much. Something isn’t right there. Sometimes it is worth clicking on the review’s profile page to find out more.

  • What do they talk about?

  • If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. If every review you see says “This book is the best thing I have ever read – you’ll love it!” without ever going into detail about why they feel that way, the review could be suspect. If they talk about themselves more than the book or avoid specifics, keep reading until you find a review that doesn’t send up red flags.

  • Is it simply a difference of opinion?

  • According to one journalist, people fall into two camps: Those who trust too much and those who don’t trust anyone. The “half full” among us might be more likely to be duped into a sale, but the “half empty” ones tend to believe that everything is fake.

    However, poor taste in literature does not (necessarily) a fake review make.

  • Could it be a “carpet bomb”? Or a “sock puppet”?

  • Confused? So were we when we first heard these terms. A “sock puppet” is a fake identity created by an author or their representative for the sole purpose of leaving positive reviews or creating a fake “buzz”. A “carpet bomb” is when authors, their representatives, or their fans, leave negative reviews on a competitor’s book in order to damage its reputation and/or decrease sales.

  • What kinds of words are used?

  • Fake book reviews tend to mention the reviewer more frequently than honest ones do, focusing on themselves rather than discussing the merits of the work. Some bloggers say that superlatives are a dead giveaway, but that isn’t always true. Some people are generous with their praise; others are too lazy or pressed for time to write in-depth.

  • What are the sample pages like?

  • Do you like what you see? If so, it might be worth the read. Look for commonalities between what reviewers have stated and what is there.

Okay. So, now what?

There is no fool-proof method for detecting fake reviews, and there probably never will be. But there are a few ways you can not only protect yourself, but promote and sustain the integrity of the publishing community.

Already read through the reviews and you still aren’t sure? Here’s what to do.

  • Take the Pledge
  • Whether you are a writer, reviewer, or publisher, take it. And encourage others to do so as well. It’s time to restore the public’s confidence again.

    Many retailers frown upon (or outright ban) links in reviews or book descriptions, but you are free to enter your profile URL in any website option they give you, and you should be able to state “I’ve taken the True Review Pledge” in reviews as long as you don’t link to it; you should also be able to add such information in any “nickname” fields. (Have you been told otherwise? Please let us know!)

  • Write honest reviews yourself.
  • Report anything that is in obvious violation of the site’s terms and conditions, but don’t post a 1-star review to counteract a fake 5-star one (and vice versa). Discuss specific points about the book; include what aspects you liked or didn’t like and disclose which of these are a matter of personal taste and which might be due to actual flaws.

  • Return the book if it’s bad.
  • Get a refund if you paid for it, but return it even if you got it during a free promotion – perhaps especially so then. Authors use free days (such as with the Kindle Direct Publishing program) to get their books to climb up the charts, thereby giving them more exposure to a wider audience, resulting in more sales overall. Returning the book lets the retailer know you are dissatisfied with the purchase and will help them more accurately adjust the book’s standing.

    It is not good practice to return a book simply because it was not to your taste, but if the lack of editing is distracting to the point of making it unreadable or if there are serious problems with the plot and/or character development, there is no reason why you should keep it.

    Amazon’s rankings, like most, display books based on ratings and popularity. A book that is genuinely bad but popular (due to unethical practices) should not take the place of another (and potentially worthier) book on the charts. To do so does a disservice to everyone – including the author of the book you read and didn’t like.

We all know that fake reviews are unethical and drive unearned sales, but it is unlikely that there will be one solution to this multifaceted problem.

Let’s do our best to combat this issue – together. That way, we can stop fighting and play Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock instead. :)

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1 January, 2013 in News

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