How to fix Amazon reviews: let me count the ways

Amazon introduced its five star customer ratings system over two decades ago as a way to improve clickthrough and sales. At first, each book’s rating was the pure average of all its customer reviews. But no one ever said that system was perfect.

Six years ago there was a widespread scandal of ‘sockpuppetry’ in the world of book reviews. Then, three years ago, Amazon sued four sites selling reviews for pay, and began using machine learning to give books a weighted average biased in favour of new reviews, verified purchases and reviews people had marked as ‘helpful’. But in 2018, despite their huge influence on customers, Amazon reviews still suck.

It won’t surprise anyone that Amazon has opted for a standard tech solution to a human problem, but there are so many simple things they could do with their community, which would turn the fact that it is a group of people into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here are five suggestions:

1. Split reviews of the delivery and the product.

I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already. It’s so depressing to see someone’s gnomic whinge about the meaning of ‘standard delivery’ lumped in with an assessment of a story’s quality. It punishes the writer for the sins of the delivery guy. How can anyone equate packaging with imagination? Audible splits its reviews into story and narrator – why can’t Amazon do something similar?

2. Give reviewers a more transparent rating.

Rather than marking out the ‘Top 500 reviewers’, or marking reviews as ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’, follow Uber’s lead and give the customers themselves a starred average. Don’t show reviews by those who abuse the system.

3. Only show reviews once a reviewer has posted more than three.

Airbnb doesn’t list a host’s rating at all until their third review gets posted, partly to give a fair average, but also to prioritise those who are engaging seriously with the platform.

4. If a reviewer hasn’t ‘made a Verified Purchase’ (or as a human might put it, bought it from Amazon), don’t allow their post to appear automatically.

Perhaps they have to write a substantial review of more than 100 words, as many bloggers do – it would make it harder for online communities to ‘brigade’ books for ideological reasons. Though not impossible.

5. Make reviews more social and sociable.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in 2013 for a reported $150 million it already had 16 million ‘users’ (an oddly narcotic expression for readers) on its site, and it now has 65 million. For all that they must have rejoiced in the extra user data and recommendation algorithms, they missed a really big reason that people like it: as a speculative purchase, books feel like a comparatively huge investment of time and money, and a lot of people will only buy a book that was recommended by someone they know and trust.

Some of these suggestions might actually make it harder to engage with reviews, and the idea of adding friction goes against the fundamental ethos of Silicon Valley (and, apparently, Seattle). It could mean some books have two reviews, rather than twenty. But if we are seeking quality, we should look to sites like Wikipedia, which allow anyone superficial engagement but which put up barriers to participation where it matters, with locked articles, forum discussions, roving admins and so on, to make sure not just that people are doing stuff on the site, but that it is a virtuous cycle, improving the community and the content. Because the worst thing about Amazon reviews is that, well, a lot of them just aren’t very good.


First published on The Bookseller.

Amazon: your local library?

glassThe Kindle is everywhere. In the weeks leading up to Christmas last year, Amazon boasted that they were selling over a million per week. The e-commerce giant has been “introducing” them on their homepage for so long that I’m beginning to wonder when might be a polite time to interject that we’ve already met. As I write this piece, my Amazon homepage introduces the Kindle Family: the Kindle, Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G. Other customers are apparently also looking at the Kindle Keyboard 3G with Free 3G + Wi-Fi, the Kindle with Wi-Fi and 6″ E Ink Display, and Veet for Men Hair Removal Gel Crème. Something for everyone, then.

Amazon was founded as a bookseller, but it became more successful than any of its competitors because it removed something previously thought of as crucial to bookselling, which was the bookshop. Instead they posted your book directly from their warehouse, which you could then open like a little present in the comfort of your own home.

For Amazon’s next trick, they removed an element which many regarded as a defining feature of the book, namely the codex itself. With ebook technology available but no one else willing to invest in developing the market, Amazon was like a (very businesslike and non-violent) wolf among sheep. Both heavy investment in the technology of their own-brand Kindle device and its unbeatable retail price gave them a de facto monopoly, particularly in Britain, where the competitive Nook isn’t being sold.

Now, it looks as if they are putting the infrastructure in place to make another seismic shift—from ownership to access. As well as Amazon Cloud Drive which, like Apple’s iCloud, lets you store the files you’ve bought securely online, they have created the Lending Library—a name which evokes nostalgic, homely images. They already have over 100,000 books on their digital shelves, and if you’re part of the scheme you can borrow one a month, with no overdue charges and no need to worry about whether you’ll have to join a three year waiting list to borrow the latest Game of Thrones.

The catch is that, unlike your friendly local library, it is not available for all comers. At the moment you have to be a US customer, and you also have to be subscribed to their Amazon Prime service, which will set you back $79 a year. If you do borrow a book by George RR Martin, he will get a tiny royalty. So you pay a flat subscription rate for access to content, and the owner of the intellectual property gets a smaller royalty than if you had bought it, because you never own the content. The Lending Library is beginning to look like a very familiar revenue model, one that is tremendously lucrative for the owner of the service, and less so for the owners of the content.

Except—and this is why I feel a vague sense of unease every time I land on the Amazon homepage—to qualify for the Lending Library, you have to be a Kindle device owner. At least Spotify have never tried to force you to buy a Spotify mp3 device. If I were the suspicious type, I might start to worry that, with its virtual monopoly on the ebook market, Amazon was trying to funnel my consumer behaviour into ever more proprietorial systems, designed to make owning and sharing harder and more expensive than if, for instance, I just went back to where it all started, and bought a physical book.

No-one has sold more physical or electronic books than Amazon in the past decade. For that, they have done the world a great service. But where musicians have tried to make up for declining record sales by making money from live music, authors have no direct analogue. So if Amazon loves books, I hope it remembers its roots and continues to sell them, because this isn’t quite the replacement for our local libraries that I had envisioned.