By Iola Goulton
Over the next two posts we are going to look at four of the big problems with online reviews: spam, shills, sock puppets and stupid.
Spam is unsolicited electronic advertising, named for the Monty Python sketch. It usually refers to email messages, but can also include comments on blogs, websites, social media sites or any other electronic format.
There is a fine line between spam and legitimate self-promotion—and no clear definition of which is which. For every Twitter guru saying no more than 20% of tweets should be self-promoting, another says the opposite.
Is all self-promotion bad?No.
But make sure you are promoting in the right place. Amazon don’t permit self-promotion except in the Meet Our Authors discussion forum (an area most readers never visit). MOA was created in May 2012, in response to complaints that the discussion forums were being overrun by spamming authors. This decision by Amazon has led to accusations of bullying in the customer discussions.
Here’s how.Newbie authors come into the discussion forums and promote their self-published Kindle book. One or more customers will politely inform the newbie that self-promotion isn’t permitted outside MOA, and the author should delete their post. Some authors apologise, delete and leave (or stay and join the conversation).
But some authors say it’s their ‘right’ to post in the discussions. That’s what their friend/publisher/PR guru told them. After seeing a few posts like this every day for months, many readers abandoned the Amazon discussions.
Others stayed, but lost patience with the newbie authors—which did lead to some less-than-polite exchanges. No, that wasn’t fair on the new authors who were posting in genuine ignorance of the rules. But it is understandable. There are pages of dead discussions:
Author 1: Buy my book!
Reader: Please don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service. You can promote in the Meet Our Authors forum – the link is at the bottom of the page.
Author 2: Read my book! It’s free today!
Reader: Please don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service. You can promote in the Meet Our Authors forum.
Author 3: Buy my book!
Reader: Please don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service.
Author 4: Read my book! It’s free today!
Reader: Don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service.
Author 5: Buy my book!
Reader: Don’t promote your book here. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service.
and so on, until …
Author 54: Buy my book!
Reader: I hate spam. Go away.
You can see why the readers got a little annoyed. And why an author might respond negatively to that—because they don’t understand the history (although, if they’d read Amazon’s terms of service, they might not have been so ignorant).
Please note: that final response is not an example of online bullying. It’s not polite, but neither is it repeated or hostile. Equally, a single critical review does not constitute bullying.
Most online groups have their own rules about self-promotion, which range from never to always depending on the group. If you don’t know the rules of a particular site, lurk until you work them out (lurking is reading the posts without commenting). Many authors would have benefited by reading and understanding the Amazon rules before posting.
The only places you get to promote on Amazon (or many other sites, including Goodreads) is your author page and your book pages. So make sure they shine.
ShillA shill is a person who publicly helps a person or organization without disclosing that they have a close relationship with the person or organization … Shill can also be used pejoratively to describe a critic who appears either all-too-eager to heap glowing praise upon mediocre offerings
With over 20 million customer accounts, it’s fair to say that there are thousands of shill accounts on Amazon, created to pump up the ratings of Product A, to hide critical reviews of Product A, or to denigrate Products B and C to entice customers to purchase Product A.
One example of this can be seen in the Top Reviewer forums, where users are finding their critical reviews hidden by a voting campaign they assume is organised by the product manufacturer.
One famous shill is Harriet Klausner, who has published close to 30,000 book reviews on Amazon.com, the vast majority of which are five-star reviews. She’s slowing down a little: in 2013 she reviewed a mere 3.1 books per day, compared with a high of 7.8 books per day in 2008.
There’s nothing wrong with writing lots of reviews, except that Harriet doesn’t buy the books. She receives them free of charge, as physical review copies. FTC guidelines state reviewers must disclose when they have received a free product—something Harriet never does. This makes Harriet a shill, as she’s not disclosing her relationship with the publisher.
If you’re wondering what Harriet does with her free books, her son sells them online at half.com. The mystery is why publishers continue to send Harriet review copies. I can only assume they like the five-star ratings.
While Harriet is breaching both the rules of Amazon and the FTC guidelines by not disclosing her free books, there is no evidence she’s getting paid for her reviews.
Other reviewers are.
Amazon clearly state that paid reviews are not permitted in the Customer Reviews section (although authors are free to quote from paid reviews in the Editorial Reviews section of the book page). Here’s an example I came across one day while browsing a Facebook page for Christian authors (not Australasian Christian Writers!):
Thisauthor/reviewer will write an “honest” review of your book for just $5. As a bonus (which sheds a planet-sized shadow over his understanding of the word “honest”), he also offers guaranteed five-star reviews.
Like all good ffiver reviewers, he will purchase a copy of your book to ensure you get the AVP Badge.
Next week we will look at sock puppets … and stupid.
By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (www.christianediting.co.nz), or follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christianediting), Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/iolasreads).