Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sock Puppets and Disappearing Amazon Reviews

It wasn't until I experienced firsthand the phenomenon of the "disappearing Amazon reviews" that I became aware of the term "sock puppet." Just a couple of weeks after I published The Supreme Moment, I checked its Amazon listing page, and lo and behold, where there had been ten reviews, now there was only one! Distressed, but mostly puzzled, I emailed Amazon Support and received what amounted to a form letter response stating that the reviews had violated their Terms of Service, and that was the end of it. There was also a suggestion that the reviewers could address the problem and re-submit the review. However, a subsequent email sent to Amazon for more information resulted in a response saying Amazon couldn't tell me exactly what was wrong with the reviews because I wasn't the one who wrote them.

Now, the majority of the removed reviews were ARC reviews, so I was able to ask them to re-submit. But, as they haven't reappeared by the time of this post, I don't think they were accepted this time either. Two of the reviews were from paying customers of the ebook, so there was no way I would ever bother complete strangers about this.

Wondering if others had experienced this, I hit Google - and was somewhat relieved and alarmed by all the results my search found. After doing quite a bit of reading, I discovered that what had happened to my reviews was the result of Amazon's attempt to weed out what are known as "sock puppets." Apparently, there was a big stink over them a few years ago when it was revealed that a well-known author had purchased hundreds of his reviews from a company whose employees would write gushing 5-star reviews without ever having read the books, creating customer accounts specifically for this practice. This put Amazon under an unflattering spotlight, so a new algorithm was implemented to find and delete any review it suspected as not being legit. Unfortunately, it had the unintended consequence of deleting a lot of genuine reviews as well (Too bad none of the 1-star troll reviews were removed. I guess a troll must be higher on the totem pole than a sock puppet.). This removal of legit reviews has happened to both indie authors and traditionally published authors, but it's the indie author that's been hurt the most by this. After all, what does Stephen King care if one or two of his tens of thousands of reviews have disappeared? Here is an excellent article from The Guardian that explains more about the practice in more detail.

As for my own deleted reviews, several factors may have caused them to be targeted by Amazon's algorithm. Some people claim that if certain key words are used like the author's name, "wow," or multiple instances of other book titles by the same author, then the review will be deleted. Others say that it has to do with your ISP number, like if several people review from your general area. It's possible this is what happened to me as most of the reviews removed were ARC reviews from people in area book clubs that were given a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. Some of them probably didn't state this disclaimer appropriately in the review - a double strike to the search algorithm if the above criteria I mentioned is indeed accurate. Who knows why the paying customer reviews were removed, but I do remember that they weren't long; one was a 5-star and the other 4. Your guess is as good as mine.

I haven't received any other reviews since, and I really hope it's just because no one has written any. I need as many reviews as I can get since a lot of the advertising services such as BookBub won't consider your book unless you have a certain amount of 4- and 5-star reviews. Plus, I was actually looking forward to finding out what readers thought about the book, what they enjoyed, and what they thought I did wrong/didn't like, etc.

So reviewers, the best advice after learning all this I can give is to state very clearly if the book you're reviewing is an ARC or if you received it as a Read & Review deal in exchange for an honest review. I would love to hear any stories or opinions about this troubling practice in the comments below.

Until next week!

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