Over the last few days, quite a few reviews have disappeared from books on Amazon. Link to a discussion on Kindleboards here.

I was alerted to this by someone who had reviewed Breakers and was upset to see their review had been pulled. This is a fellow KB author, but I don’t know them. I’m not sure we’ve ever spoken directly before. They grabbed the book while it was free–they probably saw it mentioned on KB–read it, enjoyed it, reviewed it. Legit, yes? Does any part of that sound remotely shady? Five months later, their review was pulled without warning.

Followup emails indicated Amazon had pulled their review because their account was related to another Amazon account that had reviewed the book. The reviewer says this isn’t true. Obviously, I have no way to confirm this, but I don’t see what this person would possibly have to gain by lying. So what’s the deal?

For a little more insight, see this post. In short, an Amazon customer recently had her account terminated and her Kindle wiped. When she tried to find out why, she was told her account was linked to another account that had violated Amazon policies. The customer replied that this wasn’t true–that she had no idea what Amazon was talking about–but they insisted. From their email:

“While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.”

And that’s where it ended.

The KB thread speculates Amazon is tracking IP addresses. This is a potentially reasonable way to catch sockpuppet reviewers. Most fakers probably aren’t driving to a different coffee shop each time they want to post a new five-star review of their own book.

The problem, of course, is that IP addresses aren’t Social Security numbers. A given address can wind up assigned to different people at different times. If, say, someone is accessing their account from the workplace, that IP address may wind up matching a coworker who’s also using their own account. Same thing might happen if someone ever checks their account from a coffee shop, a library, or, as I did back when I was too poor for internet, the neighbor’s unprotected router. ISPs don’t always assign you a static address, either, meaning if you only ever check your account from your home internet, you could still wind up “linked” to the accounts of strangers.

Caveat time–I don’t know with perfect certainty that ISP matching is how Amazon traces links to different accounts. I am reasonably certain, however, they don’t have a private eye installed in your closet. So they must be pulling links from whatever digital data they do have. So much of Amazon’s processes are automated that I assume the process of sniffing out linked accounts is based on an algorithm of some kind, too. Some of the consequences–such as the termination of accounts–is, in all likelihood, processed and approved by a real human, but that hardly makes them immune to error, if the woman with the axed account is telling the truth.

I don’t know this sudden purging of reviews (I’ve now lost three) is a direct response to the John Locke scandal, either. I suppose the timing could be coincidental. Just for fun, Locke’s Saving Rachel currently has 481 reviews. I don’t know how many, if any, have already been deleted.

What we do know–or what I think I know–is that Amazon’s review-deletion system is far from perfect, catching not just the sockfish they’re after, but plenty of innocent dolphins, too. Additionally, their review policies aren’t exactly crystal clear, either. If there is the remotest chance of people getting in trouble for leaving a review that breaks the rules, those rules need to be very, very straightforward.

Looking at the reviews that are getting deleted, though, it appears that Amazon is targeting at least two classes of them. First, multiple reviews on a single product from people who appear to be related to each other. One opinion per household, please. My fiancee is probably going to be annoyed to learn she no longer gets a say, but since her vote doesn’t count anyway, I guess the point is moot. Second, reviews from other authors may be getting erased. Of the three I’ve lost, two have been from other authors. A fair number of the people reporting on the KB thread have noticed a similar trend.

I can see how both types of these reviews are more prone to abuse, but that hardly means they’re all sketchy. On the other hand, Amazon’s store, Amazon’s rules.

This post is more about awareness than anger or action. Be aware that Amazon is deleting some reviews. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, and the deletion of a review doesn’t necessarily mean it was fake or shady. If you’re an author, I don’t know whether Amazon frowns on leaving reviews of other books, but I’d say it’s worth looking into at this point. (ETA: Reading Amazon’s response to deleted reviews in this blog post, I’m betting reviews by authors are being specifically targeted. Still needs more confirmation, though.)

My three deleted reviews to date–two five-stars and one one-star, for the record, so my rating has actually gone up–have been yanked from a book that had 73 reviews before all this began. Other than being annoyed that three reviewers no longer get to have their say about my work, I don’t really care. 70 reviews is still a lot, and like I said, my overall rating has actually improved by a very small fraction.

But many reviews are being lost from books that don’t have many to spare in the first place. I really sympathize with those authors. Getting off the ground is really hard, and losing reviews just makes it that much harder. I hope Amazon sets down the axe and picks up a scalpel.

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15 Responses to Amazon Responds to the John Locke Paid Reviews Scandal.. by Axing Legitimate Reviews

  • Lindsay says:

    “Most fakers probably aren’t driving to a different coffee shop each time they want to post a new five-star review of their own book.” NOOBS! Everybody knows you go to the public library to post fake reviews from “your roommate’s Amazon account.”

    Erm, anyway, it’s a pain that a few people doing shady things results in repercussions for many.

  • Ed Robertson says:

    For real. Personally, I try to cross state lines whenever I’m about to label my latest release as a “masterpiece.”

    Honestly, I’m pretty surprised by this. This behavior is much clumsier than Amazon tends to be. I’m mostly approaching this from the author’s side of the equation, but a lot of readers/reviewers are upset about their reviews getting yanked, too. I’m sure I would be–especially if I were flagged for a crime I didn’t commit.

  • Ben says:

    Eek, seems like a bit of a wild swipe at the problem rather than a calculated attack.

  • Ed Robertson says:

    It does seem that way. I really expect Amazon to be more sophisticated than this. Enforcement seems pretty sporadic, too;

    What I’d really like is clarification of their policy. Are authors not supposed to review any other books at all? How are we supposed to play by the rules when we don’t know what the rules are?

  • Anonymous says:

    Someone needs to explain the term “dynamic IP address” to Amazon. Whenever I reset my router (about every three days, my internet is not the most reliable), I get a different IP address. I nice to know that my account can be wiped if one of these IP addresses was used by someone else.

  • Ed Robertson says:

    I don’t know that IP addresses are the only thing they use to trace (what they believe to be) links between accounts. I imagine–and hope–that when it comes to account deletion, they want harder proof than that. Account deletion seems to be pretty rare.

    But when it comes to reviews, at least, the “proof” doesn’t seem to have to be nearly as rigorous. Frankly, I doubt they have the manpower to invest much time to investigate every potential match their bots turn up. And an individual review is a pretty low-stakes situation. I can see them deleting reviews much more freely and on much flimsier evidence.

    It’s virtually impossible to know how what methods they’re using or how many actual fake/paid reviews they’re taking out. Whatever they’re doing, it’s eliminating a lot of the honest ones, too.

  • A.B.R. says:

    Three months ago, shortly after Amazon starting requiring reviewers to download digital products before reviewing, it blocked me from posting reviews. I found out when I tried to post a review of a paid gift book an author sent me to review. I emailed Amazon and they sent back a curt reply saying I was blocked because I had only downloaded free ebooks and hadn’t bought any. I replied to point out the author had paid for the gift book, and received a nasty reply saying they refused to lift the block or discuss the issue any further. Prior to that episode I had reviewed only one ebook, a month earlier. I tried to buy an ebook but found out it was impossible because I don’t use credit cards.

  • Ed Robertson says:

    That’s really bizarre, especially given that you don’t actually have to purchase a product through Amazon in order to leave a book on it. Even in the specific field of ebooks, book bloggers in particular regularly leave a review for a given book on several different stores.

    What a strange policy.

    • I couldn’t review anything on Amazon until I actually purchased a product. I’d received several ARCs and gifted ebooks over a period of maybe four months and couldn’t review any of them. I couldn’t even review after downloading free — as in giveaway — ebooks. When I tried to leave reviews, a notice above the review form stated that I couldn’t review until I made a purchase. I bought a paperback a few months ago and ever since have been able to review.

      Although frustrating, I like this policy a lot more than the random axing of reviews; by prodding customers to purchase something, they can at least guarantee that people aren’t setting up sockpuppet accounts.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      Oh, you’re totally right. Was misunderstanding the situation. Yeah, it’s been Amazon’s standard for some time that you have to make an actual purchase through your account (not necessarily a book, though, unless I’m wrong again) before that account is allowed to leave reviews.

      Which does make sense, because sockpuppets. But it’s another situation where innocent behavior is unfortunately disallowed as well.

  • Chuck M says:

    Just joined because I read Breakers when it was free for Prime accounts and loved it… just bought the sequel and am completely shocked by the post about account cancellation. It would be one thing to ban someone from leaving reviews… another more draconian to ban future purchases (though bizarre)…. but hey… if they closed my account and wiped my kindle without reimbursing me for the lost content and with no proof of so-called wrongdoing I would take them to court. No doubt about it. That is just completely offensive, anti-consumer, and aching for class action. I am not even someone who would normally consider lawsuits, but wow… I see this no different than stepping into my house and taking paperbacks that I have bought and then saying I did something wrong AND refusing to send me money back. I feel for the person in the Netherlands in that post… they are just being victimized by a foreign company. Wow, though… if all of that is true it just gives me chills.

    Aside from that… Love your book. I also read your Spheres book after Breakers and also some short stories. Loved Zombies of Mars… only wish it was longer… or perhaps a spin off? :-)

    • Ed Robertson says:

      I should confirm this, but I believe the person who got their account banned has since been reinstated by Amazon (because of all the press). I think she bought a Kindle secondhand from someone who had apparently been violating policy. Poor customer service on Amazon’s part, and kind of disturbing, but I’m glad they made it right.

      Glad you liked Breakers, too–thanks much for writing. I hadn’t conceived of it as a series at first, but it’s done so well and I liked writing it so much I figured I’d write a second book and see what happened. Hope you like it. :)

  • Peter says:

    I lost five reviews. As my book as 100+ I was at a loss to know which one’s had gone. There were only two provided by anyone that knew me personally, and they’re both clearly labelled as such and were left alone.

    The irony in all this is trolls escape unscathed. I’ve had one guy(?) complain about the anti-muslim themes in my book (of which there are none, religion isn’t even touched on). I bet if Amazon looked at its stats it would see this guy never read any more than the cover page, if that. Why, oh why won’t they tackle trolls?

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