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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