Friday, March 23, 2012

Why phony ratings matter

For the first time since I’ve been running this blog, I’ve deleted a post. Yesterday I wrote about someone manipulating the ratings for a particular author’s books on Goodreads. Thirty-five faceless Goodreads “members,” all added in March 2012, most likely at the time their 5-star rating was posted, all loved the same two books, with a few tossing in some extras to try to make it look real. Some of them posted reviews (which not surprisingly all sounded fairly similar), but most just threw up 5 stars and left it at that.

I was harsher than I needed to be in my post, and it spun into an unnecessary distraction, most likely for the author, and certainly for me. A couple of commenters took me to task, and I’m fine with that. That is not why I took the post down.

I was actually on the fence about writing anything on the subject yesterday until one of the faceless Goodreads phantoms showed up with my name. To say I was tweaked would be using milder language than I used in much of my post. I realize when someone is just making up characters out of thin air they have to grab the names from somewhere, but I’d prefer to be left out of that.

I’m convinced someone, perhaps a well-intentioned but misguided fan of the author, was manipulating the ratings to boost up these particular books. The irony there is that while they seem to value great ratings, they were actually cheapening them. Any legitimate ratings for these books will now be lost in the avalanche of phonies. This hurts not just these books, but all books on Goodreads.

Reviews and ratings matter, and I’ll go as far as saying that reviews on places such as Amazon and Goodreads matter in many ways as much as, or even more than, reviews posted on sites like this or other places around the web. Studies have shown readers read reviews written by other readers, and they factor these into their buying decisions. Gaming the system, whether done by an author or a fan, is doing a disservice to potential readers in the short-sighted hopes of garnering a sale.

We all know some reviews are posted by friends or family, and these need to be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, when a non-blockbuster book comes out, I usually assume most of the early reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads are from folks who know the author. But when someone goes as far as creating fake members to fool people into buying a book, well, that’s just sad. Fairly or not, it reflects poorly on the author, who, as mentioned above, may not even know it has occurred.

And yesterday’s post probably reflected poorly on me. Time to move on.


  1. Greetings, James.

    Sorry you took down yesterday's post. I was going to blog about it. I had put it in my "Read It Later" list because I didn't have time to read the comments.

    I'm in total agreement with you. If you look up the word "cynic," you'd probably find my picture. I rarely pay attention to consumer reviews; I'm thinking all it takes is one little thing for someone to give it a poor rating and the glowing ones frequently come from overzealous well-wisher, whether family members or the publisher or creator themselves. I can't say where I saw it, I i recall reading somewhere that companies use their employees to write positive reviews.Needless to say, having one's name falsely listed as a writer can be disconcerting, especially if it's connected to a product in a way which is totally contrary to your own opinions.

  2. Thanks, Ron. In hindsight, I should have dialed back a bit yesterday, but I let my emotion get a little ahead of my head. I'm sure the book in question is hardly the only one to spur a new wave of imaginary reviewers to bolster its ratings, but it was the most blatant case I can remember seeing. Curiously enough, the barrage of 5's seems to have suddenly halted sometime yesterday afternoon.

    I actually do pay attention to reviews, though perhaps more so when buying things other than books. I definitely look for negative reviews when I'm buying appliances, etc., or things that might break down or not hold up well. As for books and music, I do look sometimes to see what the general consensus is, though I won't usually be swayed by it if I'm of a mind to read or listen to something.