The awful truth about online customer reviews

August 25th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The notion of posting online customer reviews of products and
services — such as is done on Angie’s List and Amazon — has some
troubling flaws.

I will focus here on Amazon since I have never used Angie’s
list … and as an author, I have a lot of exposure to the reviews
posted on Amazon.

The first problem is what book marketing guru John Kremer,
author of the classic “1,001 Ways to Market Your Book,” calls
“agenda-driven reviews.”

One example is when I am looking at the page on Amazon for some
marketing guru’s new book and I see immediately two dozen
five-star reviews and nothing lower.

I can’t help notice that virtually all the reviewers are the
author’s friends, associates, joint venture partners, and
affiliates.

The reviewers’ agenda is clear: to help the author hype his
book. The motive? To have the author reciprocate and do the same
for them.

The opposite situation is when the reviewer clearly has a grudge
either against the author or his philosophy or ideas — and posts
a one-star review for what any sensible person would agree is a
solid, good book on the topic.

The second problem with the Amazon review system is that,
incredibly, I have seen a number of reviews where the reviewer
says she has not read the book yet but will get to it soon — and
amazingly, Amazon has let the review stand.

Can you imagine a book reviewer for the New York Times Book
Review writing in his review that he has not yet read the book
in question?

The third problem, which brings up a broader issue I will
address in a minute, is reviews written by reviewers who are
unqualified to evaluate the book in question. A related problem
is when the reviewer’s comments are just plain stupid or
trivial.

I subscribe to the New York Review of books, and if they are
running a review of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln, the
reviewer they hire will most certainly be a historian or
presidential biographer or Lincoln scholar.

But on Amazon, you can post a review of a book on woodworking
even if you have never in your life driven a nail into a 2X4.

And in your Amazon review, you can blatantly say things that are
wrong, because Amazon doesn’t seem to check it or prevent it
from being published.

As for stupid or trivial comments: one of my books got a
one-star review because the reader did not like the paper it was
printed on.

The reason I like traditional print media like newspapers,
magazines, and published books is that the authors and their
writings are vetted by editors and publishers.

A columnist for PC Magazine once wisely observed: “The worst
thing about the Internet is that anyone and everyone can publish
anything to it.”

The Internet in general and social media in particular
encourages the belief that everyone is entitled to their
opinion. And it has given those people a vehicle for easily
publishing those views, no matter how wrong or inane.

Writer Harlan Ellison correctly states: “Everyone is not
entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to their informed
opinion.”

“Informed opinion” means you have some experience, knowledge,
qualifications, or credentials in the subject you are writing
about.

For instance, is it OK for me to write a negative review of a
book on home schooling if I have never tried the author’s
methods or worse, never home-schooled my kids — or even worse,
don’t even have kids? I think not. But I can do it on Amazon all
day long. And so can you and everyone else reading this e-mail.

If the NY Times Book Review hired me to review a book on home
schooling, you can bet I would have to be a parent and probably
a pediatrician or parenting writer to get the gig.

Another example: I once was hired to write a direct mail package
being mailed to engineers selling them a membership in a
professional society.

The client gave it to a dozen people to review. Many of them
suggested changes that made no sense to me, mainly based on the
fact that they did not understand some of the technical topics
discussed in the letter — for instance, why chemical engineers
want to increase process yields.

It turned out that none of the reviewers was an engineer. As
such, I considered their opinion as to what would or would not
engage engineers to be extremely uninformed.

The only one involved in the creation of the DM package who was
in fact an engineer was the copywriter — me.

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2 responses about “The awful truth about online customer reviews”

  1. Jestep said:

    I will say one of the good things about amazon specifically is that someone must leave a comment to leave a rating. So those nonsense don’t like the type of paper, or bad shipping, 1 star reviews are viewed as such as many people read the negative ones first to see if they have any legitimacy.

    I do think that some uninformed reviews are appropriate, situation specific. The woodworking example is very narrow, but if I am of the same skill level as the person who’s never touched a hammer, there’s a good chance his review is the one that I want to see to qualify the book to my own situation.

    The other situations you pointed out are definitely spot on. I’ve even seen reviews posted on pre-order products and dates before something is published.

  2. Vikki said:

    I find the same is true for LinkedIn’s endorsement system. People seem to post blanket endorsements for connections they have never met, and never done business with.

    I think it’s a shame that LinkedIn is letting its credibility be undermined like this. I used to like it there.

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