Saturday, October 17, 2015

Amazon Sues Fake Reviewers

It's old news that people will write or buy fake five-star reviews for their books, and they will also post or buy fake one-star reviews against the books of authors they consider competition. Over the last two years, Amazon has gradually been hardening their stance against these scumbags. They've rewritten their terms of service and started enforcing them. They've removed hundreds, perhaps thousands of reviews they deemed suspicious, and earlier this year, they sued several websites guilty of selling fake reviews.

Maybe it's working, because now they've filed suit against more than 1100 individuals who are advertising their fake review services on a website called Fiverr. The website is a Craigslist type of classified, where you can purchase or sell services for five dollars. People use this for all sorts of things: graphic art, music, tutorials, resumes, and obviously, fake reviews.

It's still rather baffling to me that people will shamelessly advertise the fact that they will write a five-star review for a book they've never read, or worse yet, write a one-star against someone you don't like, for $5. I didn't have much faith left in humanity, and examples like this really don't help.

My personal feelings aside, Amazon knows that this is a problem, and now that it has caught the public's attention, it could possibly even endanger their business model. After all, if buyers can't trust the reviews on Amazon, they might end up going somewhere else. Amazon needs to get this fixed. I predicted before that they would seek people to make examples of, and I think this is another step in that direction. I don't know if this will succeed in discouraging fake reviews, but it should be interesting to watch the fallout. After all, Amazon has the identities of these reviewers and their customers. Or they will soon enough. The lawsuit will expose the identities and financial information of the people who bought and sold these reviews. Most likely, those "authors" will have their books banned from Amazon permanently and their accounts closed. They may even find themselves on the receiving end of another lawsuit.

 Which makes me wonder what will happen if Amazon finds that some of their best-selling authors were buying hundreds of fake reviews? What if their investigation proves that there is in fact a direct correlation between high sales and a large number of five-star reviews? Will they relax their policy? Or will they publicly shame these people for their unethical behavior? It's hard to guess, because Amazon is still a business, and their number one priority must be protecting the bottom line. Which is more valuable: a reputation for honest reviews and quality products, or a higher quarterly revenue due to a handful of best-selling novelists?

I'm not saying that's exactly how it is, nor am I predicting such a result, but it does raise some interesting questions. For a while, it seemed that Amazon wasn't terribly concerned about fake reviews. I'm sure many people out there took this as a sign that they were "looking the other way" in order to let authors (or other retailers) bump up their sales, even though it was technically forbidden in their TOS. What if those people now end up sued for all the money they made selling books at Amazon? Or more? And what about the victims? Surely, there are some authors out there who received these fake one-star reviews. After all, if somebody's selling them, that mean's somebody is buying them. So what will happen to those authors, when Amazon's algorithms find a connection between their books and these fake reviewers? It could get ugly, if they're not careful.

Hopefully, when the smoke clears, we won't find any innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.