Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

A closer look at Amazon customer reviews


Amazon customer reviews have become a staple in the online shopping world—a tool to help buyers evaluate an item they cannot see or feel in person. We all look to those little stars to guide us, and we recognize those customer badges attached to reviewer names: badge badge badge

However, most people know that not all reviews are created equal, and Amazon’s system is, in theory, designed to give more visibility to quality reviews. And the system, while good on many levels, is still not perfect. It can be manipulated in ways that may not always be obvious and can potentially shape ecommerce in subtle ways.

Good or bad aside, Amazon’s reviewing system plays a critical role, and one that I think will increase in importance as we continue trending toward digital.

A Closer Look at Reviewing

To the average shopper, a review is just one of many tools available to make educated purchases. To reviewers, it might be a serious activity, perhaps a livelihood; to businesses, it is an important aspect of marketing in the digital age. Actually, you may be surprised to learn just how competitive online reviewing can be. In doing research for this blog post, I came across complaints on Amazon’s discussion boards  where people believed that others were either voting to inflate reviews to higher positions, or adding unhelpful votes to their “competition”—other reviewers who might threaten to overtake their position on the ranks.

It should be noted, this was more of an issue under the “classic” system; the new review system is intended to address these flaws by rewarding higher quality reviews over quantity. Of course, no one knows Amazon’s exact algorithm (as usual). However, I do wonder how much ranking affects integrity of reviews. For example, there were some comments that indicated that people hesitated to review items with low ratings because those historically received more “unhelpful” votes.

As you can guess, reviewing is taken seriously: just look at Amazon’s #1 reviewer, Harriet Klausner, a speed reader who posts reviews en masse (2o reviews on November 22 for example), and is often criticized for her work (here’s an interesting blog over at Discovery magazine that calls her a one-woman content mill). Although she now only ranks 788 on the new rating system, I’m sure she still receives plenty of review copies. I think the sheer amount of attention (and criticism) she receives only underscores the important role that customer reviews play in the ecommerce space.

So why do people review…and take it so seriously?

Of course, there are plenty of casual reviewers who don’t particularly care about their rankings. For some of the more regular reviewers, I can think of a few motivators that might keep them writing:

  • It’s a hobby. Some people just have a passion for it.
  • For professional reasons. Top rankings for professional reviewers would look great on the career profile.
  • For free goods. Recognizing the importance of customer reviews, publishers, authors, and companies (regardless of industry) will often provide free items for reviewing. Reviewers must, however, practice full disclosure. Amazon’s Vine program recognizes top reviewers in the community by providing free goods for review while generating exposure for a certain item.
  • For money. Now, this is where things get a little tricky, because technically, it’s against Amazon’s rules. However, I would imagine that it might also be difficult to catch.

Even though savvy shoppers might be able to sniff a phony review from a mile away, having a five-star icon next to a product still packs a punch: a first impression, more or less, and everyone knows it.

What does this mean for publishing?

There’s a lot more to the customer review system that I just couldn’t squeeze into the confines of this blog post; in fact, there are entire blogs out there solely dedicated to the topic if you’re interested in looking further. But I wanted to highlight some of the nuances, because I think that customer reviews will continue to play a growing role in the ecommerce space.

How many publications under Amazon’s imprint will also be featured as a Vine offering? As writers explore non-traditional publishing means, can a well-played review campaign generate enough buzz for a book to place it alongside books that have gone through the more traditional channels?

As ebooks increase in popularity, and when a purchase is one push of a button away on an ereader, I think readers will depend on these reviews even more. It will be interesting to see how the review system continues to evolve both as a marketing tool and as a customer resource.

(Photo source:

One comment on “A closer look at Amazon customer reviews

  1. Erica Hartnett
    December 3, 2011

    After I wrote this post, I saw an interesting article on GalleyCat (

    And for reference, Amazon’s full review guidelines can be found here (

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on December 3, 2011 by in Business, Opinion and tagged , .

Follow Appazoogle on Twitter


  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: