We go to buy something on Amazon, or iTunes, or wherever. We can't hold the book in our hands, or try on the shoes, or look at the image on the high-definition television. So what do we do? We read the customer reviews. And odds are, if the customer reviews are bad, we move on to the next product.
Despite the fact that we have never met these people, despite the fact that we have no idea what their qualifications are to review the quality of a box cheese grater, despite the fact that they could conceivably work for a rival cheese grater producer trying to sabotage their competition (cheese grating being one of the most cutthroat industries -- or grate-throat industries, as they say in the biz -- on the planet), we accept their words at face value as sincere, informed, and unbiased.
We are so wrong.
An unsettling story in last weekend's New York Times entitled "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy" pulls back the curtain on some of the underhanded practices behind those five-star reviews on Amazon and other e-commerce sites. With the meteoric rise of self-publishing, thousands of authors are competing for attention and desperate for reviews, especially the positive kind that can convince people to plunk down their bucks for the work of someone they've never heard of before. A man in Tulsa, Oklahoma named Todd Rutherford sensed a need in the market and filled it with an ingenious -- albeit completely immoral -- business plan: sell positive reviews to aspiring novelists. For $99, he'd give you one rave. For a grand, you'd get fifty.
Rutherford's website, GettingBookReviews.com, was a success. Rutherford started making money, and his clients saw improved book sales; a few even became best-sellers. Eventually, an unhappy customer ratted out Rutherford to some consumer watchdog websites, and the negative attention forced the crafty entrepreneur to shut the company down. In the meantime, Rutherford set a dangerous precedent, not just for books, but all kinds of media. It's not hard to imagine what would happen if movie studios got ahold of this idea.
It's quote whoring in the extreme. Studios routinely spend thousands of dollars flying journalists all around the world for press junkets where they solicit favorable quotes (or, as I once witnessed, provide pre-fabricated quotes to the writers). In contrast, Rutherford was paying his "critics" a measly $15 per review. Imagine the savings if you could just farm out pull quotes to random desperate writers without ponying up for the hotel rooms and airfare. I say imagine like I'm just giving someone the idea now. The reality is that if it's being done for books, it's already being done for movies too -- on Amazon, or iTunes, or anywhere else where customer reviews help dictate search results.
Rutherford told the Times he "regrets" selling "artificially embellished reviews" -- but he also says that he believes real customers eventually balance out the false positives with sincere pans. Of course by that point, consumers who trusted the positive reviews are already out of their money, not to mention the time they took to read a piece of garbage they were conned into buying by a five star review that was bought and paid for by the author. As the Times' David Streitfeld notes, though we know very little about the people writing online customer reviews, they have a tremendous influence on us:
"Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet."
This story is a helpful reminder that while the Internet allows anyone the opportunity to be a critic, trusted experts -- those whose opinions can't be bought for the price of a sandwich -- are still a valuable resource. Just keep that in mind the next time you're in the market for a cheese grater.
Read more of "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy."