This is an expansion of a comment I made in a writer forum. This isn’t a discussion on how to get reviews. Instead, this is a discussion of how to make sense of reviews, how they are used by consumers, and how to identify fake reviews.
I have a “day job” in contract packaging. Because of this, I read a lot of industry reports and studies on consumer behavior.
A 2016 Pew study reports that 65% of U.S. adults say they regularly use online reviews to make a decision. However, among those who regularly read reviews, 38% say it is often difficult to tell if a review is credible.
While the Pew survey reports that about 10% of Americans claim to regularly leave reviews, studies of individual shopping sites put the percentage at under 2% (based on number of actual shoppers versus those shoppers that leave reviews). Regardless, the actual number of people who LEAVE reviews are much smaller than most would think, which means a small but vocal minority of shoppers have an outsized impact on shopper behavior.
So, who are these people? We can basically file consumer reviewers into five groups.
Complainers: these are the people who only review when there is a problem. They might have eaten at the same restaurant 100 times and always had a good meal, but the one time the food is cold, they leave a negative review.
The knee-jerk reaction is to ignore complainers, and this is particularly true with authors. But complainers serve a vital function in the shopping ecosystem. On a most basic level, an excess of complainers can signify a problem with your marketing plan. You are putting you marketing efforts in the wrong places and attracting the wrong readers. Or something in your marketing presentation is leading people to think your product is X when it is really Y.
Complainers can become important if multiple people complain about the same problem. They can point out hazards of a product, for example. I recently was looking for a new toaster and saw a lot of complaints about a model that tended to catch on fire. I take those seriously when I see a lot of reviews like that! For authors, if one reader points out that she didn’t like your protagonist, it may just be a matter of personal tastes. If five people all complain about your protagonist, it might be time to review what you wrote and try to understand why.
Complainers are valuable to businesses. This is because only 4% of dissatisfied customers with ever complain. And most of them will never come back. So recognizing legitimate negative feedback is essential for improving your business (or book) and preventing the loss of customers.
Experts: People who consider themselves vested in the industry the product represents. A horror writer who reviews horror media, for example. A psychologist who reviews self-help books. A teacher that reviews educational materials. These will generally be the most detailed and thoughtful reviews because the expert’s reputation is on the line. Whether they are reviewing for the intellectual exercise or to promote their own expertise, expert reviewers will tend to focus on the mechanics of a product (or book).
Experts with known credentials can be extremely valuable to consumers, because they can provide valuable information to a consumer that the average person might not know. For sellers, expert reviews can add validity to a product and increase its overall value.
I have personally always held that peer review is an essential component for the arts. In writing circles, there is a tendency to shy away from reviewing books in similar genres. For some, there is the practical fear of getting on Amazon’s radar and being accused of “attacking” the competition if a review is even slightly negative. There is also the fear of retribution. This is unfortunate, as I think this diminishes the vibrancy of the creative community when we feel restricted in offering honest opinions in the areas we know the most about.
Fans: People with an emotional investment in the brand. They will often review products before they have even purchased on used them simply to support the brand. They have a personal investment in the brand and see it as a reflection of themselves. They are going to be inclined to give positive reviews even if a product does not meet expectations simply because to do otherwise is subconsciously an admittance of personal failing. i.e. “If this thing I care about is a failure, so am I.”
Fans reviews are valuable to brands because they help create energy around a product and demonstrate demand for the product, which can drive purchases. Fans are also going to talk about your product in their social media circles, but those conversations will often be to other fans.
Hobbyists: They tend to review everything in their chosen hobby and see reviewing as an extension of their hobby and a way to interact with other hobbyists. Gamers tend to review every video game they play but won’t review much else. Avid book readers review every book they read but not other products. etc. etc. For hobbyists, reviewing is a social activity to share the hobby with others.
These reviews will tend to be thoughtful and detailed like expert reviews. However, where expert reviews tend to focus on form and mechanics, hobbyist reviews will focus more on practical applications. For example, the expert chef will focus on the mechanics and construction of a new appliance. The hobbyist will focus on recipes they made using the appliance. With book reviews, experts will focus on writing mechanics and form for purpose of education, whereas hobbyists will focus on characters and specific scenes for purpose of discussion.
For businesses, hobbyists are great influencers because they can combine the energy of fans with the knowledge of an expert. Consumers gain a more practical look at a product and may be inspired by ideas. In addition, hobbyists are the most likely to also talk about your product outside the retail channel. They aren’t just posting a review on Amazon. They are talking about your product in their reader groups or hobby sites or social media circles.
Gossips: These are people who want to get in on what everyone else is talking about. They may review often, but only on hot topics. Their reviews tend to be shallow and sometimes trollish, often leaning toward the negative to incite a response from fans. They sometimes try to pass themselves off as experts, but their lack of credentials and often anonymous nature betray them.
So now that we know who these people are, what does it all mean?
For consumers, being more mindful of the nature of the reviewer can help determine how much weight to give a review. Recognizing what motivates a person to leave a review can be helpful in deciding how much a review should factor into a decision.
For businesses, nurturing the type of reviewers you want can improve your visibility and bottom line. Lots of fan reviews may keep the base happy, but may not attract new readers. Expert reviews can open doors to institutional purchases, which often rely more on editorial reviews than customer reviews. Hobbyist reviews can introduce you to new customers you didn’t know existed. So being more mindful of the type of review, not just the number of reviews, can be invaluable to a business.
Understanding why people leave reviews can also be used to determine if reviews are fake. The issue of fake reviews has been a major concern, particularly because so many people use reviews to make purchase decisions. How does a consumer know a review is legitimate? How do I know this isn’t someone paid to say good things, or bad things, about this product?
While there is no absolute method beyond being psychic, the primary method is to simply ask “What group of reviewers does this reviewer fall under?” A legitimate complainer will spell out the reasons for their complaint. An expert is going to make sure their credentials are known and provide details. A hobbyist is going to provide practical uses of the product. These three groups are the least likely to be fake, because they require effort to write. The major review sellers work on quantity and churn. Particularly with books, they aren’t actually reading the book to even offer any details. They are just going to, at best, reword the summary blurb from the book.
Fans and gossips are the most likely to be paid reviews because the content expectations of such reviews are low. These reviews don’t tend to have a lot of detail and use a lot of excessive flowery (fans) or needlessly inflammatory (gossips) language. For these type of reviews, watch for the following:
Reviews coming in batches: Were a bunch of reviews all posted on the same day? Particularly if the book was just released? Unless those reviews are identified as ARCs (advanced reader copies), this is a warning sign. Sending out ARCs is a legitimate method of getting reviews, however, those reviews should all be labeled with some sort of verbiage that notes the reviewer received a review copy. Normally, this will be something like “I received a comp copy in exchange for a review.”
But if those reviews aren’t identified as ARCs, look closer. If the book is a much-anticipated sequel to an already popular title, then these may be legitimate fans. If not, perform a Google search for the author. f the author has a huge Facebook following, they may have encouraged a lot of fan reviews. Is the book appearing on a lot of book sites leading up to release? Has the author done a recent blog tour? All of these indicate this batch of reviews is probably legitimate.
But if a Google search turns up nothing on the author or the book, and there is suddenly 20 or 30 reviews posted on a single day…that is a red flag. It is doubtful this is fan activity if there is no evidence the author has fans (or even an online presence!
Reviewers lack reviews: All reviewers start out writing their first review sometime. The fact that a reviewer does not have a review history does not mean that a reviewer is not legitimate. A dozen reviewers, particularly over a short period of time, with no review history should be a red flag. As we know from our types of reviewers, with the exception of complainers who only review when something goes wrong, most reviewers will continue to review based on type. Fan reviewers, for example, tend to be fans of other fandoms. So even if the book in question is the first in a series, the fan is probably avidly devoted to other types of media as well. Gossips tend to piggyback on everything popular, so they have probably left reviews on other hot items.
Generic statements that repeat: review sellers are lazy because their profits depend on quantity. As such, they will repeat common generic statements across multiple reviews. Even vague fan reviews will often include little personal references, sometimes even mentioning obscure characters only other fans would recognize. Fake reviews tend not to even reference characters specifically, but instead make general comments about “great characters” or “a wonderful hero” without mentioning characters by name.
Similar verbiage (and mistakes) that repeat: Again, review sellers are lazy. They also don’t make much effort to disguise their writing because that would take time. As such, you may notice the same odd sentence structure (many of the review sellers are outside the U.S. and don’t speak English as their native language) or the same grammatical mistakes across multiple reviews.
If you are the type that enjoys a little detective work, Google a couple of sentences from the review. This will show you all the places where the sentence appeared. Did you find the same review comments posted across multiple books and even on multiple sites? Congratulations! You found a review seller.
But before you flay the AUTHOR, keep in mind that many review sellers try to hide their activity by leaving reviews on books that did not pay for reviews. This is how they often mask their activity. Many authors have had their accounts frozen by Amazon due to false reports of buying reviews, when in reality they were the innocent victim of a review seller padding his or her profile in an attempt to look legitimate.
So if you do find a review seller and chose to report them, report the SELLER, not the Author, to Amazon. While identifying and removing fake reviews benefits everyone, we don’t want to hurt innocent authors in the process.