Quick look - Understanding Amazon book reviews

Posted on by Ben Rothke

Amazon is the world’s largest on-line seller of books and one of the largest online retailers.  What is unique to Amazon is the millions of individuals reviewing books (and other items), including myself

Before Amazon, most book reviews were in the form of newspapers and book clubs.  What Amazon did was to empower the reader to upload their reviews.  This was but one of the many ways in which Amazon forever changed the way in which books are reviewed. 

But that begs the question - how valuable are Amazon reviews?  Ultimately, like most user-generated content, it comes down to reader emptor. 

Amazon ratings and reviews, like any metric, can be manipulated and misused.  For example, ABC recently admitted voting issues on Dancing With The Stars.  A scheme by Montreal Canadiens fansto flood the NHL All-Star Game ballot box with artificial votes was uncovered, in which a computer script inflated vote totals.  There are two of many examples. 

As to Amazon reviews, let’s start at the top with perhaps the ultimate manipulator, namely Harriet Klausner. Her ability to read and review books seems to be based on time dilation.  She currently has reviewed over 23,000 books.  

Klausner was long the #1 ranked Amazon book reviewer, now known as Classic Reviewer Rank. Amazon has since created a new system, and Klausner as of December 7, 2010 has a New Reviewer Rank of 746.

This is due to the fact that Amazon has revamped their system for rating reviewers.  The last few months have seen a huge amount of negative comments against Klausner, primarily in part by Amazon reviewers Guy and Manny

Klausner’s ranking plunge is even more pronounced given the former #2 classic reviewer is now New Reviewer Ranked at 51, and the #3 classic reviewer is now New Reviewer Ranked at 19.  

Ultimately, Klausner was undone by her audacity, plus the fact that her reviews were nothing more than a cut and paste of the books synopsis, with very little value add. 

Writing a book review on Amazon is like Wikipedia, anyone can do it.  In the past, Amazon made no requirement to write a book review.  That has since changed and now Amazon requires a purchase be made before a review can be submitted.  But that can be a purchase of an item selling for 1 cent. 

Reviewer with a single 5-star review

So what should one look out for?  The biggest red flag is the reviewer with a single 5-star review.  This is often seen in self-published books, where the author attempts to create hype for the book with numerous positive reviews. 

A reviewer can create numerous accounts, purchase items for a few cents, and then write positive reviews.  Similar details can be found in Book reviews can establish credibility for your self-published book

Extremely brief 5-star reviews

Similar to the reviewer with a single 5-star review, is the extremely brief 5-star review.  The goal here is to get the book to have the highest rating possible. Amazon itself does not gauge the effectiveness of each review.  So a 50-word review with no value is the same as a detailed 750-word analysis. 

The point of these very pithy reviews are simply work up the review numbers surrounding the book, and the number of stars the book receives. 


Can reviews be bought? To a degree.  Payola refers to songs being played on the radio for payment. The term has come to refer to any secret payment, made to cast a product in a positive light, such as obtaining positive reviews.  In that sense, reviews can be bought.  

For example, at first glance, the ITIL V3 Foundation Complete Certification Kit seems remarkable with 226 reviews, averaging over 4 stars. This is even more impressive given that Decision Points by George Bush, which is currently a #1 seller, has 265 reviews.

But what Emereo Publishing does is give purchase credits for reviews.  Is this payola in the strict sense of the term?  No, as it is not a secret payment.  But most of those reading the reviews of the book have no idea that most of the reviews were written by enticement. 

Check out the following screen shot from page 2 of Certification Exam Preparation Course in a Book for Passing the CISSP on Your First Try Certification Study Guide


My review of this useless book is here.  For this and other books from the publisher, there is an incentive to write reviews, which invariably will be positive if the person wants the credit. For those who write a review, they can receive any eBook up to $99. 


This is just a brief overview of the topic.  Those wanting a more in-depth and scientific analysis should read The Effect of Word of Mouth on Sales: Online Book Reviews by Chevalier and Mayzlin of theYale School of Management

For the most part Amazon reader reviews can provide good insight into a book.  Provided it is a legitimate review.  Reader emptor.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Blogs posted to the RSAConference.com website are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the blog author individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of RSA Conference™, or any other co-sponsors. RSA Conference does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this blog.

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