There was an interesting story that broke last week regarding self published authors and how they exploited Amazon’s algorithms to become bestsellers. One of those authors was John Locke who was hailed as the first non-traditional author to sell 1 million eBooks. However according to a New York Times article he paid for people to review his books on Amazon, despite the fact that they had never read them, to increase his books’ discoverability. And it worked.
This is not new. Google’s search engine is built on complex algorithms that can be exploited by businesses. The official term is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) which is basically gearing your website and links to your website so that it gets more hits when someone does a google search and tries to get your website as high as possible on the google search. Most platforms use some kind of algorithm in one way or another for their search engines and where there’s a computer program there’s a way to influence it or manipulate it.
So basically what John Locke and others were doing was SEO on Amazon. They paid for a service to get their books higher up on Amazon searches and display their books more often in the recommendations bar. It is devious and it is dishonest, because there is no disclosure that the reviews have been paid for, but so far Amazon has done nothing to curb this manipulation of their system. Why would they? They’re selling loads of books.
However it has also emerged that some authors have decided to cut out the middle man and are posting their own positive reviews under pseudonyms. The term for this is known as “sock puppetry” and it is not limited to posting good reviews about their own work. Some authors are also giving bad reviews to other authors who write in the same genre, to try and decrease that author’s discoverability. And we’re not just talking one fake account, one author has multiple fake accounts and even creates fake conversations between these fake accounts about how wonderful his books are!
Now this goes beyond being devious and dishonest. We’re entering the world of fraudulent and slander. The credibility of authors who are partaking in “sock puppetry” also has to be questioned. And once again Amazon is perfectly happy to allow this to happen on their website which also calls into question their credibility or as I like to think shows their true colours.
Unfortunately it also calls into question all online reviews. I’m not naive enough to think that “sock puppetry” is limited just to Amazon but how can we discern between real reviews and fake reviews on Good Reads, Shelfari or any of the other myriad of book platforms that are out there. Creating an account is as easy as setting up a fake gmail or hotmail account. If you’ve got the time or the money this is probably a hundred times more effective than Google AdWords or Facebook Ads. But there is serious dishonesty occurring and I am sure most readers would feel cheated.
This is also not the first time Amazon’s search engine and generated recommendations have been called into question. It is widely know within the industry that if you don’t pay the appropriate marketing co-op to Amazon as a publisher then your books are harder to discover. They can limit some books discoverability to isbn only which is not the general readers’ main method of searching for a book.
Retail is changing and evolving at a rapid pace. It is imperative that consumer protection and competition protection keep up with these changes. eCommerce is probably the most unregulated and unmonitored area when it comes to commercial, consumer and taxation law and big business is taking full advantage of that fact. “Sock puppetry” is just the tip of the iceberg and if we don’t start clamping down on these deceitful practices now we’ll end up hitting the whole iceberg and then it will be too late.
More on Sock Puppets:
and I talked about this issue on 702 ABC Sydney: