De gustibus interdum est disputandum.

Can We Take Amazon Rave Reviews Seriously?

by Conrad Weisert
July 26, 2010
© 2010 Information Disciplines, Inc.

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

At last!

Outstanding!

Excellent book!

This is a must read.

This book will not leave my side... until the 2nd edition.

The above exclamations are taken from "customer reviews" of some really awful professional books posted on Amazon or similar book seller web sites.

I'm 220 pages into a 433-page volume that's so-far one of the worst professional books I've ever read. It's loaded with misguided principles, the writing is unclear and ultraverbose, and it still hasn't addressed the topic cited in its title. I haven't decided whether to set it aside or struggle to finish it.

I took a look at Amazon and found two dozen customer reviews yielding a composite rating of 4½ stars out of five! What accounts for that?

Most reviews are positive

In many categories, including computer technology, positive reviews greatly outnumber negative ones. That doesn't mean, however, that good computer books greatly outnumer bad ones. Why do so many worthless books get rave reviews from readers?
  • Some rave reviews are sincere contributions from naïve readers, who may not recognize flaws and misguided advice. That's to be expected; they're welcome to their opinion, which we hope will be short-lived.

  • Many others, unfortunately, come from colleagues and supporters of the author. Notice how many works by authors who work for huge companies, like Microsoft or the former Lucent Technologies, get dozens of rave reviews, even hundreds. There's no way to recognize such relationships when we read a review. (A few let it slip by referring to the author by his or her first name.)

August 1 addendum

Just as I was posting this item on the web, today's New York Times Magazine addressed the same issue ("The Ethicist" column by Randy Cohen, p. 18).   A company that produces iPhone apps ordered employees to post, under their own names, rave reviews of company products.

Credit to Amazon

Amazon and similar book sellers deserve praise for providing the forum for customer reviews and for not interfering with it. They don't purge or hide negative reviews.

I used to post reviews on Amazon myself in several categories1. I stopped doing so a few years ago when I began to doubt that my opinions, positive or negative, would be taken seriously amid the expected deluge of raves.

Reviewing the reviews

Amazon provides an easy way for readers to rate a given review as being either "helpful" or "not helpful". In theory those designations should indicate whether the review helped the reader to reach a decision whether to buy a copy of the book. In practice, however, they turn out to be more an indication of whether the reader agrees with the review.

Since most reviews are positive, negative reviews don't score high on helpfulness. By default, Amazon displays reviews in helpfulness sequence. Thus the reader usually sees positive reviews before negative ones.

The bottom line

The answer to the question posed in the title above is NO. I'll still read them, but they, especially the raves, won't influence my buying decisions.


Epilog—Should I finish the book?

Having invested considerable time in reading half of a worthless book, what should I do? My original purpose was to learn something from it; posting a review would have been a secondary by-product.

Two of the Amazon reviews said that the second half of the book is better than the first half. (It could hardly be any worse.) I'll probably manage to struggle through it, and may then write a review for this web site.


1—Computer technology, travel, current events, and classical music recordings

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Last modified August 1, 2010