The Sunday Times investigation shows bought reviews on Amazon

The Sunday Times investigation shows bought reviews on Amazon

If I say “sock puppet” to you and your first thought is Shari Lewis, I’m happy you are here.

If your response to what I just said is, “What does Shari and her friends, a talking lamb and dog, have to do with puppets?” I’m ecstatic! 😉

For many of us nowadays, we think of sock puppets as fake identities that publishers and authors use to publish positive reviews of their own books.

Another term you may hear is “astroturfing”, although that’s more associated with apparent social movements. You see, instead of something genuinely being a “grass roots” movement, it has been faked by people with an agenda…Astroturf is fake grass.

While we have often suspected that reviews like that are present on Amazon, and some people have had their legitimate reviews removed by Amazon suspecting they are fake (Amazon can remove any review they want….they have no obligation to publish your reviews, although they don’t seem to do it just because a review is bad), there hasn’t been a lot of proof.

Well, a British newspaper, The Sunday Times, decided to test it…as reported in this

The Sunday Times article by Robin Henry

What they did was pretty clever. They wrote a terrible book (on purpose), and then bought 5-star reviews for it…at a price equivalent of about five U.S. dollars.

Personally, I think they overpaid. 😉 I doubt most 5-star reviews are going to generate $5 in revenues…but I’m sure it does make some difference, and it would be more effective if the book was more expensive.

I don’t see that the book (Everything Bonsai!) is still for sale on the British Amazon site, but they claim it went to number one in its category.

It’s worth noting that it doesn’t take all that many sales to briefly get to number one: my book of quotations, was the #1 book of quotations in any format on Amazon when it first was released

The Mind Boggles: A Unique Book of Quotations (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

but that didn’t last long. It was just an initial bolus of sales…oh, and with no fake reviews to my knowledge! It’s only gotten four reviews in the three years it has been out…and only one of them was 5-star. 🙂

I think a more disturbing part of this investigation is that the review faker used real people’s identities, which they “harvested from social media”…and that includes children.

I’m assuming that may be criminal (writing good reviews for money probably isn’t), since it’s identity theft, but I don’t know what the laws are in the UK on that…and I’m not even sure if it would be actionable here.

Now, someone paying someone to create fake reviews in order to boost the sales of a book may be committing a crime…fraud. I would guess that the person writing the review would not be guilty of a crime (if they used their own identity, at least), but I’m not a lawyer.

It’s nice to see that this was done, though. It’s the kind of thing many people are quite sure happens, but  not where investigative journalists tend to turn their focus.

It reminds me of when I was managing a bookstore a long time ago, and a big booksellers’ convention was coming to town. The police decided to go after used bookstores buying stolen books prior to the convention (I’m not saying there was a connection between the two, but…).

For example, they would have undercover people in the bookstores (one bookstore in particular). Reportedly, the bookstore bought boxes of books which still had shipping labels for other stores on them (as if the seller had stolen them from in front of the store). I remember there being something like the store owner just yelling out in the store, “I need ten copies of the new Stephen King: anybody want to steal them for me?”

Used bookstores were supposed to ID people when they bought books, but I think that was rare in practice.

Shoplifting was a big problem in my store, as it was in all bookstores. My goal for “shrinkage” (shoplifting,, employee theft, and loss due to damage) was 8%. If almost one in ten of my books simply disappeared, unaccounted for, I was pretty close to the goal.


What do you think? Is this going to change anything at Amazon? Should it? How do you take fake reviews into account when looking at a book? Feel free to tell me and my readers by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things. 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


11 Responses to “The Sunday Times investigation shows bought reviews on Amazon”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    Why even pay? There have been numerous anecdotal accounts over in the forums of authors writing a bunch of favorable reviews for their own work. I’ve also seen reviews of routers that are glowingly positive, and then other reviews suggesting that the router was junk, and that the vendor was salting Amazon with positive reviews.

    There is a lot of controversy, and legal confusion about online reviews. Beyond taking down negative reviews, some have threatened legal action against negative reviewers. And of course there is the other side where negative reviews can be the result of a vendetta or just plain malice.

    This is also peripherally related to the EU’s actions v Google over search results, and some of the Google-owned review sites.

    In the past there have been a lot of problems over at Goodreads with vitriolic reviews driven by agendas having nothing to do with an author’s works, but rather hostility to an authors views on issues of the day.

    For myself in reading book reviews, I tend to read only those posted on Amazon (not Goodreads), and then only 1- and 2-star ones (:grin).

    • Edward Boyhan Says:

      Oh, and I forgot to mention: isn’t the Sunday Times owned by Rupert Murdoch? Isn’t an article like this, a bit of the pot calling the kettle black? 😀

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Edward!

        Yes, I believe News Corp has owned the Times since…maybe the early 1980s.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      It’s because the “sock puppeting” you describe can be detectable by Amazon much more easily than bought reviews…and authors/publishers don’t want to get banned by Amazon.

      I wrote about a campaign about a recent Star Wars book which was just as you describe…essentially, political opposition rather than a value judgement.

  2. Zebras Says:


    I have definitely gotten to the point to reading reviews with a suspicious eye. I tend to focus on the negative ones that seem sincere to see if the potential faults in a product or a book are ones I can live with.

    I can however testify that the 5-star review of your quotation book is legit! 😉

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!


      I am influenced by a high rating average…but like you, I’m interested in the negative reviews. Let’s say there are a 1,000 reviews, and 90% of them are four and five stars. The other ten percent are all 1 stars.

      I’ll check the 1 star reviews. So often, I don’t see what is listed as a problem for me (“It doesn’t work with a Windows phone!”).

  3. Harold Delk Says:

    The bulk of the linked Times article appears to be behind a paywalll. I’m not paying Rupert anything, but will suggest that any immigrationn reform bills be required to contain a clause to keep him and any of his fake news organizations far away from our shores.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      Yes, I saw the paywall…I just worked off what I could see.

      The Sunday Times is in the UK, and this was based on the British Amazon site. If you are in the USA, that’s already pretty far from here. 🙂

      I always want everything to be available, personally…

  4. Norma Says:

    There is article on Flipboard that takes you to the The Consumerist_ website about Amazon suing people selling their services as reviewers through the site Fiver

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Norma!

      I’m going to write about that one. 🙂 I’m not a fan of The Consumerist…they have seemed so negative to me, which just isn’t to my taste. However, the story has also been reported elsewhere.

  5. Round up #310: | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] The Sunday Times investigation shows bought reviews on Amazon […]

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