There’s a reason Amazon.com refers to its nearly 60 million reviewers as its “Community.”
The retail giant has invested heavily in developing regulations to ensure that what you see on an Amazon.com page is an honest expression of a real person’s experience with that book or product. Developing that idea since its founding in 1994, Amazon.com now boasts the largest body of consumer reviewers in the world. In fact, if you’ve ever had the rare experience of interacting with an Amazon.com customer service representative, as I have occasionally, you’ll discover their official emails end with the trademark line: “Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.”
The quality of that Community’s life is so vital to the company’s ongoing success that it has always been a major focus of the sprawling empire’s central command staff. To ensure that reviewers are eager to keep contributing their thoughts in a fair and accurate way, the company employs a wide range of experts on all aspects of online behavior—and even engages scholars from leading universities to continue evaluating and tweaking the boundaries around its precious Community.
So, why are there boundaries?
The answer: Reviews are so valuable to a book’s success (or any product’s success) that people are always trying to game the system. Most of the scandals involving fake Amazon.com reviews came to light a decade or so ago and were resolved by removing reviews and banning the types of fakery that came to light. Generally, these scams involved unscrupulous authors or publishers trying to “review” their own books to boost their rankings.
As Amazon.com tells new reviewers, now:
We take the integrity of the Community seriously. Any attempt to manipulate Community content or features, including by contributing false, misleading, or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited. If you violate our Guidelines, we may restrict your ability to use Community features, remove content, delist related products, or suspend or terminate your account.
Who Can Review Books on Amazon.com?
Amazon.com offers many “help” pages that explain the rules in great detail, including examples of misbehavior that can lead to banning from the site. One of the most helpful pages is this one. That particular page devotes nearly 1,600 words to the subject. Many additional policy details are spelled out in other “help” pages as well. Learning all the rules can take hours!
However, I can sum up the basic rules much more simply:
- Currently, Amazon.com requires customers to have spent at least $50 on the website in the past 12 months to post reviews.
- In addition, Amazon.com requires reviewers to be polite, constructive and honest in explaining to other customers why they chose between 1 and 5 stars to rank a particular book (or other product).
Honest! Those are the rules condensed into 2 bullet points. So, why is there an almost endless array of other “help” pages about the Community on Amazon.com? Here’s the reason: A host of problems arise when reviewers either don’t understand or don’t take seriously the concepts of “polite,” “constructive” and “honest.”
For example …
Can Publishers Review Their Own Books?
No. Those would not be honest reviews. Those would be promotional messages. Publishers already control the book’s main description on an Amazon page. Letting a publisher add “reviews,” as well, would be dishonest.
Nevertheless, that was one of the scandals uncovered back in 2010, when a public relations agency was exposed as selling fake reviews to publishers. The system wasn’t honest. Amazon.com shut it down.
Can Authors Review Their Own Books?
No! Not honest! Authors wrote the books and, with their publishers, they control the page’s main content. Letting the authors control the reviews as well: Nope. Not honest!
Authors have known about this rule for many years, however, that was the crux of yet another scandal years ago when some authors were caught creating fake accounts to add 5-star reviews. And, no, you can’t have your spouse or your brother post cheering reviews. Amazon gets very specific about this in its many “help” pages. Basically you can’t have your book reviewed by a relative or “anyone living in your household.”
I know! You were thinking you’d sign up your dog to review to your book! Nope! Sorry! Not honest!
What Are Amazon.com Badges?
Like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Amazon has learned that one way to encourage reviewers is to award badges for good behavior. Over the years, Amazon has offered many incentives to reviewers, mainly in the form of ranking and badges. Some Amazon ideas for new badges worked and continue to this day—some Amazon badges have flopped and have all but vanished. At one point in recent years, for example, Amazon re-calculated its overall reviewer rankings because too many reviewers were gaming the system to boost their relative rankings.
Then, at another point, Amazon cracked down on an international system of email incentives offered by manufacturers of popular products, including lots of appliances, electrical devices and personal gear from gloves to fancy pens. Some of these manufacturers were hiring third-party agencies, often based in Asia, to round up 5-star reviewers in exchange for free samples. Not honest!
Around that time, Amazon.com also added a badge that now is widely regarded as the “gold standard” for reviews. That’s the “Verified Purchase” badge. Here’s how Amazon explains that badge:
An “Amazon Verified Purchase” review means we’ve verified that the person writing the review purchased the product at Amazon and didn’t receive the product at a deep discount.
If you’re an author of a book, the most valuable review you can receive is a 5-star review with a “Verified Purchase” badge. So, if you encounter someone who is interested in your book, it’s worth asking if they would consider buying a copy on Amazon—and then adding a review. That will show up with the impressive Verified Purchase badge—and Amazon will tend to push that review higher on a book’s page.
Must Amazon Reviews Be Constructive?
Yes! Although that’s not to say that every review on Amazon.com is as clear, informative and helpful as customers would wish. There are lots of poorly written and even downright puzzling reviews on Amazon. But the goal remains: Be constructive.
In fact, Amazon.com insists that reviews be constructive—meaning they must be focused on evaluating the substance of a book (or the value of other products). For example, sometimes a new reviewer will gripe about the packaging, perhaps a damaged box, and Amazon.com removes those reviews as not constructive in evaluating the main subject: the book or product. (Note: If you really dig into Amazon, there is a place to evaluate problems with packaging, as well—just not in the main space for customer reviews.)
There’s another meaning of constructive, as well. Amazon.com removes reviews that amount to personal attacks on an author or a product manufacturer. Reviewers also are forbidden to issue personal attacks on other reviewers or groups of people. Here are some of the official rules:
Don’t post content that is libelous, defamatory, harassing, threatening, or inflammatory. For example, don’t use obscenities or profanity, and don’t express hatred or intolerance for people on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, age, or disability, including by promoting organizations with such views. … Don’t engage in name-calling or attack people based on whether you agree with them.
The full list of rules on civility is much longer, but you get the idea. Amazon wants constructive citizens. Yes, you can give a book (or other product) a single star and explain why you really did not like it. You can be very critical—as long as you do it in a constructive and helpful manner.
Can You Give People Review Copies to Review?
Yes. Some years ago, reports circulated that Amazon was considering a ban on reviews of free copies provided to prospective reviewers by publishers or authors. Very quickly, the publishing industry defended this traditional practice as a central pillar of book promotion. As a result, Amazon has always carved out a special exception allowing the distribution of “review copies of books.”
However—and this is important—review copies should never be offered as a quid pro quo. Authors and publishers must never offer promotions or social media offers of free books in exchange for a promised review. Here’s the official Amazon rule:
Book authors and publishers may continue to provide free or discounted copies of their books to readers, as long as the author or publisher does not require a review in exchange or attempt to influence the review.
At Front Edge Publishing, we do encourage our authors to offer free review copies, especially to media professionals who may wind up covering the author’s new book. We also encourage authors to pass out review copies to people who might consider posting an Amazon review. But we never send review copies in exchange for a promise of a review. In fact, we urge authors who hear from interested reviewers to, first, ask if that person would consider buying their own copy to earn the valuable Verified Purchase badge.
In addition, Front Edge Publishing also currently offers free samples of some of our books to readers we feel might be influential decision makers. Perhaps a free copy might help a teacher or the leader of a small group to organize a discussion of that book. But we never issue invitations of a free book with a promise that the recipient will post a review.
In short: We follow all of these rules! We are, indeed, polite, constructive and honest members of Amazon’s vast Community.
The Good News Is …
Despite all these rules and warnings—please remember this: Amazon.com has built the world’s largest superhighway for authors to reach readers. This is an amazing feat of online architecture! In the end, all the rules are aimed at helping authors to interact with readers in positive ways. All things considered, this is an amazingly powerful system laid out and monitored for all of us.
As a potential reviewer, this delivers a whole lot of power to you and your laptop, tablet or smart phone. Just a few 5-star reviews on an Amazon.com book page can substantially improve a book’s “discoverability” (in other words its overall ranking in searches).
Polite good will and honesty is still the overall goal of Amazon.com’s Community.
Dive in and become a good citizen! Through your reviews, you can help authors spread their voices far and wide. Amazon.com reviewers can make a big difference in this world!