Reviews, Darned Reviews, and Statistics

A friend recently pointed me toward an article entitled, “Users who post ‘fake’ Amazon reviews could end up in court.” I’ve known for a long time that some authors do pay to get positive reviews for their books posted. In fact, some authors stoop to paying for negative reviews of competing works as well. Even though the actual technique used for cheating on reviews has changed, falsifying reviews is an age old problem. As the Romans might have said, caveat lector (let the reader beware). If there is a way to cheat at something, someone will most certainly find it and use it to gain a competitive advantage. Amazon and other online stores are quite probably fighting a losing battle, much as RIAA has in trying to get people to actually purchase their music (see Odd Fallout of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for a discussion of the ramifications of IP theft). The point is that some of those reviews you’ve been reading are written by people who are paid to provide either a glowing review of the owner’s product or lambaste a competitor’s product.

Of course, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind the publication of false reviews. The obvious reason is to gain endorsements that will likely result in better sales. However, that reason is actually too simple. At the bottom of everything is the use of statistics for all sorts of purposes today, including the ordering of items on sales sites. In many cases, the art of selling comes down to being the first seller on the list and having a price low enough that it’s not worth looking at the competitors. Consequently, sales often hinge on getting good statistics, rather than producing a good product. False reviews help achieve that goal.

I’ve spent a good deal of time emphasizing the true role of reviews in making a purchase. A review, any review you read, even mine, is someone’s opinion. When someone’s opinion tends to match your own, then reading the review could help you make a good buying decision. Likewise, if you know that someone’s opinion tends to run counter to your own, then a product they didn’t like may be just what you want. Reviews are useful decision making tools when viewed in the proper light. It’s important not to let a review blind you to what the reviewer is saying or to the benefits and costs of obtaining particular products.

Ferreting out false reviews can be hard, but it’s possible to weed out many of them. Reviews that seem too good or too dire to be true, probably are fakes. Few products get everything right. Likewise, even fewer products get everything wrong. Someone produces a product in the hope of making sales, so creating one that is so horrid as to be completely useless is rare (it does happen though and there are legal measures in place to deal with these incidences).

Looking for details in the review, as well as information that is likely false is also important. Some people will write a review without ever having actually used the product. You can’t review a product that you haven’t tried. When you read a review here, you can be sure that I’ve tried out every feature (unless otherwise noted). Of course, I’m also not running a test lab, so my opinion is based on my product usage—you might use the product in a different manner or in a different environment (always read the review thoroughly).

As you look for potential products to buy online, remember to take those reviews with a grain of salt. Look for reviews that are obviously false and ignore them. Make up your own mind based on experiences you’ve had with the vendor in the past or with similar products. Reviews don’t reduce your need to remain diligent in making smart purchases. Remember those Romans of old, caveat lector!


Odd Fallout of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

Laws generally help define correct behavior when there is a difference of opinion between groups of people. They do things like ensure public health and safety. After all, when everyone agrees that certain behavior is acceptable (or unacceptable), you rarely see a law about it. Most laws also free people from the whims of government by providing a rule upon which to base decisions of whether someone is law abiding or not (the requirement to prove guilt, rather than innocence).

The context of an act usually comes into play. Stealing Intellectual Property (IP) is one of those areas in which there is a difference of opinion and context most definitely comes into play. There is a group on one side that says all information wants be free and that there is no such thing as stealing IP. This group is represented by people who download music or other forms of media without paying for it and feel the act is perfectly acceptable. On the other side is a group the vigorously defends IP, even when there isn’t a good reason to do so. This group is represented by organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Of course, artists and consumers alike are stuck in the middle between these two warring parties.

A law is considered fair and good when it represents the interests of as many parties as possible in an equitable manner. Over the years I’ve read about the truly odd fallout from the DMCA. For example, the RIAA suing a dead grandmother is an example of the sort of negative publicity that tends not to produce a desirable reaction when the goal is to get people to actually buy the music they want to hear. Of course, you’ve read about my viewpoint on IP a number of times. However, the fact of the matter is that publishers are slowly losing ground because the majority of people are ill-informed as to the need to buy IP and those who do know have decided that getting free IP for as long as they can is the only consideration. Most authors and artists (myself included) are starting to move toward means of earning a living that don’t involve fighting with customers over who should pay.

Unfortunately, the fight over IP is one of those things that just won’t go away because you want it to. I recently read an interesting InfoWorld article, Copyright act could make it illegal to repair your own car, that has me thinking of future stories in the news about Ford hauling dead grandmothers into court over repairs done without the consent of their local Ford dealer. The fact of the matter is that the DMCA is a bad law that represents only one side of the dispute—those who stand to make a huge profit from IP. Until the consumer is involved in the process and the voices of radical elements are heard, you can be sure that people will continue to ignore their rights and responsibilities when it comes to IP.

What do you see as the future of IP? The current situation isn’t sustainable. Authors and artists of all types need to earn a living just like everyone else. Someone has to pay for the IP or the people producing it will decide to do something else to meet their financial obligations (possibly creating lower quality and substantially less IP during their off hours). At the same time, consumers should be free to use the materials they purchased in any reasonable manner they see fit. If you buy one of my books, I guarantee that I’m not going to use the DMCA to haul you into court for marking it up or using it in a manner consistent with fair use laws. I’d like to get your feedback at