Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The review system in Amazon is routinely hacked

I wrote a book recently called SQL Practice Problems: 57 beginning, intermediate, and advanced challenges for you to solve using a "learn-by-doing" approach, and published it on Amazon. It hasn't been a best-seller, but it was fun to write, and I think I did a good job of gradually increasing the difficulty of the problems, and introducing the most common problem that come up in database work.

A few weeks ago, when I looked up the general keyword "SQL" on, I was amazed to find that the book that's listed first is a thrown-together compilation of text copied from various websites (for instance, a website detailing ANSI SQL standards). The entire books is like that, completely useless garbage for anyone trying to learn SQL, and obviously written by someone who doesn't know anything at all about the topic, as a quick money-maker.

This terrible book comes up first on Amazon when you search for SQL
How the heck does this book regularly and consistently, every time I've looked, come up first when searching for books on SQL on Amazon?

I'll tell you why. Amazon has made positive reviews by verified buyers into either the most important factor, or one of the most important factors in ranking books. However, all of the positive reviews on this book are all paid for! How do I know this? Because I know the subject matter backwards and forwards, and I know how poor the quality of this book really is. I'd bet good money that all the five star reviews are paid for. Here's one that's obviously fake:
This book is simply amazing. I think many of the other reviewers have done a great job evaluating it. I just want to share my own experience because I like the book so much. I am not a tech savvy but I've taken a position that requires me to know how to run SQL queries. Therefore, I had no prior knowledge of SQL before buying this book. I've been able to go through the book, step by step, and understanding it. So if you are simply looking for how to get data out of a SQL Server like I am, this is the perfect book for you.
But here's one that's not so obvious. Had I not known better, I would have thought this was a real review:
I work with Microsoft SQL Server daily. I have literally read dozens of SQL books since my college days. Although I am very proficient in SQL now, I am constantly looking for the easiest way to teach the people I work with who have zero SQL experience. The most common problem with every book I have read is how they overcomplicated simple concepts and without simple examples. This book is truly a simple and easy to understand beginners guide. The best part about this book is the code examples it provided. They are real problems that you could face in your daily SQL operations. If you are a moderate experienced SQL user, you will find this book makes a great pocket reference.
Some of the obviously paid-for reviews are not even five star reviews! There are 72 five star reviews, and 31 four star reviews. I assume that if a book has too many five star reviews as compared to four star reviews, that's a red flag to the system. There's currently 72 five star reviews, and 31 four star reviews. I'm assuming that all of them are paid for.

Here's an interesting tidbit - there's only 1 three star review. And it seems like a real, not paid-for review. When you look up the reviewer, you notice a few things. Number 1, the reviewer actually shows their reviews. Many (but not all) of the reviewers who doing reviews for payment do not show their reviews. There must be some kind of setting in Amazon that allows you to hide reviews. Number 2, some of the other reviews that this reviewer has posted are for physical items, instead of Kindle books. The fake reviewers have posted mainly reviews for Kindle books.

I don't envy Amazon, having to come up with a system to weed out the real reviews from the fake, paid ones. It's a very difficult problem. But the honest truth is they're doing an awful job, based on the fact that in the area in which I'm most knowledgeable, the book that ranks highest has almost nothing but fake positive reviews and is a truly terrible book.

I've counted on Amazon reviews for years to give accurate information, and now I only do that with big caveats, and with a skeptical eye. I look at the negative reviews much more closely than the positive reviews.

What could Amazon do? I think for one, they need to pay more attention to the problem of fake reviews. Fake reviews are causing all reviews to become less valuable, and that's a big problem. It's a tricky problem because inevitably they will flag some real reviews as fake, and piss people off, and those people will complain mightily. But it's something they need to do, because as there are more fake reviews out there, the whole review system becomes much less valuable.


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