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For Authors

Reviewers Locked Out by Amazon’s Latest Glitch

By: Hidden Gems on May 29, 2018

Hidden Gems Books ARC service.

By: Hidden Gems on May 29, 2018

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Last week, many Amazon customers were greeted with an ominous sounding message when they tried to leave reviews. It was just the latest in a long line of glitches affecting book reviews, but because the issue was so widespread and absolute, it caused rumor and speculation to fly into overdrive.

Fortunately, your Amazon book reviews are still safe. What it really demonstrated, though, is how easily information can be distorted – especially when the company at fault refuses to acknowledge the issue publicly or to their own employees.  Now that it’s all behind us, let’s look at what happened.

The Timeline

Beginning on May 22nd, we were alerted by some of our HG readers that they were being greeted by the following message when they tried to leave reviews on Amazon.

Sorry, we are unable to accept your review of this product. This product currently has limitations on submitting reviews. This may be because we detected unusual reviewing behavior on this product, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience. For more information, see the Customer Reviews Guidelines.

Of course, the first thing we did was check the community guidelines page to see if the rules had changed, but they had not (and still haven’t).

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.

As the day and week wore on, we heard from more and more readers and authors and it became apparent that the issue was affecting all customers and books, within certain parameters.

At first, author message boards were silent on the issue – likely because most authors were unaware unless one of their readers pointed it out to them. But eventually the discussions began and eventually everyone involved began to share information and a clearer picture emerged.

The issue was affecting unverified reviews on all books, but there was no official announcement from Amazon. Emails were flying, rumors were being sparked, Facebook theories were forming, but no one really knew anything.

We contacted our affected authors and dealt with panicked emails as they came in. Our stance was that this was likely just a glitch that would hopefully be quickly resolved, since the posted policies hadn’t changed and this issue was breaking those policies, and urged authors to send emails to Amazon asking for answers.

While no official word ever came, the issue was suddenly resolved on Saturday, May 26th.

The Facts

From the discussions we had with both customers and affected authors that were doing their own investigations, certain facts began to emerge, leading us to our own theory about what happened.

FACT: Only unverified reviews were being blocked.  That is, reviews of a book by someone that did not purchase that book on Amazon.  Anyone that did buy the book was still able to leave a verified review.

FACT: 10 unverified reviews could be left on a book, although if a book had more than that prior to the issue beginning those reviews remained but no new ones could be left.  However, when a new verified review was posted, a certain number of new unverified reviews were allowed again – pointing to the idea of a ratio being employed of verified vs unverified reviews. The exact ratio is unknown.

FACT: Reviews were not being blocked based on content, as the blocking message showed up as soon as the customer chose the star rating for a book, before they had a chance to write or submit their review.

FACT: The issue affected products by ASIN, so you could have 10 unverified reviews on an ebook, and then another 10 on the linked paperback version.

So why did all this happen?

Our Theory: Based on the fact that the posted policies didn’t change and Amazon’s ongoing war with fake review sites for non-book related products, our theory is that Amazon instituted some new rule that was erroneously applied to books. Books have long been exempt from the usual rules, and still are, and it could just be that someone forgot to tell the developer in charge of implementing this change.  Unfortunately, only certain people at Amazon know for sure, and they aren’t telling.

The Rumors and Speculation

It’s not surprising how fast the wild rumors about the imminent demise of ARC reviews flew through the author ranks. After all, we know that rumors are spread when there is uncertainty and anxiety, both of which we had in spades here.  But what is really unconscionable is that a lot of the misinformation was coming from Amazon support staff themselves.

Here are some of the most common bits of misinformation we were sent about this issue during the few days that it lasted.

  • Amazon is now only allowing five unverified reviews per book

This was the most common rumor we were sent, and was clearly just a matter of people trying to shoehorn an existing rule into a new problem. The new issue was a limit on the number of unverified reviews, so of course the natural place to look would be the rule that deals with unverified reviews and limits. Here’s the rule that was being misinterpreted – and you can see why the number five kept being cited as the threshold (even though the real threshold was 10).

Customers can submit five non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews each week. Non-Amazon Verified Purchase review counts are calculated each week from Sunday at 12:00am GMT through Saturday 11:59pm GMT. This policy does not apply to Vine reviews or reviews on digital and physical books, music, and video.

Problem is, that rule:

  1. Has been around for a couple years or longer
  2. Applies to a limit of reviews particular customers can leave in general, not how many reviews from different customers can be left on a specific product
  3. Doesn’t apply to books

Seriously, the last line of that particular rule is probably the most overlooked line of all the polices: “This policy does not apply to Vine reviews or reviews on digital and physical books

And well it shouldn’t, especially given that KU borrowed books still don’t show up as verified purchases…

  • There’s a new policy that Amazon isn’t allowing free ARC reviews on books any more

This one was literally posted on a Facebook group.  The person that posted it claimed it was a change in policy, and that there was an announcement about it that she saw “somewhere”.

Right.

There is no such policy, and when and if one does get written, it will be spread wide and far.  It will be posted on Amazon’s policy pages, not in some super-secret place that only this one FB user knows about.

  • It’s happening to people that haven’t spent enough money on Amazon

The rule about spending $50 before being able to post reviews has been around for a while but it does seem like Amazon has only recently started to strictly apply it. However, it doesn’t apply to this case because all reviewers were blocked, regardless of their Amazon spending habits, and they were only blocked on books that had already gotten a certain number of unverified reviews.

  • Amazon is targeting people that write that they got a free copy of the book

This is an argument that we hear fairly regularly, from both authors and readers alike – and once it again it was brought up about this issue. So let’s address it first in the context of this latest glitch.

Readers trying to leave reviews were being blocked BEFORE they could write their review.  As soon as they clicked the star rating for the book, the error message would appear – before they had a chance to write anything.  That means that this issue couldn’t have anything to do with the content of the review.

However, as a more general comment about this rumor – it seems very unlikely that Amazon has or will target the disclosure of getting a free book and voluntarily reviewing it as part of any of their sweeps. For one thing, their sweeps are all based on algorithmic rules, and searching for a specific phrase is something an algorithm is perfectly suited for – especially one that is written in a very specific way across most ARC reviews.  If Amazon wanted to target variations of that phrase, the reviews containing it would all be wiped out at once. But most of our readers write a similar phrase on their review, and their reviews are all still intact.

More importantly, although Amazon themselves don’t require this disclosure, the reason Hidden Gems still suggest including it to our readers is because it’s actually an FTC rule.  And in the US at least, FTC rules trump Amazon rules.

Amazon’s Response

As mentioned, we directed affected authors to contact Amazon about why this error message was being applied to their book. The number of different answers we heard was almost equal to the number of authors that got a response.  Everything from this is our new or existing policy, to it’s a glitch that we’re working to fix. In some cases, the answers didn’t even make sense when applied to the question being asked.

The only thing that was clear was that Amazon front-line support had no clue what was going on, which is fairly typical in situations like this. However, what was more frightening was how uniformed they were about their own policies in general.

Here are some examples of those responses and the problems with them.

Example 1:

…we couldn’t accept a review for [BOOK NAME REDACTED] because we detected unusual review behavior on this product. We place limits on reviews to preserve trust in customer reviews. This can include limiting submission of all reviews or limiting reviews to Amazon Verified Purchase reviews.
For more details, please see our Community Guidelines

Unhelpful. The community guidelines page is the one that mentions that authors can provide free copies as long as reviews are voluntary.  However, there is also one catchall line that this (and other) support techs were likely referring to – the wonderfully generic:

“We may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behavior, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience.”

Sound familiar? That line is basically a shorter version of the new review blocking error message. The problem is, that line has been in the rules for years, has never been applied this way before, and was now being applied to ALL books in the same way for the same reasons, which is actually the opposite of the word “unusual”.

Example 2:

We recently made changes that limit the extent to which reviews from customers who don’t qualify for an Amazon Verified Purchase contribute to the Customer Reviews experience on Amazon. This change applies to books as well as other products and was made in order to protect the integrity of the Customer Reviews system.

Like our Facebook friend, this support rep gives no link or indication of where this recently changed policy might exist.  More likely, this rep was just guessing, and the fact that everything went back to normal a day or two after this response was sent is evidence of that.

Example 3:

We do not permit Customer Reviews or votes on the helpfulness of Customer Reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including free or discounted products.

Receiving payment or any other incentive for a Customer Review is considered compensation. Payment includes receiving money or a gift certificate to purchase the product. Incentives include any type of reward that is given in return for a Customer Review such as free or discounted products, bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, and other gifts.

To learn more about this policy, please see the following Help pages:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201929730

What’s most distressing about this response is that the link provided as evidence is the same community guidelines page that states that books are the exception to the very rule mentioned.  If only this rep had read just a little further down.

Example 4:

This one is from a chat with Amazon support, and is the absolute best (meaning worst).

Author: …do you know how long before non verified purchasers will be able to leave reviews??

“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.”

Amazon: No we do not follow such trend so that the review are true from the original purchasers.[sic]

Author: That was copied and pasted directly from Amazon

Conclusion

Glitches are bound to happen, but when you’re a company the size of Amazon there should be a responsibility to keep your community informed about them.  Whether that’s through an official statement, or simply making sure that your front-line support reps are properly informed and can speak intelligently about the current issues.

Authors affected the most by issues like this are often small time self-publishers who have built their livelihoods around Amazon’s platform, and whose work help keep that platform filled with new and creative content that bring customers to the site to spend their money.

It’s time they were treated with more respect.

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