Ghost Reviewers (or How to Artificially Drive Up Your Book’s Rankings)

by Mike Duran · 48 comments

You’ve heard of ghostwriters. From Wikipedia:

“A ghostwriter is a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person.”

But have you heard of ghost reviewers? From Mikipedia:

“A ghost reviewer is someone — often a member of the author’s own family or circle of friends –who is recruited to write positive reviews, often multiple positive reviews, of the author’s book; these reviews are often credited to a fictitious person.”

Call me naive, but I am just now realizing that such a category of person exists. Spawned by the world of democratized, user-generated content, ghost reviewers can artificially inflate the rankings of just about anything. Films. Books. Albums. Restaurants. Food chains. All you need is a couple computers, email addies, fictitious names, and enough people who are willing to LIKE you, and your book can become a Top Customer Rated Novel.

A writer friend recently told me about a published novelist who employs such tactics, recruiting friends, relatives, and co-workers to render brief five-star reviews to influence the arc of her sales. My friend said that if I went to Amazon and clicked on some of those book’s five star reviews, I’d find that some of the ratings are bloated by reviewers… who’ve only reviewed ONE book. THAT book.

These are ghost reviewers. Short, effusive, unbridled praise, and NO WAY TO TRACE IT BACK TO A REAL PERSON.

So I did my own experiment. I have followed a particular author on a social networking site who writes in a similar genre as mine, has published several books, and regularly touts their high customer ratings. This has puzzled me because their books are published by a small press and their sales and fanbase seem relatively modest. However, this has not prevented the author from getting nearly 50 five-star reviews.

Hmm.

So I did a little investigating and clicked through most of those five-star reviews. Nearly half of the reviewers have reviewed only ONE book. THAT book.

And THERE’S NO WAY TO TRACE THOSE REVIEWS BACK TO A REAL PERSON. No email. No picture. No website. No review history.

Ghost reviewers.

Heck, for all I know, the author was creating his own fictitious review corps to render himself a massive self high-five.

In The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen describes two new breeds of bloggers: Sploggers and Floggers.

Splogs“…a combination of spam and blogs. Generated from software that allows users o create thousands of blogs per hour, splogs are fake blogs designed to mirror the real blogs in a sneaky ploy to trick advertisers and search engines and drive traffic and thus pay-per-click revenue.”

 Flogs / Floggers“Floggers are bloggers who claim to be independent but are actually in the pay of a sponsor.”

Needless to say, questionable, unethical practices are inevitable. Like those “paid to read” rings, often with thousands of members around the globe, who are “paid to sit at their computers and click over and over on a link” just to inflate the site’s traffic.

Question: How are ghost reviewers any different? They are little more than Floggers. Sure, they’re probably not getting paid to review a book, unless you count getting a free copy being paid. They may have very innocent motives in wanting to help a friend or loved one kick-start their career. But at what point are ghost reviews just flat-out deception?

I dunno. Seems like just one more reason to mistrust amateur reviews.

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 7:08 AM

Just now? Okay.

For the record, these are also called “Sock Puppets” and are universally reviled. One current author obtained her book contract in large part to the army of sock puppets she had reviewing her fan fiction years ago.

As far as using this as a reason to scorn amateur reviewers wholesale I think that’s unfortunately naive and potentially harmful. There are thousands of legitimate amateur reviewers–I are one, for instance–who provide sound feedback that authors would do well to note.

There are ways to tell a sockpuppet review from a legitimate one:

1. Too profuse in praise or scorn
2. One paragraph of writing or less
3. No real name (instead using something like “GreatReader1010” that implies the person has a lot of experience reading and / or reviewing).
4. Similar in tone and style to other reviews.

Sockpuppets are big in the app development world right now. They had lessened their stranglehold on book reviews for awhile there but now that selfpubs are back they are coming back in a big way.

Personally I never trust a book with fewer than 10 reviews and seldom take heed of 5-star reviews unless I can tell the reviewer is of an analytical bent (by the context of their comments.)

Some genres suffer more from sockpuppetry than others. Fantasy and romance are especially hard-hit.

Nikole Hahn January 24, 2012 at 8:47 AM

I never trust a book that has only glowing reviews. A mix is more the reality. Not everyone is going to like what you write.

Mike Duran January 24, 2012 at 9:09 AM

Katherine, I knew the practice existed, I just didn’t realize it was this prolific, especially winked at or even sought after. You’re right about not “scorn[ing] amateur reviewers wholesale.” I probably should have rephrased that. There are plenty of unpaid reviewers I trust. I guess open source product reviews is seeming more and more untrustworthy.

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 7:13 AM

**Ooops. I need to correct something. I think I may have it backwards about the writer and the sockpuppets. Still trying to sort through all the old posts on the matter.

Richard Mabry January 24, 2012 at 7:19 AM

Mike, I’d noticed this practice, too. Actually, I intended to blog about it, but got distracted, so I’m glad you brought it up. Let me know when you think of a solution to the problem, since I remain both frustrated and unable to figure out how to stop it.
Thanks for sharing.

Patrick Todoroff January 24, 2012 at 7:48 AM

Sock puppets are as common as shills on eBay. It’s one of the unfortunate results of internet sales/marketing. That authors do it is disappointing but no surprise.

Personally, my first half-dozen Amazon reviewers were friends who’d read the book. You have to start somewhere. I didn’t pay them or prompt them on what to say however. I also kept my immediate family out of it.

It’s a fine line I guess, but only different in degree when compared to a publishing house with a stable of reviewers/review sites and fellow authors that provide blurbs and endorsements. It starts the ball rolling.

Hopefully there’s enough substance and gravity to keep moving.

Mike Duran January 24, 2012 at 9:18 AM

Patrick, it’s understandable that an author’s friends and family members would chime in with praise. I get that. The line that’s crossed, in my opinion, is when the same family member assumes multiple aliases to conflate the product.

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 11:54 AM

I _always_ comment upon my friendship/relationship with the author if I have one. Not in a braggy way, but in a “full disclosure” way. I figure it’s only fair to be honest and it more often than not helps the book.

Patrick Todoroff January 24, 2012 at 4:08 PM

Yeah, alias accounts and paying for positive reviews crosses a line with me too. Positively Lame-tastic.

Good thing is you can spot the shills pretty quickly. One gushing review I read had the main character’s name wrong. Talk about a clue.

Lyn Perry January 24, 2012 at 7:21 PM

Yep, I look for reviewers that disclose a bit up front (got this book free, am a relative, author asked me to read, etc.). This goes a long way with me when I skim reviews.

Nikole Hahn January 24, 2012 at 8:45 AM

I joined a book review company thinking another outlet to read more books. All I found were what you described…for the most part, excellent reviews, and the same online. When I two-starred a book, they deleted the book, saying they only post three star reviews and prefer the two star reviews to remain unposted. When I posted a three-star on another, they asked me to rethink my remark that the formatting and the errors made it difficult to read. I have since removed myself from the review place because I can’t fluff up someone’s book if it doesn’t warrant it. I’ve given bad reviews and good reviews. The only thing I get out of it is a free book, or sometimes it’s a book I own. But I find that mostly with self-published books…the type of reviewers you speak about.

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 11:56 AM

I had a similar experience with a book review company. The offered free pre-release copies of e-books in exchange for reviews. What they meant to say was “…positive reviews.”

Iola January 24, 2012 at 12:41 PM

I currently get review copies through NetGalley, booksneeze and bookbloggers, and have not had the experience of being asked to reword or only give good reviews. NetGalley doesn’t ask for a star rating, which means they actually have to read the review, not just look at the rating.

So which sites would you people recommend that reviewers don’t join?

Nikole Hahn January 26, 2012 at 8:22 AM

It’s mainly self-pub companies or clubs; those that are die hard Indies who scorn traditionals. I haven’t noticed this with traditional companies or self-pub companies owned by traditional. For the sake of not slandering the club, I will not mention their name, but investigate the reviews on the site and see if there is a healthy variety of good and bad reviews.

Katherine Coble January 26, 2012 at 11:03 AM

I’m sort of leery about saying “Blabityblah is bad” because, well, someone will tell me I’m not being a Good Christian and etc.

In my experience, I’d echo what Nikole says. I’d also say that I’d be wary of any group that requires you to submit previous reviews in order to receive the next review copy.

Nikole Hahn January 28, 2012 at 9:53 PM

There’s nothing wrong with submitting a current review of the book you just got before you can get another review copy, but I’ve never had a place ask to see my past reviews before they let me see a copy. I would be a bit leery on that.

and you have to be careful of slander or libel when we say these things online, too. Sigh.

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) January 24, 2012 at 10:41 AM

Naive me was totally unaware. Wow. The creativity of some people in the quest for money is astounding. I almost wish I had thought of some of those techniques. But that would be immoral. Still….
What I do after I see a lot of five stars is take a peek inside. It only takes a few pages to know whether or not the book would be a five star for me.

TC Avey January 24, 2012 at 2:19 PM

I’m like you, totally clueless about some of these schemes. I just don’t have the mindset to think up something like this.

When I see a book with several 5 star ratings, I will click through till I find some with lower ratings and read what they have to say then decide if I want to purchase it.

Iola January 24, 2012 at 12:37 PM

It gets worse – as well as the sock puppets and shills, there is also pay-per-review. You can get five 5-star reviews from ffiver.com for $5.

If you want to see this practice in action, visit the Kindle Book discussion on Amazon, specifically the Hacker Hunter discussion – at one point, the author had over 350 5-star reviews. Amazon has since removed most of them after an investigation (we think Amazon found the reviews were all posted from the same IP address).

Mike Duran January 24, 2012 at 2:21 PM

Wow! I had no idea. Thanks, Iola.

Rebecca LuElla Miller January 24, 2012 at 1:26 PM

Mike, I think some “contests” have encouraged this. When you see authors saying, Click over to so-and-so and like my whatever because I’m in a contest, it’s really asking for nothing but shills. I ran into this for the Clive Staples Award. We required that voters had to read the books, and surprisingly, despite the clear statement of the rule, when asked the question, some voters said no, they hadn’t read the book they were voting for (or any of the others). How many, then, were dishonest and said they’d read when they hadn’t? Another tell was when they could not vote for a second or third place book. They were there only to “support” the person who told them about the contest, apparently.

My point is, this popularity contest mentality leads to people trying to game the system and make books look more popular than they are.

That might work when giving a star rating, but I don’t find it working when it comes to reviews. As soon as you start reading, it’s usually apparent what kind of a review you have: honest and balanced; family rave; hater rip; star-struck reader. After two or three it’s not to hard to get a sense of the true measure of a book, I don’t think — not based on one review but on the collection.

Becky

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 2:54 PM

Excellent point about the contests. I’ve also run into this in various genres with the blog carnival. A few years ago in the mystery-suspsense book carnival there was a bit of a rigged game where a particular agent or publishing house had a friend running a blog. The friend was (unbeknownst to the readers at large) given prizes sponsored by the author. You could once a week win an amazon gift card or a best-buy gift card. All you had to do was enter by posting a review to amazon and your own blog and linking to that review in the blog’s comments. Negative reviews never won the “randomly” awarded prizes.

Erica January 24, 2012 at 2:05 PM

Everytime I read Publisher Weekly Tweets, I learn that another self published author has made millions of sales and I cringe with hot jealousy. Like, how did they do it- YA sells I guess?

Anyway, I look at people with 50 5-starr eviews and 30 reviews and when I purchase the book, it is drab and I return it. What happened? they paid liars or did the reviews from their own PC?

The concept of the ghost reviewer is a new one to me. Actually I review books I purchase all the time and also review for publishing houses like Bethany, WaterBrook Press, Tyndale and Thomas Nelson Publishers and they are quite honest reviews. Whether the ratings are positive or negative people will still buy the book more than likely.

Reviews from friends and family are fine, but dozens, hundreds, thousands! Too much. I will not lower my standards to do something like that- if a person likes my stories then great. If not- great.

Erica

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 3:04 PM

In answer to your initial question: The self-pubs who have made millions of sales were in the right place at the right time. Keep in mind there are only about a dozen of these people out of the hundreds of thousands of self-pubbed ebooks.

In each case the authors had a body of work written to mimic a currently popular genre fiction. (Amanda Hocking=Twilight; J.R. Rain=Clive Cussler and others; J.A. Konrath=Sue Grafton) They published oft-rejected manuscripts as e-books and spent 40- 60 hours a week promoting those strategically. Books were given away and/or sold at below-market. All books had a semi-professional cover design. (which is very very key.)

It’s not ever luck and it’s not ever easy. I don’t know that any of them bought reviews in the outright sense, but one could say that giving away your book is essentially paying $9.99 for a review. I don’t think that’s unethical; it strikes me as more bartering for marketing expenses.

TC Avey January 24, 2012 at 2:13 PM

Had no clue there were such things as Flogs and Splogs, let alone ghost reviewers. Guess I’m naive. Learn something new everyday!

R. L. Copple January 24, 2012 at 2:43 PM

I took knew these guys were out there, and wondered how much it actually took place. I’ve done several reviews myself, and usually make an attempt to state at least something I didn’t like about the book, some flaw, so that the reader knows I’m not just writing glowing reviews for the purpose of selling books, even if they are a friend. I think the goal of a good reviewer is to give enough info that a person can decide whether it is a book *they* would like to read, no matter how I felt about it.

I’ve only given one bad review to date: http://blog.rlcopple.com/?p=197

And I went on Amazon to check the other reviews on there, and that led me to the authors other books, and I found the strangest review. If you go two reviews down on the following link, it is a highly negative review, noting a lot of what I noticed in my review of the author’s other book. But oddly enough, this review was posted in behalf of the reviewer, and the author gave the review 5 stares when it is from reading it a one or two star review. Talk about crazy. lol

http://www.amazon.com/Curse-Mesphistos-Seed-Book-Awakening/dp/1413728650/

I don’t know if this author has stooped to using ghost reviews (one reviewer there could be such), but this makes no sense. One, why he would willing post such a negative review on his book for the person, and when he does, why he would still give himself 5 stars. 😛

Iola January 24, 2012 at 5:31 PM

Part of Amazon’s Terms of Service is that you don’t review/promote anything that you might have a financial interest in. Like your own book. I’d report the review for abuse except that it is actually a very well-written critical review. Did the author actually read it?

Leaving that aside, this book has three five-star reviews:
– this one (which is three-star at best if you actually read it);
– a two-line review (which looks like a sock puppet); and
– a review from Harriet Klausner, who is famous for posting reviews for an average of around seven, yes SEVEN, books a day. Her record is over 30 reviews in a day. Most of HK’s reviews are five star, most contain little more than the book synopsis, and regular Amazon reviewerse and users have long since learned to ignore her reviews.

This kind of thing has been a major topic on the Amazon discussion boards over the last couple of months (along with “why won’t the spammers go away?” and author meltdowns over negative reviews). What also happens is that the sock-puppets down-vote negative reviews posted by real readers.

These authors (all three categories) quickly end up on ‘never-buy’ lists. They may move up the sales rankings in the short term through these techniques, but they are only going to gain ongoing sales through actually writing something people want to read, and treating their customers nicely. There are too many books out there to waste time on rude or dishonest authors.

R. L. Copple January 24, 2012 at 6:17 PM

The author also did something similar on the book I did review. He posts what is essentially a “From the author” blurb that would be appropriate through the Author Central interface, but instead he posts it as a review, giving himself 5 stars. My guess is he just doesn’t no any better, though one should have enough professionalism not to rate your own story. But then again, he had the gumption to publish stories that only serve to illustrate his inability to tell a story with any coherence. What made me laugh was the reviewer who stated this book was pure brilliance of genius. This is a person that didn’t read the book.

Interesting thing is I recall there being more reviews on these books. My guess is Amazon removed a lot of them for the reasons we’re talking about.

What is crazy is the author posted that critical review, which does make me wonder if he ever read it. But it was a good critical review, pretty much finding little in the book to like. Couldn’t believe the author posted that, much less give himself 5 stars for it. Really highlights the author has no idea what he’s doing.

Mike Duran January 25, 2012 at 7:21 AM

Iola, I Googled “Harriet Klausner.” Wow! She even made Time magazine. I think my naivete is showing.

Jonathan January 24, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Call me naive (I’ve certainly been called worse) but I had never thought about someone doing this. Since reading this post I clicked on a Facebook post which indicated the author was the next great uber-author since Asimov. A slightly glowing praise to say the least. Sure enough, he had only reviewed one book, this one.

Moving forward I will certainly be more cautious about using other’s reviews, and when I start reviewing books will make sure they are all linked to my name so they won’t be similarly discounted.

Lyn Perry January 24, 2012 at 7:35 PM

All the more reason for buyers to browse responsibly. Read the blurb, make sure you know how long the story is, see if the writer has other books published, read a variety of reviews. And in this day and age, find the writer online and contact them. Get to “know” them a bit via blog, twitter, FB, etc and see if they’re a writer you want to read. Find a new indie published writer you like and support them with a book purchase. Easy.

Katherine Coble January 24, 2012 at 7:41 PM

You’ve pretty much read my mind as to how I do it. The only problem is that it now seems like finding reading material is sort of a part-time job.

Patrick Todoroff January 25, 2012 at 6:27 AM

Amen to that. As if I didn’t already have enough to do.

Lyn Perry January 25, 2012 at 6:40 AM

Eh. Takes about as much time or less as browsing at the B&N and coming away with nothing. And as for those “rejected” manuscripts that some indie publishers are posting themselves, can’t be much worse than Snookie or whattheheck that the gatekeepers let through last year. Schlock is schlock – it’s no different whether it comes from a legacy publisher or an indie outlet.

Patrick Todoroff January 25, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Snookie is a train-wreck, isn’t she? God help her.

And God help us for allowing her to become the celebrity she is.

Tim George January 25, 2012 at 6:48 AM
Mike Duran January 25, 2012 at 8:20 AM

Tim, that’s a funny video. I don’t know anything about this author other than that I was once asked to interview him for a certain website because his numbers are so good. I’m assuming you’re inferring those numbers are artificially bloated…?

Tim George January 25, 2012 at 8:21 AM

Don’t really know anything about the guy. Just thought the video fit the discussion.

Patrick Todoroff January 25, 2012 at 1:06 PM

Heh… that is a good trailer. Thanks.

Rachelle Gardner January 25, 2012 at 7:55 AM

It’s sometimes so hard to be slogging along “doing the right thing” – the hard way, the slow way – when so many profit from doing the wrong thing. True in blogging, in book reviewing, and in life.

Jason Joyner January 25, 2012 at 8:30 AM

Great comment Rachelle. How much is our integrity worth? Are we willing to do things straight up and honest, when our competition pays for fake praise?

That’s certainly a challenge. Kudos to those who do it right!

Tim George January 25, 2012 at 2:13 PM

I just decided to turn down an opportunity to attend a publishing company’s invitation to a meeting tomorrow. Our writer’s groups was invited with the carrot of a “free publishing contract” for one among us. It didn’t take much time on their web site to see they encourage everything you are talking about here. High praise for some pretty unseemly tactics to make your book look more in demand than it really is.

Last time I checked contracts from legitimate publishing companies are always “free.” Not easy but certainly free.

Lyn Perry January 25, 2012 at 7:39 PM

Just got an email from a “marketer” –
>>>
Want to discover how one author made her book an Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and New York Times Bestseller? Join my friend, [name], at 2:00 pm on Thursday,
January 26th for a free webinar (or telephone seminar) and discover the ingenious, yet simple “bestseller blueprint” you can use to sell more books in a week than most authors sell all year. I’m a compensated affiliate. You’ll hear from four authors who’ve used it to make their books bestsellers and one who sold $184,256.00 of copies at zero cost! To register go here now:
>>>
– hmm, I wonder what they’ll teach us!

Carradee January 26, 2012 at 5:35 AM

Just a note… Sometimes a writer’s friends will do that without the writer’s request or prompting.

I’ve never begged my friends to review my work, much less for them to give me 5 stars. (If anything, I ask them to be honest in their critique and only give me as many stars as they feel are warranted, telling them that 3 stars means they liked it.)

But some of them, of their own volition, sometimes go ahead and review my work on purpose because they love my writing and want to review it.

And then I have a penname where someone I didn’t know reviewed my work—with a critical interpretation of what the stars mean, thankfully—but who hadn’t left reviews on anyone else’s stories in a few years. (Thankfully, that person has since left a few other reviews on other folks’ work.)

Pat W. Kirk February 6, 2012 at 10:27 AM

No wonder people don’t believe reviews anymore. The world knows that no book gets all fives, with a few exceptions. You need a two or one or three to prove that you haven’t had your mother send them in.

Pat W. Kirk February 6, 2012 at 10:45 AM

I do reviews and did one that I gave a four. Someone on the staff for the book left a comment on my site castigating me for giving such a bad review. I considered going back and changing the rating to a three but the book wasn’t actually that bad and the author wasn’t the one who commented (anyway, that wouldn’t be Christian I guess). It was some naive and unprofessional (sorry, it did irritate me, though I was nice) assistant left it. I went back later to see what the other reviewers had given it and it had 26 five ratings. She had gotten 26 fives and 1 four (me). Something fishy there I think. No book is universally loved.

The Book Gazer January 17, 2013 at 7:35 PM

Thanks so much for this post! I never knew!
I think I’ll do a post on my blog about this, this is really info every reviewer should know.
I’ll remember to link back 😉
Regards- The Book Gazer

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