Amazon Says Its Customer Review Guidelines Haven’t Changed, But It Is Cracking Down On ‘Promotional Content’

Good news, everyone! We can totally start trusting Amazon reviews again.

The company has been conducting a “sweeping but hazy purge” of customer reviews, according to a recent story in The New York Times. And while Amazon is only barely commenting on the issue, a new FAQ page sheds a little more light on how the company’s position has changed. The page is undated, but an Amazon spokesperson confirmed that it was published recently, and it seems to deal with the same issues raised in the Times story.

The Times, drawing on comments and complaints from a number of authors, suggests that Amazon has been deleting “thousands of reviews” in recent months. Here’s how it describes the changes:

Giving raves to family members is no longer acceptable. Neither is writers’ reviewing other writers. But showering five stars on a book you admittedly have not read is fine.

And indeed, although Amazon’s FAQ states that “our guidelines have not changed,” it also acknowledges, “We recently improved our detection of promotional reviews which resulted in the removal of reviews, both new and old.” As for what specifically it’s cracking down on, the company says it’s trying to strike a balance: “Our goal is to capture all the energy and enthusiasm (both favorable and critical) that customers have about a product while avoiding use of reviews to outright advertise, promote and especially mislead.”

Authors complain that Amazon seems to be applying inconsistent standards, and it’s true that even the FAQ doesn’t offer much beyond what I’ve already quoted — it certainly doesn’t forbid friends and family members from writing reviews. It does provide a few examples of inappropriate reviews including, yes, a family member who “posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales.” (So … is it okay for a family member to post a five-star review if they don’t intend to boost sales?) On the question of writers reviewing other writers, Amazon says it welcomes the “unique perspective” that those writers can bring, but it does forbid posting “negative reviews on a competitor’s product” and “a positive review on a peer’s album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them.”

Add it all up and what do you get? It seems like a pretty complicated and opaque system, though looking over the examples, I guess we can generalize and say they involve situations where there are external factors influencing the review, not just the quality of the book or product.

Despite all those restrictions, an Amazon spokesperson told The Times, “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.” You might argue that Amazon doesn’t want to get into the business of policing who has and hasn’t read what, but I’d say the company is already sorting through a tangle of incredibly fine distinctions, so why focus on, say, direct relationships and not, you know, whether you’ve actually read the damn book? If you’re really trying to build a reliable system, that’s … a bit of a loophole.

Yet, even though some of the decisions leave me scratching my head, I can’t imagine Amazon would be like without customer reviews, nor can I deny that a completely un-policed system would be pretty worthless. Plus, as I’ve gotten to know people in the publishing industry, I’ve realized that the professional system of book blurbs and reviews is itself full of nepotism and carelessness, too — and by all accounts, it’s been that way for a while.

Put another way: I think a perfectly objective and reliable customer review system is impossible. But I appreciate that Amazon keeps pushing up that hill.