TechMan: Creator of fake Web reviews in good company

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British crime writer R.J. Ellory created a firestorm among authors and readers when he admitted that he had posted fake reviews for his own books on the Internet.

Although it may be obvious that some Internet reviews are less than honest, the extent of sock puppetry might surprise.

A sock puppet on the Internet is the term for an identity created to deceive -- in this case, to write glowing reviews of a book.

Mr. Ellory is no tyro author trying to get known. He has won a number of awards for his crime tales. They are issued by the mainstream house Orion, and they have sold well.

After being outed for writing fake reviews of his own books on Amazon.com and trashing the books of other authors, at least he was contrite.

"I wholeheartedly regret the lapse of judgment," he said in a statement.

But Mr. Ellery is not alone in sin.

British thriller writer Stephen Leather, although not admitting writing false reviews, during a panel discussion at a book festival admitted to creating accounts on forums under assumed names in order to "create a buzz" about his work.

"I'll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself," Mr. Leather said.

Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.

He did research in 2008 that showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars, the highest rating, and an additional 20 percent are four stars.

How can people be so positive about so much?

One answer is fake reviews. Another is that the reviewer is paid to wax positive.

New York Times writer David Streitfeld reported recently about a now-closed website called GettingBookReviews.com where one book review sold for $99, 20 online reviews for $499 or 50 for $999. At one time the site was bringing in $28,000 a month.

Not only good reviews can be faked.

Carpet-bombing is the practice of leaving negative reviews to undermine the reader's confidence in positive reviews, damage the book's ranking in Amazon and thus that author's sales, Suw Charman-Anderson wrote in an article on Forbes.com.

"If there's a reviewer that only leaves one star reviews, or if they've left nothing but a single negative review, they're a carpet-bomber," Smashwords' Mark Coker told Forbes. Smashwords is a website for e-books for independent authors and publishers.

A letter signed by 49 British authors and sent to The Daily Telegraph condemned the practice of faking reviews. The letter encouraged readers to write honest reviews to "drown out the phoney voices."

Amazon guidelines for reviews state that a customer needs to have made a purchase on the site, but need not purchase the item they are reviewing. The rules also prohibit "the use of the service for commercial purposes such as advertising, promotion, or solicitation" and "the impersonation of any person or entity or forging of any e-mail communication or any part of a message."

But, of course, Amazon is huge and for it to monitor for fake reviews is nigh unto impossible.

Amazon members can help by flagging a suspect review or marking a review as not helpful.

But fake reviews are only part of the problem that anonymity creates.

"This is part of a larger phenomenon -- online reputation management. Reviewing under a false name is obviously unethical, but other practices are less clear. Manipulating Google results has become a big industry," said John Hooker, professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

To echo the famous New Yorker cartoon: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a fraud.

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. Watch or listen to TechTalk at multimedia.post-gazette.com.


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