Why are paid reviews unethical?

When we started our research into paid reviews, we severely underestimated how widespread the problem was.  Paid reviews are on Amazon, Goodreads, Angie’s List, and elsewhere.

Paid reviews are reviews authors and others offering goods or services pay to receive. Payment can be in cash, goods or services. Paid reviews bought with cash are the most common. Less common are reviews bought with an exchange of goods and services. Often with paid reviews there is an unspoken understanding the purchased reviews will be supportive, even if somewhat critical.

Paid reviews differ from legitimate review sources that charge fees in several important ways. With legitimate review sources, such as Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly, someone pays a fee to have a recognized source read and review the good or service and gets one and only one review from that recognized source. The review comes specifically from that source and doesn’t appear to be a  review from a consumer. The review may be good or bad.

With paid review companies, the buyer can purchase as many reviews as they want. If the buyer wants 50 reviews, they can buy 50 reviews. Every review will appear to have been written by a consumer who purchased the product or service. Some companies, such as Fiverr where one of our member bloggers worked undercover for two years, allow people to buy reviews for as little as $5. For an extra fee the company will ensure the reviewers buy the product and are verified.

In our research, we expected to find a few companies offering such services but we found there were dozens. Our marketing expert also found professional marketing companies were ensuring products and services were reviewed as part of their marketing packages. This was where we found that practice of payment in goods and services to be especially prevalent. The most common form of non-cash payment was the gift card where consumers were paid in gift cards for writing reviews.

We found authors giving gift cards to readers for the same purpose. Readers were given gift cards to purchase an author’s book, accompanied by either a direct or implied request to review the book.

In a similar vein, we found many authors offering kindles to readers for reviews and ratings. During our research, we tracked groups of authors who had monthly or weekly kindle giveaways for readers who wrote reviews and rated their books. During the tracked period, some of these authors garnered hundreds of ratings and reviews from this highly unethical practice.

What is a troll?

Trolls were one of many unexpected things we learned about in our research into unethical tactics and fake reviews. In the context of online discussions, a troll isn’t a mythical monster or a child’s creation rather a troll is someone with ill intentions.

Trolls make outrageous claims. Trolls start online fights by saying hurtful things. Trolls attack others with words. Trolls do this to get a reaction. The stronger the reaction, the better, as far as trolls are concerned. Trolls do this because they want to get people angry. Trolls want to cause damage. Trolls want to cause harm.

With regard to books and authors, trolls often are the ones writing spurious commentary and reviews. Trolls do this to take down certain authors while promoting others. Trolls are plentiful at Amazon and Goodreads. They’re also present at Angie’s List.

It might surprise you to learn there are professional trolls. Professional trolls come in a few different varieties. Some work in marketing where their goal is to push a brand, book or author while devaluing another brand, book or author. Our resident marketing expert spent over a year tracking professional trolls before she stumbled upon the worst of the worst in professional trolling: hacker trolls.

Hacker trolls are different from most other trolls. They’re around to cause severe damage, promote extreme agendas, and do absolute harm while gaining recognition for their exploits. The more harm they cause, the higher the likelihood they will be accepted at certain closed sites and chat rooms where hacker trolls exchange stories, build their reps by detailing their exploits, and exchange tactics and ideas.

A clear warning: Stay away from dedicated hacker trolls. These trolls destroy lives and livelihoods for enjoyment.