Business of Writing

Shills, Sockpuppets, and Online Reviews

First, some definitions:


A shill is "a person who publicly helps a person or organization without disclosing that he has a close relationship with that person or organization. 'Shill' typically refers to someone who purposely gives onlookers the impression that he is an enthusiastic independent customer of a seller (or marketer of ideas) for whom he is secretly working."


A sockpuppet is "an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term—a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock—originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who spoke to, or about himself while pretending to be another person."

In the writing world, a shill might be an author's friend, relative, or someone who stands to gain financially by rewarding a favorable review to their client. A sockpuppet is often the author himself. Both share a common goal: deception.

In the world of online reviews, shills and sockpuppets abound. Here is a story about a manager working for DeLonghi coffee makers who posted 12 5 star reviews of his company's products on Amazon. On eBay, shilling is a large enough problem the company has a clear policy against artificially bidding up an item. Amazon, of course, has their own policies governing reviews and the shills and sockpuppets who write them. The author Lee Goldberg calls shills and the authors who employ them 'unethical scumbags'. People on the Amazon forums have their own opinions as do people on KindleBoards.

Needless to say, it's a hot topic and one that has largely devalued whatever value online reviews once had. According to the New York Times, Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, discovered that "60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars". It's no wonder many people are beginning to ignore 5 star reviews altogether and further reinforces my decision to just ignore reviews left for my own books period.

All of which kind of leaves those of us who rely on online reviews in a bind. And I'm not talking about as an author but as someone who often reads reviews myself before purchasing a book, an electronic device, or some new tool. Online reviews have been invaluable and, now that I think about it, I don't feel I've ever been led astray. One of my saving graces: I always go straight to the 2 and 3 star reviews to see what issues or problems people have had with the product. 4-5 star reviews are nice and 1 star reviews are sometimes helpful but most often not, but what I really tend to look at more than anything else is the spread. I suppose when you get right down to it reviews are a lot like baseball: they're all about the averages.

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