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The leader of the pack

by admin on July 4, 2011

Amazon is now a major online retailer in several countries and has to a large extent set the standard. One remarkable feature of the Amazon sites is the emphasis given to customer reviews of the products on sale, something it did from the very beginning. Allowing customer reviews regardless of how negative they were was considered a high-risk strategy by many industry watchers, but Amazon persevered with the idea.

At first, Amazon paid some reviewers, in order to get things started. Once that start was achieved, the paid reviewing stopped but meanwhile, other related features were being introduced. Registered Amazon users were invited to flag reviews as helpful or unhelpful, comments on the reviews were invited, and other, social networking, features were added. The latter include a reviewers’ forum, which at times can get very lively.

The comment threads on reviews can become very long, extending to many pages. Books relating to religious or political topics are especially likely to initiate ongoing disputes.

All of this, combined with the continual growth of Amazon as a retailer – now selling a vast range of merchandise, not just books – adds up to a unique and very significant online presence. Amazon is now a marketplace and discussion forum somewhat equivalent to a medieval town square, where people would gather to buy and sell, to gossip and learn the news, to meet old friends and make new ones.

The review system is certainly abused. Authors (and family and friends) will post glowing reviews under assumed names; academics will perform anonymous hatchet jobs on their rivals’ work, and so on. The ‘helpful/unhelpful’ flag on a review is usually used to record agreement or disagreement with the review rather than to truly record how helpful it was.

Although reviewers are not paid (which does not stop many of them spending an extraordinary amount of time on their reviews) there are some reviewers, known as Vine Voices, who are sent merchandise for free, in return for posting a review. Remarkably, this Vine scheme has become well established, despite the fact that Vine reviews are usually as honest – and as often negative – as any others. Sending free goods to reviewers who then trash them must be galling for the suppliers, but they presumably see the cost/benefit risks as being favorable.

Personally, I never buy anything now – from Amazon or elsewhere – without visiting Amazon first to read the reviews. The exception is a novel or a film — anything with a plot. Amazon reviewers (like many other online reviewers) are very prone to spoilers.

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