Whirled Musings

Across the Universe with Cosmic Connie, aka Connie L. Schmidt...or maybe just through the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture -- more specifically, the New-Age/New-Wage crowd, pop spirituality & religion, pop psychology, self(ish)-help, business babble, media silliness, & related (or occasionally unrelated) matters of consequence. Hope you're wearing boots. (By the way, the "Cosmic" bit in my moniker is IRONIC.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Amazon, Shamazon


Warning: This is another one of those "soapbox" posts…well, sort of. I promise I’ll get back to gratuitous potshots and general silliness soon.
Last year Steve Salerno got taken to task for writing so much on his SHAMblog about apparent irregularities in Amazon.com’s reader review process. Some of Steve’s faithful readers told him he was beginning to sound like a man obsessed, and Steve says he’s pretty sure that Amazon wasn’t too happy with him either. Many of his posts centered around a suspicious reviewer writing under the name Marilyn R. Barry and a certain bestselling author who goes by the name Dr. Phil; you can read the saga for yourself.

The larger point, of course, was the lack of integrity in a system that would allow the planting of positive reviews – and the systematic culling of negative ones – for the works of a bestselling author. What was even more disturbing was that so many of us (and I was one of them, for a while) just seemed to accept that as "the way things are." More than one person wrote to Steve and implied that he was naïve for ever thinking that Amazon’s reader review system was, or should be, on the up-and-up. What they were really saying was that expecting total integrity from Amazon reviews is sort of like expecting politicians to be honest.

Supposedly Amazon cleaned up their act a bit and tightened up their reader-review policy (perhaps partly in response to Steve's relentless prodding? Who knows?). But apparently there’s still a problem, and it has reared its head again in the wake of the stupendously successful infomercial and companion book,
The Secret. The problem seems to be related to something we’ve known for some time now: you can poke and prod at the cash cows – of which The Secret is emphatically one of the most productive in recent history – but you can’t do anything that the milkers fear would seriously impede the milk flow.

I’ve had some private correspondence with people who have first-hand information about certain successful self-help authors and the underhanded way they play the Amazon reviews. In fact, just about everyone who has any experience with authors and Amazon probably has a story.* I’ve also received some public posts, such as this one from a new supporter named Paulette who wrote in response to one of
my (fairly) recent blog posts:
Dear Cosmic Connie,
Thank you so much for your incredibly informative Blog on those behind The Secret.
I borrowed the book from a friend after having been completely disgusted by the DVD (which I managed to see on-line before they pulled it) - I found the book is equally disturbing.
I'm usually not one for conspiracy theories but have to mention that I have tried (unsuccessfully) to post a 1 star review of The Secret (book) on Amazon.
First I was informed that I cannot include URL's (yet Janet Boyer did - Her "spotlight" review is the one you've posted here). So I edited my review, removing the URL. It never posted.
A week later, I inquired as to why it had not and was told my review was "too long". I was advised to edit and resubmit which I did and it still did not post.
I would like to add that my review fell well within the guidelines of Amazon. In fact, if you notice Boyer's review is close to 1,000 words (maybe more) and she has a URL included in her review. Yet her glowing review (which is actually in large part for the DVD - she's quite critical of the book but her review is confusing imho) was permitted.
So I tried again. My review is about 500 words, contains no profanity and I list several quotes directly from the book itself. Yet again - it did not post.
So after asking why this was I was now informed that my review is an "opinion" piece and not a "critical" review of the book.
I cannot help but think that if I am having difficulty submitting a 1 star review of the book then so too are many others. I also think that perhaps the editor (Byrne) or the publishers are planting a lot of the positive reviews.
Someone who managed to get his 1 star review of the book posted emailed me saying he knows for a fact that Joe Vitale pays reviewers to write positive reviews of his books and that he wouldn't doubt if something similar isn't happening with The Secret.
However, their are quite a few negative reviews of the dvd on Amazon. I believe both spotlight reviews of the dvd are extremely negative. So I don't know?
I've submitted reviews in the past and while all my 5 star reviews immediately post my only other 1 star review (of the ridiculously pathetic book The Isaiah Effect by Gregg Braden) took a week too and only posted after I emailed Amazon asking them why it wasn't up yet.
If anyone is interested I just posted my review in the "Discussion" section of The Secret under the title 'My Censored Review of The Secret.'
Paulette has also drawn my attention to some of the behind-the-scenes info about Amazon’s "top reviewers," citing an article on Forbes.com about the "secret life" of an online reviewer.
 

I’m not one for conspiracy theories either, but something does still seem a little off-kilter about this whole thing. I popped on over to an Amazon discussion on Secret star Joe Vitale’s book, The Attractor Factor (currently ranked at #767 in Books) and saw evidence of the same patterns that had Paulette and Steve so riled up. A reviewer named Danielle Adams wrote:
I also posted my 2 star review on this book and it lasted a week. When I could not find it, I contacted the customer service with the request to explain this matter to me and provide me with the name of the person who was actually responsible for removing my post. Within a day my review was back on the list but with partially removed content. In that "forbidden" for public eye content I suggested that most of the positive reviews here on Amazon were actually posted by J.V. affiliates who support him. Large network of supporters and cross promoters who plant 5 stars reviews make this book a bestseller.
Anyway, I suggest you do the same. Contact the customer service.
(Added on Apr.20)
Amazon has a policy about review content and there is a thin borderline between "permitted" opinion and "forbidden" one. Basically, if you want your negative review to last, you gotta check against the policy. And again, if it gets removed - do not let it go, ask customer service.
Then there was this, from John Frost:
I too wrote a 2-star review, which was posted, and then removed within a day. I posted another one, and it has now been up close to 24 hours.
I never contacted customer service about the first one, but I suspect it was pulled after someone read it and complained about my suggestion that Vitale was "suckering" customers into paying $1500 and up for his e-mail courses whenever he needed a new car, or a new country estate. It would probably be more accurate to say that the students were suckers, not that Vitale suckered them, since I have no reason to believe JV is dishonest.
I find it hard to believe, though, that an amazon employee just happened to read that post and decide it was inappropriate--they cannot possibly post a vast enough staff to screen every single review, and, indeed, most of my reviews are posted immediately. It seems to me more than a little probably that there is a persistent and organized effort on somebody's part to get negative reviews pulled. A devious way around this, of course, is to write a fairly good review, and just give the book one star. Devious...but no more devious than trying to influence Amazon into keeping the star-rating up.
One reviewer going by the name of NotoriousSEG wrote:
i wrote a one-star review of this sham of a book and suprise! it's gone. this makes me VERY skeptical of amazon's rating system in general.
In response, a reviewer named David Houk wrote:
The Amazon rating system is being gamed by professional marketers-Vitale, Mark Victor Hansen Jack Canfield to name only very few. How do I know -I have been on the receiving end of their marketing campaigns to set up their books for bestsellers & to get 5-star ratings. There is even a course offered on how to do this.
Pay close attention and you will start to notice the same names as testemonials (sic) in/on various books and on Amazon- many of these are authors or marketers who cross promote each other. As marketers they seem to feel anything is fair game to sell more of their products. As noted on another post- now while setting up their marketing campaigns they are advising to give a mixed but positive review so as not to appear so obvious!
I should note that although this discussion was begun nearly a year ago, the last two remarks were posted in February and March of this year.

This isn’t a new issue, of course, and I suspect it’s not going to be resolved overnight. But maybe if enough folks wake up to it Amazon will clean up their policies even more. (Oh, please don't send me missives about flying pigs and frozen devils; let me cling to the precious little bit of idealism I possess.) When shopping for a book, CD or DVD, I still peruse Amazon's reader reviews myself, but now I read them with an eye for possible agendas. And I think that’s something we all should do.

Recognizing that this blog post is based largely on speculation (though there's a large body of public opinion in support of that speculation), I welcome dissenting opinions or corrections from Amazon or from any of the bestselling authors whom others have suspected of "gaming" the Amazon reviews.

One more point before I close: I do not condone the slurs about the physical appearance of the Secret star mentioned in some of the Amazon discussions. In my opinion these comments detract from the debate. Actions and teachings, products and books, are fair game, but I draw the line at making fun of people’s weight or other appearance issues, particularly when they have seriously tried to do something about their problem (and in this case, have succeeded). Yes, I do occasionally make fun of hair and clothes and general weirdness, but these are things people can usually control much more easily than weight.


* And many of us have written positive reviews for friends' books on occasion. That's a fairly common practice. But that's not where my complaint lies. Doing an occasional or one-time favor for a friend is not the same as systematically "planting" good reviews, censoring bad ones, and doing other underhanded things to increase the average rating of a book or other product. Conversely, planting bad reviews for the product of a competitor (or someone you just don't like) is just as bad; I've seen evidence of this as well.

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Lana said...

Thank goodness for blogs and message boards!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Amen, Lana!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Connie, for yet another important contribution to the right and reasonable, via this latest glimpse of Amazon's behind-the-scenes workings (or non-workings). Look--any ranking system that takes input from all comers is subject to manipulation and abuse. We know this. One finds much the same phenomenon (i.e. the prevalence of obviously "staged" reviews and even coordinated review-writing campaigns) in perusing everything from travel sites to online tire retailers.In fact, if you think about it, American Idol is no different. There are many millions of dollars at stake, yet we read more and more about orchestrated campaigns, like "votetheworst," designed to distort/pervert the results. We also know that many Idol fans will keep voting for their beloved choice till their phone goes dead. (Clearly some combination of these phenomena is what's keeping Sanjaya afloat.) My complaint here, from the first, was that I suspected Amazon of complicity...which is a whole different ball game. For Amazon to conspire with authors and/or their flacks to prop up the rankings for a given book (or kill the chances of another book) is like American Idol rigging the results of the voting. The public wouldn't stand for that, if word got out--indeed, there are a number of governmental agencies that would quickly be on FOX's case--and the public shouldn't stand for the kinds of telltale irregularities we see on Amazon, either.

I will admit that, just once, I fired off a VERY angry email to Amazon in order to have them purge my own book's (SHAM) listing of a review I deemed gratuitous, ad hominem, and quite possibly libelous. (And actually, the fact that they let it through to begin with may be quite telling, in my case. Usually they're good at weeding out obviously actionable content, if only to cover their own collective arse.) Other than that--and as much as I may bemoan Amazon's choice of two terrible reviews for my spotlight reviews--I've let the chips fall where they may. Which is as it should be. Basically, IMHO, Amazon should establish tighter policies to ensure the authenticity of reviews and then, except in cases of actual libel, just butt out. Yes, this will enable the Joe Vitales to keep flooding the site with reviews by people who just luvvvvv their books. But it will also allow sincere readers like the ones you quote in your post, Connie, to get their 2 cents in. It's the only way to go.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 1:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog post! You can learn the techniques to stack the review deck at just about any info-product marketing seminar. Those people do have a clique and it is quite sad that they'll resort to such means to sling their shlock.

Oh, well ... I wonder why they just don't use the law of attraction and manifest everything ...

Have fun ... Tony.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 1:19:00 PM  
Blogger Paulette said...

Thanks again Connie for your fantastic blog. I appreciate all the time & effort you put into it.

I’ve also received emails from other Amazon customers who say their critical review of a book vanished. Others (including my bf) claim they’ve watched whole groups of 1&2 star reviews disappear moments or a few hours after reading them. In my bf’s case, he saw this happen last weekend. He was tracking negative reviews of ‘The Secret’ book by name & how many stars & later that day most of them had been deleted.

I apologize for my making fun of Vitale. However, I do think it is a sensible logical easy way to demonstrate the falsity of their claims. Plus Vitale WOULD make a perfect genie for their next infomercial. :)

I’ve done this in on-line metaphysical groups whenever they are gushing about Chopra & his “age is a lie” crap. I will post various photos of Deepak from over the years to prove that the guru himself has mysteriously aged.

I pointed out a specific hypocrisy in Canfield's testimonial claim as well. He brags about being invited to the White House & that he & his wife accomplished this wondrous feat by applying “ The Secret”. Well I did some research & Canfield’s multimillionaire mentor, W.Clement Stone was a staunch supporter of Nixon & King Bush I. I think if people connect the dots they will find that this was an extremely easy goal for the Canfield’s to *manifest*; as long as there’s a Republican in the oval office – they have an open invitation. Plus, the Canfield’s probably donate a lot of money to Bush. I’m not sure how to research this but I feel certain it’s true.

And then there’s the fact that GW & his cronies live their lives just as The Secret teaches, I cannot help but wonder if any of the Secretrons are “secret” advisors to the WH? God I am seeing conspiracy theories everywhere! :)

I don’t know if you’ve ever met Joe Vitale’s good friend, Wendi Friesen? Here’s a photo of her from 2005: http://www.patobryan.com/wendi1%20002.jpg. She’s a hypnotist & frequent commentator on Vitale’s bog & I think she has her own internet radio program. Anyway, as a hypnotist she claims that through sessions with her (or her hypnosis CD”s) she can hypnotize you to lose weight. Yet she herself is well a bit on the plump side.

I’m not saying this to be cruel but if people like Friesen & Vitale (& to some extent Chopra although I do think – I could be completely wrong- but I think he has way more integrity than the other individuals mentioned – which would actually mean he is a person of integrity whereas these others are not) want to sell a product which makes numerous outlandish claims, one being body perfection, then I do feel it’s fair game to point out these observations.

Wendi’s other hypnosis claims are that she can increase breast & penis size! In case anyone is interested you can find this hypnosis honey at www.wendi.com or of course on Shamazon. :) Oh & here's an article she wrote, 'Children Can See the Future': http://www.hypnos.co.uk/hypnomag/friesen.htm

Thanks again & I hope your mother is doing well!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 3:09:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Good points, Steve, and American Idol is certainly an excellent example of a corruptible system. (Just ask any Clay Aiken fan who suffered through the ecstasy and agony of Idol's second season.)

And I agree with you that apart from weeding out actionable content, Amazon should butt out. Which means they should stop aiding and abetting the authors who are trying to work the reviews. At least, though, Amazon is offering the discussion forums, which is a huge step in the right direction. The more the "gamers" are exposed, the better off we'll all be.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 5:10:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Cosmic Connie said...
Paulette, thank you for writing. I would have emailed you directly to let you know why I didn't post your last message, but I couldn't find an email address for you.

Within the context of your latest comment here, I understand your purpose for mentioning appearance. And it seems particularly appropriate with Chopra, whose "Give me your gold and never grow old" shtick has irritated me for many years. Yes, he has aged over the years, at least on the outside. He may be a spring chicken on the inside but he looks like a middle-aged man on the surface.

(By the way, Chopra is going to be on Larry King Live tonight to talk about "Reversal of Aging." It's on CNN 9PM, Midnight and 3AM EST. I don't know if you get Larry King in Italy, but if not you can probably catch it on the CNN web site or YouTube after the fact.)

I know Joe Vitale but have never met his friend Wendi, though I've read her comments and have seen some of her info on the web.

It really all comes back to the skeptics' mantra: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." And at the very least, a the person who is selling a weight-loss or anti-aging product or system (for example) should be a walking, talking example of the efficacy of that product or system.

And, ah, yes, Canfield and the Republican connection... that's not the Law of Attraction at work. It's the Law of Cronyism. And THAT law ALWAYS works.

Thanks for your good thoughts about my mom. She's doing better...sort of...but that's a whole other issue, and probably a whole other blog.

Anyway, I hope you'll keep participating, both here and on the Amazon forums.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 5:32:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Hey, Tony, it's good to see you here again! I didn't mean to answer the posts out of order. Despite my cynicism I guess I was a little naive about the fact that "review-stacking" is just considered another legitimate, and teachable, marketing technique. But I am learning fast. I guess that good old LOA isn't so effective after all. Or maybe it's simply a matter of, "Trust in LOA, but tie up your camel."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 5:39:00 PM  
Blogger Citizen Deux said...

Dead on the money! What is frustrating is the "presumption" of a fair system on the net. We are all familiar with "click farmers", Chinese spammers and the whole repetoire of folks trying to beat the system. And yet the perceived purity of Amazon persists. Why should we beleive that any organization (including the press) would not act in their own self interest?

I am sure somewhere in the EULA is a claim that Amazon reserves the right to do whatever the f*** they want. I have long advocated a internet bias / honesty rating system to be administered as a seal of fairness for sites (who choose to be reviewed).

To quote one of my favorite Rush songs - "but apart from a few good friends, we don't take anything on faith.".

Sad?

Maybe.

True?

You betcha!

Thursday, March 29, 2007 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks for weighing in, CD. I have to admit I wasn't quite as cognizant of the corruption as others are, but as I said to Tony, I'm learning fast. I think I've left my presumptions of fairness behind, anyway, so that's a good start! :-)

Thursday, March 29, 2007 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Calista McKnight said...

Looks like most (if not all) of Paulette's comments have been summarily deleted by Amazon.com.

That's too bad, because most of the comments were so true.

I also notice a small but significant new pro-Secret wind blowing through the forums (take a good look at some of the nicknames).

Call me crazy....but that wind smells a bit fishy to me.

Monday, April 09, 2007 2:22:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Calista, you're not crazy. But at least the comments that Paulette made on *this* forum are safe.

At this point, the only way I would give Amazon the benefit of the doubt when comments get "disappeared" is to consider that, in keeping with their newer and more restrictive policy, they may have chosen to delete so-called "reader reviews" written by someone whom they have determined was never an Amazon customer. My understanding about this policy is that a person doesn't necessarily have to have purchased the book s/he is reviewing from Amazon, BUT s/he has to have purchased *something* from Amazon at some point.

(In that case, I more than qualify to be a reader/reviewer, 'cos I've spent hundreds of dollars at Amazon over the past few years.)

This policy isn't necessarily a fair one, of course, because it's very possible that someone who's never shopped on Amazon may have actually read the book in question and they wanted to put in their two-cents' worth. But Amazon has a right to set their own policies, and as long as they enforce them fairly and equally I'm okay with it.

OTOH, since they presumably screen all reviews before they publish them, it would seem that they could determine a person's customer status before publication of that person's comment. This lend credence to the "something fishy is going on" theory.

Besides, my understanding is that Amazon does not have this same restrictive policy for people joining in one of the related discussion forums. And if I recall, Paulette's comments were on the forums; they weren't reader reviews. Granted, Paulette was very opinionated, but as you said, there seemed to be a lot of truth in what she was saying.

I realize, of course, that there are other reasons Amazon may delete comments, whether they're reader reviews or forum comments. If the person has written something that would make Amazon legally liable, Amazon has a right and responsibility to delete it. I'm no attorney so I am not qualified to say what is or isn't a potential legal problem for Amazon. But I do think it is interesting that so many of the "anti-Secret" comments and reviews are getting deleted. And I wouldn't be surprised if some of the more influential Secretron leaders had something to do with this.

BTW, an anonymous respondent had another Amazon-related comment attached to my April 5 post ("Choose your imaginary friends wisely!") (http://cosmicconnie.blogspot.com/2007/04/choose-your-imaginary-friends-wisely.html)

This person had some info about yet another Amazon "master gamer." It's interesting stuff.

So... Paulette, if you're still with us, what's your take on all of this?

Monday, April 09, 2007 2:57:00 PM  
Blogger Calista McKnight said...

There are quite a few opinionated anti-Secret comments in those forums. If I remember correctly, there's even one calling Bob Proctor's SGR program a scam.

Of course this is only a guess, but I feel Paulette was singled out because she was challenging quite a few people, and very 'energetically' I might add.

Some of those people may very well be Amazon trolls and also 'influential Secretron' leaders as you suggest. I'd love to hear what Paulette has to say.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that over the weekend, there were four different hits on my blog from people typing in Paulette's name in Google. There were several nasty and infantile comments posted (all anonymous of course), only one of which I published. One person even accused me of being Paulette.

Monday, April 09, 2007 4:11:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

You may be right about the reasons Paulette was singled out. She did seem to be very "energetic" in her challenges to people. She also seemed to have some interesting insider info about some of the LOA folks.

I hear you about the infantile comments... I get 'em too. And I still think it's very "interesting" that Google suspended your blogging privileges for a couple of days. It's one of those things that makes you go "hmmmm..."

Monday, April 09, 2007 4:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before you buy into the conspiracy theory behind pulling a certain contributor's Amazon reviews, I suggest you check out the number of comments posted by this person that were offensive. I don't mean offensive because they were "anti-Secret," but simply insulting.

Like the Secret or don't like it -- it's just a book. However, insulting total strangers who posted upbeat comments is outrageous. There seems to be something going on with this lady's twisted fury that far exceeds a review.

You are probably aware that people sometimes use real names. Amazon.com could be exposing themselves to a mega-law suit by allowing insulting posts that are critical of customers, not merchandise.

Give that serious consideration.

Monday, April 09, 2007 9:52:00 PM  
Blogger Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you, Anon. I *am* considering the points you made, especially in light of private messages I've received indicating that Paulette had been banned from the forums for being abusive. Obviously I have not been privy to all of her missives. The messages I *had* seen from her were strongly opinionated but not abusive, and of course I can only base my own opinion on what I have seen.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier comments on this thread, I realize Amazon has to do whatever necessary to avoid legal problems. Sometimes this means deleting libelous or otherwise abusive posts. However, I have also seen some posts from "pro-Secret" folks that also bordered on abusiveness.

I am certainly willing to hear from all sides in this matter, and would like to hear from Paulette too if she wants to offer her side of the story. And no, I am not buying into any "conspiracy theory" where Amazon is concerned(not yet, anyway). :-) But I think there's more to this story than we've heard so far.

Anyway, I do appreciate your perspective, Anon, and I thank you for writing.

Monday, April 09, 2007 10:47:00 PM  

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