The 26 August edition of the New York Times carries a long story about Todd Rutherford, an Oklahoma entrepreneur who in 2010 started a company that solicited authors to buy online reviews of their work. Rutherford paid freelancers to write the reviews, and for a little while, was making $28,000 per month. The piece quotes him saying, “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.” Yeah, well, once upon a time there was a difference.
They have a term for when you buy space to trumpet your products and services: Advertising. A review in a publication or a broadcast is editorial content — by definition, it cannot be paid for. That division ensures that the reader/viewer is getting a third party view of the material, not one colored by someone with a vested interest in it. If you made the rash conclusion that “user” reviews on Amazon are written by real users, I guess pity the fool. I often thought the reviews were too fawning and too “professional” to be done by real people, but I figured, “hey, if someone styles themselves a critic and wants to write 500 words on this book, movie, whatever, go for it.” It never occurred to me that someone was out there paying for reviews. Jeepers, no wonder so many Amazon books get five stars.
The Times spends 70 paragraphs exploring this issue. We hear from eBook authors who paid for reviews, freelance writers who wrote them (nearly always without reading the publication in question) and Rutherford himself now “regrets his venture into what he called, ‘artificially embellished reviews.'”
As much as I am a committed free marketeer, I still have quite a lot of heartburn about this. Rutherford says the market will take care of the issue, with true negative reviews overcoming the false positives. I’m not so sure about that. I wrote earlier about bloggers taking either direct payments or junkets in exchange for talking about a product or company. This seems clearly to be in the realm of deception –under the law, the relationship between advertiser (the authors) and the editorial source (the publication) has to be disclosed. Only then is the consumer of the review equipped to judge its veracity and its utility.
Rutherford’s firm was engaged in deliberate deception — the authors got the ratings and reviews that helped with sales (though some of the more successful ones didn’t give credit), Rutherford and the freelancers made money. This doesn’t work for me. It’s fraud.