Does Amazon Censor Reviews?

There are many beauties of the Amazon.com website. It understands things that no other commercial web site does. Try to search for a book or CD on Barnes and Noble or CDNow; the results are slower, less accurate, and less comprehensive. Amazon's intuitive recommendations are wonderful, yet easy to ignore if you are so inclined. The interface is smooth and clean, navigation is simple, despite the many choices on every page. But I especially like its reviews. There they are....thinking about buying something? Just check the reviews, see what people think, make a decision. There are not just positive reviews, but negative, sometimes virulently negative, ones as well. There are many books, CDs, and even a few software items I have not bought, costing Amazon significant money, based upon a review that sounded right in the midst of a pile of glowing, enthusiastic paeans.

But recently I wrote a review for a pair of books, by the multi-appended Stephen Page, ABC, MBA, CLIC, NFL etc etc.

Establishing a System of Policies and Procedures

7 Steps to Better Written Policies and Procedures

These two books concern the writing of procedures. My boss made the buying decision, partially based upon the stream of glowing reviews at Amazon. I eagerly awaited them, as I had been assigned to do precisely what these books purported to clarify.

I spent a day reading them, and found myself in pain and anguish, though fortunately I had a few laughs interspersed. Pain, that someone could get away with publishing such bad books and sell them for so much money, and anguish that there was, I thought, an excellent organizational tool buried in these two dreadful books. Every now and then, though, I was forced to read the gem to my wife, as sentences of such monumental ambiguity or incoherence required someone to share them with. The silver lining.

Since not everything was as rosy as the other reviewers thought, I thought I'd broadcast my opinion to an audience of more than my wife. For Establishing a System of Policies and Procedures, a labored and ridiculous book that purported to teach the reader how to sell the idea of needing documented procedures, I chastised the contorted sentences and wept at the horrible editing. The idea of needing procedures is certainly a valid one, but using this approach to document how things should be done would, in my opinion, alienate the entire group you would be attempting to convince. He claims to have been doing this for many years, and apparently has had some success, but it seemed a mixture of the obvious, the lame, and the silly, with enough grammar sloppiness and search-and-replace trouble to demonstrate why this tool is used judiciously.

7 Steps to Better Written Policies and Procedures was a more interesting case. I liked his document template very much. He broke each document into seven separate required domains (I have since added one more to his seven) and demonstrated how to write each procedure, process, or what IBM calls work instruction to conform to these categories. This was a good template, more useful and precise than others I have seen, and I am currently using it for the many, many pages I am writing. But the prose is bad. There are again many grammatical errors, not esoteric subjunctive verb misuses that would offend the spinster English teacher of the Thirties, but elementary school errors such as the wrong "their". And the overblown, redundant prose creates the feeling of wading through the swamp of a very unclear mind. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug. There are lightening bugs aplenty in this book, swarming on every page in the (mostly) vain hope that one of them will illuminate more than its ass. I certainly realize a business "how-to" is not a novel, but a book that purports to be about writing should demonstrate some care and concern for the writing process itself. The prose is lazy and sloppy, endlessly redundant, tedious, and at times jarring.

So I wrote two reviews and posted them on Amazon. And basically forgot them. Several days later I received an e-mail from someone responding to one of the reviews, so I know they were posted. But a few weeks after that, I was visiting with my brother-in-law and suggested he look at 7 Steps. I promised him I would send the Amazon link. While there, I saw my review was gone. Amazon has a "More About Me" link that compiles all your reviews into one list (I was first made aware of this by Sheldon Rampton, the author of Mad Cow USA: Could The Nightmare Happen Here?: which I had reviewed with a medium-enthusiastic critique, and he responded with very thoughtful answers to my analysis; I am ashamed to say I never replied; interestingly, this review is also no longer there). As I looked through this list, I knew some reviews I had written, including those for both Page books, were gone. I wrote several anonymously, so had no way to be sure whether they were removed or just not showing, as I had chosen not to sign them. But the Page reviews were mine, not anonymous. And they were no longer there.

Thus began the big review flurry. I have written many reviews in the last few months, attempting to see which ones, if any, get removed. I have written slamming reviews, condescending reviews, glowing reviews. The only ones that have disappeared in the last month are the Stephen Page reviews. I re-wrote them, and they were again published, as there was a review that criticized mine.

But they disappeared yet again. So did the one that criticized me. I rewrote them a third time, starting one with the heading "We'll see" and an introductory paragraph about how I had tried twice and they had disappeared twice. It was printed without the introductory paragraph, but disappeared completely a few days later. (These are the ones I captured images of, so the "we'll see" means nothing in the context of the printed review.) They then reappeared in my private reviews, which is how Amazon designates reviews you do not sign, though I did not so request, and then they disappeared yet again. For good, as far as I can tell.

So, what is the Amazon policy? Reviews do not scroll off by age. For Mad Cow, I wrote my review in December 2000. There are six reviews on the page, five of them older than mine. But there are no reviews with fewer than five stars. Mine offered three. Did the authors have a lesser, though still positive review, removed? Or did Amazon remove it? Either way, there is no good option. I usually assume reviewers have an ax to grind, or are self-important blowhards who like to see their names in print. But the process offered, I thought, a useful tool, since it has the appearance of being comprehensive and open. If it is not, then Amazon has a duty to specify this. Their only discussion of this on their policy page is that "Other reviews and their position on the page are subject to change without notice". Maybe I was foolish and naive to assume they would permit the fair discussion of their products where they are trying to sell them, but I did actually think so. Stockholders demand profits; if the illusion of objectivity is required then so be it. But what a disappointment.

Their rules are very explicit; they (wisely) prohibit a very small number of things:

All My Amazon Reviews

None of my other reviews written in the last two months have disappeared, though I do violate policy a bit by being spiteful in Carmina Burana, mentioning another review in Byrd's Great Service, and suggesting Gladys' Leap and Partition Magic may not be worth the cost. My review of The Passion of Darkly Noon is hostile, but not inappropriate, and it is still there. My reviews of Stephen Page's books met their standards. But they cropped them, removed them, returned them, then ultimately deleted them. Why? Why does a company as huge as Amazon have time to fool with reviews for such a pair of little books? How much time was spent editing, removing and moving these reviews? How does an author acquire the clout to get a review deleted?

See my reviews of Stephen Page's books here

A friend who has had a similar experience was told by an Amazonian that if the publisher or author objects, a review will be pulled. I feel like the constable in the Monty Pytohn Crunchy Frog routine. Amazon should scream that in big letters on the top of every page "Warning! Not all reviews written are here because someone might not have liked what they said!"