Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Writers -- Your IP Address Can and Will Be Used Against You

When the Amazon customer review scandals first broke a couple months ago, some of the big bloggers speculated on what would happen. Would Amazon ignore the problem? Would they overreact?

Some felt a few authors paying for five-star reviews didn't really have that much impact. Others predicted armageddon.

What actually happened wasn't clear for a while. Authors noticed reviews disappearing. Some were new. Some were years old. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to them at first. The reviews did not violate any terms of service--they didn't include links or use bad language, nor were they by people who had a financial stake in the book.

A few irate authors went public with their losses. But gradually, something became clear: Amazon was not checking these reviews. They were being automatically removed by some criteria. As more and more came down, the light popped on. Amazon was looking at the IP addresses of authors when they logged into their publishing accounts and comparing it to reviews.

While this was an effective way to find duplicate accounts where authors might be writing reviews of their own or competitive works, it also had huge casualties. One author had a two-year-old review taken down--the only one of her novel--and it turned out the reviewer had once lived in the same apartment complex that offered wireless access. So they shared an IP address years ago, and still, Amazon assumed a sock puppet was at work.

Another author could not figure out why this random person who'd befriended him after reading and reviewing his book got the review taken down. After quizzing him for a while, we figured out that the author had offered to help his new fan create a Kindle account and logged in as him. Bingo. Two accounts with an IP address match.

An employee at a publishing company realized he'd lost a ton of reviews one day. Turns out several of his coworkers were also selling on Amazon and would log into their accounts from work. Once those IP addresses matched, entire swaths of reviews of each other's works came down. They called Amazon to straighten it out and their accounts were threatened.

So authors, don't think that having two Amazon accounts hides you or that your spouse can safely write a review of your work under his or her own name. Even if you have a publisher account for your books and a personal account to buy with, Amazon will match you up and tie those accounts together in their records. Take great care particularly in how you engage on Amazon with other writers. If you are reviewing or commenting on reviews of other books, this can be considered a financial stake--you trying to push down a competitor's work. Also note that it isn't hard even for regular users to follow a review trail. Clicking on that name you think is anonymous leads us to all the other reviews you've written. One day on the Kindle Boards, we figured out 10 huge authors who were using the same paid reviewers as John Locke. It took five minutes and was perfectly clear--the paid reviews were using the same language and reviewing the same circle of titles.

In the age of web sites like Stop the Goodreads Bullies and Authors Behaving Badly, it simply doesn't pay to do anything that looks inappropriate when you're dealing with the Ten Ton Gorilla that is the 'Zon. If you're an author, it's time to stop writing reviews. And anyone who lives with you, they are probably going to have to stop too. Last week, several of my husband's reviews were taken down--random reviews of books I didn't know anything about and had nothing to do with me or my author account. Collateral damage, and boy was he mad. But that is where the scandals have led us.

Note: This is part one of a two-part series on why reviews are taken down. The next post will focus on the problem of Amazon gift cards and how this can tie an author to a reviewer and make it appear as though a review was paid for.


Deanna Roy is the author of books for women and children.