How Amazon’s ebook prices are poisoning their ratings

Amazon has a dilemma. They tried and failed to keep Kindle ebook prices fixed at $9.99, while publishers insisted on having flexibility to charge more. Now complaints about ebook pricing threaten to break their user ratings, one of the features that made them an Internet superstore.

This book isn’t very good, right? Even distribution of ratings from one to five stars:

Except no, the two one-star reviews are both protest rankings because of the Kindle price:

Publishers might see bad ratings for their books and change the ebook prices. So Amazon does have an incentive to leave those ratings up and include them in its overall averages.

But the ratings now aren’t very helpful to consumers. If you’re buying the hardback, your questions are about the book’s content (and maybe format), not about the pricing of the ebook edition. Unlike seeing comments on the hardback when buying the paperback, the only purpose of the Kindle-specific protest reviews is to skew the star rating downward. I’ve seen a few reviews in the past complaining about the speed of third-party sellers’ shipping, which also cause ratings problems, but nothing as pervasive as the Kindle pricing issue.

So what could Amazon do?

  • Only allow people to review a book if they purchased it from Amazon, instead of allowing them to “review” a book they refused to purchase because of price: probably a bad idea, since many helpful reviews presumably are written by people who bought at bookstores, etc.
  • Try to filter reviews based on review content, and don’t count protest reviews in star ratings: too hard an artificial intelligence problem.
  • Filter based on “helpful”/”unhelpful” votes, and only count reviews with a certain proportion of “helpful” votes (plus new reviews that don’t have many votes yet): would be fairly easy to set up and to justify to users, though it would require some kind of explanation by the star summary.
  • Segregate Kindle reviews from paper reviews: it would be a bad idea to make them completely separate, since Kindle edition reviewers also comment on content, but probably a good idea to give separate ratings summaries. This would allow someone to say “great content, but the formatting is awful” and have their downgraded star rating only affect the Kindle summary.
  • Other options?

As Kindle and other ebook sales grow, consumers are still going to look for reviews. It’s time Amazon figured out how to keep them reliable.

About Jennifer Berk

I'm an analytics and data leader with a marketing and product mindset. I like online newspapers, science fiction and fantasy, and ugly fish.
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