The power of power reviewers

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

At The Atlantic, Nicholas Jackson writes about Amazon reviewers who have posted reviews of thousands of products, including one woman, Harriet Klausner who claims to have reviewed almost 23,000 books. What effect does this group of "power reviewers" have on sales at Amazon?

It's even been suggested that Klausner doesn't exist, or that the profile exists as a means of self promotion for publishers. But "Our Lady of the Infinite Reviews" has been profiled everywhere from Wired to Time, where Lev Grossman wrote that "online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can't match."

And that explains why Amazon's reviewer system is so successful. It's built entirely on the back of the everyman. Cholette [another power reviewer] might call herself a fitness enthusiast, but she still spends most of her hours doing things the average Amazon shopper can relate to: working, commuting, being with family.

This everyman approach might make sense for kitchen appliances, software, and exercise videos, but for books? Don't we look for a more professional, informed opinion when deciding what to read? And if we do look for that "common" opinion, don't we rely on the recommendations of friends rather than strangers? I find Amazon's reviews very useful when I've shopped for coffee makers and toys, because the reviewers are field testing them for me and telling me if they're flimsy, awkwardly designed, etc. But when I pick out a book I'd rather base my choice on the judgment of a reviewer who can place the book in the context of other works and judge it along multiple dimensions, rather than a stranger saying "this is really good." That's not to say amateur reviewers can't provide that service too, but from my experience Amazon's book reviews are often basic thumbs up/down judgments that don't tell me a lot about the book.