Anne Rice, Internet Reviews and Review Bullying

Posted on November 25, 2013 by


Anne Rice has recently brought up the topic of reviews….what one would consider an appropriate means of reviewing authors and writers, how authors respond to them, and what happens to new authors if they seek to defend and clarify.

As artists, bloggers, and writers  also function as their own site managers, this is a discussion that I think we probably ought to at least consider.

As artists we are taught to be open to constructive criticism from our peers. I would say that beneath our need to express ourselves through our various art forms there lies a deep need to not only get feedback, but also a need to believe that this feedback is being offered with good intentions by someone that knows the medium and your work. We all want to express ourselves and if we don’t feel that others are absorbing our work, as artists we wonder if we are, simply put, doing our job.

One thing art community sites such as The Boston Harbor Picayune is rather good at is fostering a connected community of artists. We don’t want empty praise. We want the truth.

For the editorial staff here, we prefer to offer praise or we for the most part keep it to ourselves. This is mostly due to the fact that there are so many artists and writers out there that we simply can’t get to them all, and as a result, we just find it more productive to focus on the things we like and the work we think needs praise.

The new peer review process, however, offers something entirely different. Sites such as yelp and GoodReads are designed to give readers and consumers an unbiased opinion from others like them so that they know what they are more likely to prefer. I can read a reviewer and even before I have to make a judgement call on the work being reviewed I can generally get a sense of whether or not the person reviewing is the same type of consumer that I am.

However as with all things this process has gotten abused and it is entirely misunderstood.

Yelp has recently been busted for allowing up to twenty percent of negative reviews of a business to be filtered out. The FBI also recently fined 13 branding companies that were hired to file false positive reviews for their paying clients. I recently had to part ways with a company I was writing product copy for because I was asked to participate in these fake review schemes.

Fraud is fraud. When you mislead someone to intentionally manipulate their clients into making purchases of products by tricking them into believing that real consumers are praising them, it is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than false advertising.

Enter the age of the Review Bully. Now there is a new animal in this zoo, and while most don’t quite understand what these wholly new and abusive souls are up to… I have a few ideas….

I earned the moniker “Oracle” as an online identity for three reasons…

  • One… It is simply the voice I tend to speak from as a writer.
  • Two… There are a host of readily available images I can use to assist the reader in hearing that voice as they read. Think of the Oracle from the Matrix or the Oracle of Delphi. I also have a talent for predicting human behavior. Trust me, though, there is no magic or programming involved… I am simply one of those people seems to be a bit more intuitive and objective than most.
  • Third… I speak the language of the internet crawlers. I understand the algorithmic functions of search engines and how they decide what is important. As such I can get the attention of Google and Bing, and I can convince it that I have data that they ought to trust.

To get a clue as to why this is important for us as a community, note that if you open a Google tab and search the four words ” elizabeth thomas new england “.You will find this….

elizabeth thomas new england   Google Search

What you see to the right is a snapshot of that Google search.  notice the article from one week ago is listed there in the third placement. This page is known as a primary SERP, or search engine results page. Getting on that primary serp, the first ten listed articles… is what companies pay lots of dollars for, and once you know how to land on it, what you say while you are there can make or break an artist or a product.

I have discussed the process of what search engines call “negative keyword avoidance” in the past. I don’t want to rehash that whole discussion but just remember that these search engine algorithms cannot discern author intent very well.  You can get your articles and posts placed within the wrong search page if you put words in there that can confuse these programs. Complaining excessively about something else instead of discussing your ideas directly without reference to contrary ideas will not serve you well. When others search for keyword combinations your writing is more likely to show up along with that which you disagree instead of that which you agree.

So what then, you may ask is Anne Rice’s beef and why does it REALLY matter in the machine world of white hat operators like me?

I can tell you that she approaches the discussion from a more philosophical perspective than I do.

I will use Ms Rice’s words to make her position clear:

My concerns are for a dark subculture of reviewers on the internet who have a deep inveterate contempt for authors, enjoy policing them and humiliating them. They attack authors who reply to reviews, boycotting them and blackballing them and post in forums about them and even invite others to ridicule them. Same thing happens on Goodreads. A negative review is not necessarily a bully review; but singling out authors for vilification online because they respond to you, because they don’t behave the way you want, because they’ve dared to challenge or respond to something you write — that’s outrageous. The subculture really amounts to a blip in the history of Amazon. But sadly, it has hurt and discouraged a lot of authors….young authors, indie authors, vulnerable authors. These people have one hell of a nerve.

I think she has a point. I also think there may be other forces at work here, and what they are up to may be different than review bullying as Anne Rice has discussed it and described it within her community.

Lets back up one more step and understand why that image up there is important. Our contest is designed to stimulate readers to vote on what they think is worthy. These crawlers count social media shares as votes of confidence. Comments on any post or article also count as votes of confidence. That is why all those mainstream mega sites allow people to argue and mutter… They are simply trying to get a better SERP placement.

Because so many people clicked like and share, now Elisabeth Thomas gets a good review on the primary serp of that set of keywords. It’s a little more complicated than that, but nothing I would do works as effectively as a large group of interactions, comments, likes and reviews from people who are in differing locales. At the end of the day, she got a better ranking on the review because so many people said they agreed with it.

What Anne Rice refers to as review bullying may be far more nasty from the perspective of the data crawlers.

These bully reviews knock a real review out of one of the top ten slots on that primary serp and since they tend to get a whole lot of responses they are given much more importance than the positive ones.

While the FBI will fine you for creating false reviews of someone you are paid by, they will never fine you for writing bad reviews of your competitors. If you can’t get your own guy on the top page, then they think the next best thing is to own the best slot on the page of the competitors SERP. People trust the top three to five places the most and if you get a negative one in there, you have dealt serious damage to your competition.

This manipulation of the system is classic black hat, or hacker behavior, and everyone needs to be very leery of interacting with these operators. The more you argue with them, the more important their negative work becomes.

The SERP trolls abound, and the less you play with them and feed them, the better off you are.

You know that old saying “if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything”?

That’s very good advice in the internet world also.

Are negative reviews all bad? no. But if someone is writing something so awful that it’s obvious they have a grudge, it could also just be that they are getting a paycheck not a grudge.

I am honestly not sure what’s worse.