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Questioning the Validity of Customer Reviews


Ignite X specializes in helping technology startups grow their market visibility and brand. We bring expertise, connections and tenacity to helping brands break through the noise. Here are some of the things we've learned along the way. 

Questioning the Validity of Customer Reviews

Carmen Hughes

When Monica Lewinsky wrote her tell-all memoir, online reviews started showing up on Amazon despite one small fact -- the book had not yet being published.  One reviewer admitted to making up a positive review “out of thin air.” Surprisingly Amazon ended up pulling the fake reviews, but not without a spokesperson defending the company’s “open policy” for the way reviews are submitted.

Fast forward to today and Amazon should rethink their free-for-all policy. In a recent Techcrunch post, blogger Paul Carr points out how bogus, negative reviews are unfairly affecting authors’ new book releases.  Case in point: Michael Lewis’ latest book reflects more than 50% of reviewers giving only 1 star out of 5.  That would be fine ….if these “reviewers” had actually read the book.  Instead these “reviewers” have been quite open about their ax to grind, which evidently they believe is more important than the welfare of each hardworking author, who undoubtedly toiled to write and bring a new book to market.  What also is quite clear is Amazon’s support behind the bogus reviews underscores their financial conflict of interest.  Evidently, the online e-commerce giant is enabling these phony reviews because of one primary reason: they are Kindle customers.  Amazon has opened the floodgates of Kindle owners to post bogus reviews, which really amount to “collective bullying,” for the purpose of trying to strong-arm publishers to release a Kindle version simultaneously when the hardcover hits the shelves (never mind that the author and publisher would take a huge financial hit.) That’s like demanding Hollywood release a new movie, ie: Avatar, in DVD rental the same day it debuts at theaters. The fact that eBook owners are receiving a huge discount on having access to the book content digitally is no different than people who choose to wait for a movie to be released on DVD; they save money because they don’t have to spend full ticket price for seeing the movie immediately.

So Amazon’s revenues and Kindle owners’ satisfaction should take precedence over all?  The bogus reviews are negatively impacting countless authors who have nothing to do with Amazon’s distribution deals for its eBook product.  In effect, Amazon is duplicitously enabling collective bullying by Kindle owners against authors by pummeling them with poor reviews from people who have never ordered the book, much less read it. The phony reviews harm each book’s overall rating and undoubtedly hurt each author’s personal pocketbook.

Amazon could easily implement measures to provide reviews that are void of bogus opinions as much as possible (see an earlier Ignite post making this argument).  The company could easily segregate bogus reviews from people who never purchased the book through, while ensuring customers can indeed rely on genuine reviews from people who have actually purchased and read a book. Maybe Amazon should introduce 2 different rating systems: a star rating for bona fide readers of a book posting a real review and an ax rating for all others who have another gripe, dislike the author’s viewpoints, politics, gender, etc.  In the Techcrunch post, some complained that if they rent a book from the library, they should still be allowed to post a review on Amazon. They could consider posting a tweet or note elsewhere about their opinion of the book. However, in the interest of keeping online reviews genuine, we believe that this smaller majority should not take priority over ensuring Amazon’s online reviews can be trusted.

Consider the impact online reviews are having on consumers:

  • More than half of consumer adults said reviews affect their online transactions, as reported by Harris Interactive.
  • Deloitte found 53% use social media to research potential gift ideas.  Put into Lewis’ perspective, gift givers unfamiliar with his work who may just glance at the overall rating of his new book may opt to purchase another title.

As such, vendors that enable online reviews should aim for bona fide, trusty-worthy feedback and recommendations.  The notion of genuine online reviews has once again come into question with Yelp under fire for purportedly having its own staff pad the service with questionable reviews.  TripAdvisor also suffers because the company offers no safeguards, enabling anyone (hoteliers, restaurateurs, etc.) to post reviews—good, bad and ugly.

It is awfully refreshing when you can find vendors that are approaching trusted reviews in a smart way.  Ignite client Zicasso, an online travel site that connects discerning travelers with pre-screened, select travel specialists, is the only online travel site that provides a trusted rating & review systems. Only travelers who have purchased and completed travel using @Zicasso, can post a rating or a review about their trip, on-the-ground travel experts used, hotels, sites visited, etc. The company also imposes strict criteria (3.5 out of 5 stars) that their travel partners have to maintain in order to remain in Zicasso’s trusted network.  This is a great example that qualifying reviews can be done without manipulating the integrity of the review itself.

How do you weigh in on online reviews?