"The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy" and the problem of description resource reliability

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Whether or not readers recognize it as such, they all use some kind of personal organizing system to determine which books they choose to read (in other words, to add a given resource to the collection of books that will be read). The very vastness of the collection of available books makes it essential to do so. Along with metadata such as genre, author, price, and library availability, a common method of developing organizing principles for this system is to use description resources (recommendations from friends, editorial reviews, online user reviews). As with any description resource, only those that can be considered accurate and trustworthy are worth using. After all, bad description resources can lead to an inability to properly apply organizing principles and thus to a total breakdown of the system.

In theory, readers, writers, and review providers are all invested in preserving the integrity of reviews as resource descriptions, because if readers’ organizing systems stop working, they may stop buying books. In practice, stakeholders’ differing goals and financial interests can lead to conflict. The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” (New York Times, August 25, 2012) reports on the phenomenon of authors (and, secondarily, other purveyors of products and services) paying writers (or offering deals to customers) to post positive reviews of their work online.

The article focuses on Todd Rutherford, the proprietor of GettingBookReviews.com; when word got out the service, Amazon removed many of his reviews and Google suspended his AdWords account (Google, too, has a reputational stake in searchers believing that ads are worth clicking on—as well as a vaguer stake in the reliability of online information in general).

While he is quoted in the article expressing the belief that the problem of uninformed or untrustworthy reviews is self-correcting—as the Times puts it, when frustrated readers who relied on a paid review post their own reviews, “the (real) bad reviews will then drive out the (fake) good reviews”—Rutherford continues to manage his reputation by paying attention to common organizing principles.  After a dissatisfied customer posted about her experience on RipoffReport.com, Rutherford changed his own resource name (dropping Todd and using Jason, his middle name, instead) to avoid being associated with such a negative description resource.