Correction: Web 2.0 Sucks For Reviews

There’s an interesting phenomenon taking place lately that I find a bit disturbing. It has to do with how consumers are leveraging their newly discovered online powers of opinion. In principle, I think empowering people by given them tools to communicate with one another is a good thing – people should be able to be heard, and share ideas and comments on everything, including the products they chose to buy or not. But when it comes to software applications and services, reviewers are all to ignorant of how permanent their actions are compared to how rapidly what they’re reviewing can change.

Take for example the smackdown currently being handed to EA’s “Spore” on Amazon.com. As of this writing it has 3,000 ratings, 2,500 of which are one-star reviews filed by users upset by the copy protection software it uses. The majority of these reviews come from users who likely haven’t played the game, mind you, they are merely protesting the copy-protection system they’ve heard about. I’m not saying DRM protection is a good thing, but it does seem like the punishment here is a bit excessive. Spore is doomed to never rise much higher than “two-something star” rating no matter what EA does to improve it or address their users concerns. This would require receiving nearly 2,000 more 5-star reviews, which is over double the total number of reviews that the most popular video game ever made (World of Warcraft) has received in the four years it’s been listed on Amazon.

The first Spore review, alone, has been marked as “helpful” by over 6,500 people, most of whom are presumably deciding not to purchase the game. This in spite of the fact that the review is no longer accurate (EA revised the Spore DRM less than two weeks after the game’s release.) That’s $325,000 in lost revenue. From a single review. Ouch.

Amazon’s review system, like nearly all such systems on the web, is designed to let people review immutable things like books, CDs, or even Tuscan Milk – products that don’t change over time. But software is dynamic – it can be updated and improved, even after you bought it. And this is something that simply isn’t taken into account; not by sites that let you comment on products, or forums, or any other myriad channels we users pay attention to. What’s needed is a way to temper the relevence of reviews and comments based on how a product evolves over time. In the meantime, it would behoove people to be a little more circumspect in what they review and how they review it.

2 Replies to “Correction: Web 2.0 Sucks For Reviews”

  1. I’m all for the punishment EA earned on Amazon.com. This is an example of consumers exercising their power of opinion, and I hope it puts the fear not only in EA but in any company that insists on treating its customers like crap.

    Still, you raise an interesting point: companies can change their products to remove problems, but bad reviews remain fixed in stone for all to see, forever. This would seem to be especially worrisome because negative reviews have a disproportionately strong influence on a product’s average rating, as you’ve pointed out.

    I suspect, however, that the system is fairer than it looks, because [i]everybody[\i] is subject to the same rules. EA’s competitors are just as vulnerable to bad reviews, which pulls down their average ratings, which equalizes the system. Or so my theory goes.

    Obviously, the big exception will be smaller companies and their products: because of the lower traffic level, a bad review can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, unfairly quashing good products before they’ve been properly vetted by the larger public. But don’t pity EA. They acted despicably. They got caught.

  2. It would also behoove vendors to produce products that won’t make their customers want to loudly decry the product and the company. In fact, since there just isn’t enough energy in the world for each and every bad product to get a noisy backlash like this, it is more efficient (for the population) to reign in producers with the fear of a rare-but-severe thrubbing like this one than to hope every sub-standard product gets a few poor ratings. Perhaps now every time any game manufacturer is considering what kind (if any) of DRM to use, they will remember the much-talked-about event of what happened with Spore, and perhaps it will change their behavior.

    By the way, for the record, I spend nearly a year eagerly anticipating the Spore release. And I did not buy a copy, entirely because of the hoopla over the DRM. (Nor did I pirate a copy… I have resigned myself to living without this game.)

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