Friday, November 21, 2008

Buyer Beware: Click Farms and Positive Feedback

Back in the early 1980's, when a lot of things were happening in my life that helped form me into the person I am today, my father brought home a book he had been given as part of a promotional deal with someone. (Not sure how or why, or what was being promoted, or who it was being promoted to.) The book was the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, and I fell in love with it.

There are lots of word origin books out there, but none of them that I've seen are quite like this. Rather than a dry, bare-bones treaty on etymology, this book contained fascinating short essays on hundreds of common words and phrases, written in a breezy, conversational tone that was never condescending or dumbed down. I could pick up this book, open it at random, read an entry, flip through the pages and read a dozen more, then look up and wonder where the time had gone.

I was cleaning out my old room one day years ago when I noticed that the book was not on the shelf where I had always kept it. I thought Oh, well, it'll show up someplace. And it did - two hundred miles away at my sister's house. Turned out she had appropriated the book at some point and had taken it with her when she moved into her own house. I decided I would buy myself a replacement one of these days.

A few weeks ago I was at my brother's house and, apropos nothing, he mentioned how he'd like to get a copy of the Morris Dictionary to share with his sons. I decided I would get him one for Christmas. I figured I would go online, find one from a discount book seller - because money is so tight for everyone everywhere right now - and order myself a copy while I was at it.

I went on Amazon. There the book is listed at $25.08 (with FREE Super Saver Shipping!) A bit steep to order two right now...but wait! What was that note? "27 new from $6.71." A 70% savings! How could you beat that?

I clicked on the offer of the cheap new book, and everything seemed in order. And the seller's feedback - remarkable! 96% positive over nearly half a million ratings in the past twelve months? Over 2,600,000 ratings overall? Unbelievable!

And, well, maybe it was.

I ordered my books - two of them - and even with shipping and handling it still came out to less than the cost of one book at Amazon's discounted price. Delivery could take up to four weeks, so I waited.

Within a week I got a confirmation e-mail:

> Dear Amazon Customer,
> This email is to confirm we have shipped the order
> from that you placed through the
> website. The details of this order are

> shown below:
> ISBN Order Ship Title
> --------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 1594862869 2 2 The New Glucose Revolution
> --------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hey! Great! Super! Ummm...waitaminute...

I sent off a quick e-mail to their customer service address:

The book that you have listed is NOT the book I ordered!
Order Date: November 5, 2008
Shipping estimate: November 6, 2008 - November 7, 2008 2 of: Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins [Hardcover] by Morris, William

And then, a few days later, I sent another e-mail:

A package arrived from your company today. I have not opened it because I believe it contains the wrong product. Please advise ASAP on how I can return these and when you will be shipping the books I ordered.

I believe I see what happened. The book that I ordered two copies of was this:
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
ISBN 1594862861

The book that you shipped two copies of, according to your notice, was this:

The New Glucose Revolution
ISBN 1594862869

A single digit difference makes a completely different book.

And I got no response.

I tried two more times, through Amazon's site - they have a way of contacting sellers. Still nothing. Finally, I posted negative feedback on their site:

1 out of 5: "They get one star for prompt delivery - of the wrong books. (They were off on the ISBN code by one digit.) I have sent them two e-mails and contacted them twice through Amazon with no response. Not sure what the problem is, or if this is business as usual with them."

(Amazon won't let you give zero stars.)

Today I received a notice that my money was being refunded.

Item: Refund for Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins [Hardcover] by Morris, William
Reason for refund: Customer service credit
Memo from seller: This title was incorrectly listed on
Amazon Payments has refunded your credit card for this purchase, and the refund should appear as a credit on your next credit card statement.

I'll wait and see if that happens. But I noticed that my negative comment has been buried under an avalanche of positive feedback:

5 out of 5: "Fast, no problems."
5 out of 5: "I am very pleased with this transaction. I would highly recommend this seller. Thanks!"
5 out of 5: "Brand new 'used' book. Very nice.....A"
5 out of 5: "Fantastic service. Superfast shipping. Great person. Thank you. A"
5 out of 5: "great seller"
5 out of 5: "Thank you!"
5 out of 5: "Excellent"
5 out of 5: "Good service, book in great condition! Would buy again."
5 out of 5: "Got shipment notice quickly; USPS took longer than I'd have liked but not seller's fault."
5 out of 5: "Like new just as described--fast shipping--many thanks!"
5 out of 5: "Prompt service."
5 out of 5: "as promised"
5 out of 5: "Thanks!"
4 out of 5: "GOOD SELLER"
5 out of 5: "Thanks, perfect sale:)"
5 out of 5: "Prompt"
5 out of 5: "Quick delivery. Book was in excellent condition. Very satisfied customer."
2 out of 5: "24 days is too long to wait for a book that's supposedly already in stock. Would not use this seller again."
5 out of 5: "Fast service."
5 out of 5: "Would use again...quick and reliable service"
5 out of 5: "Happy with service"
5 out of 5: "Thanks."
4 out of 5: "Thanks for great service, have a happy holidays."
5 out of 5: " a"

...most of which sounded...I don't know...fake? There's only one comment in this group that isn't positive - and all of these were posted within a few hours of my comment.

There are things out there called "click farms" - virtual boiler-room "work from home" schemes were people are paid a pittance just to click on sites, links, ads, whatever - make it look like there is lots of traffic where in fact there is very little, make it look like a lot of people are clicking on ads when in fact they are not, all with the idea of increasing page rank, increasing desirability to advertisers, increasing advertising revenue.

So how much more would it cost to pay a click farm to give positive feedback to an online retailer?

Not that I'm saying this is what happened here. Nosiree Bob. I'm not making any such accusations of retail fraud here, of intentional misrepresentation of customer satisfaction. Nope. Nothing of the sort. I may have suspicions, but that's hardly enough evidence to make such a claim.

So: let the online buyer beware. Don't assume that because a retailer has an overwhelmingly positive feedback rating that it actually means anything. Look at the negative feedback. Research the company a bit. Check their site to make sure the product is actually being offered. (That would have helped me.) And if something goes wrong, contact them. If you get no response, contact them again. And if still no response, take your complaint upstairs.

Now, I need to try again to see if I can find an inexpensive copy of this book. Two of them, actually. Hmmm, Amazon currently says it has 27 copies starting from $6.71. And the company offering them has really good feedback...


...tom... said...


So how far back does that 'rate' of feedback continue..?? Or does it look like there was a burst of activity to bury your feedback..??

Or it could be that they are great with the basic service ... but blow up when they go 'off script', as in your case.

I would be interested in hearing what happens down the road, just to file away in my 'Internet experiences' file...


D.B. Echo said...

...tom..., it looks like this is pretty typical of the positive feedback for this seller, and a lot of other sellers. And not just after a negative comment, but long before them, too, so any negatives get washed away by a flood of positives.

Makes me wonder if any of the customer satisfaction ratings out there mean anything.