Amazon, reviews, and snow. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Quote of the Day

"I'm prepared to go forward with it. I'm here live, I'm not a cat."

—Attorney Rod Ponton, appearing in a virtual court hearing with a “kitten” filter enabled on his computer. He was using his secretary’s computer, due to an office move, and didn’t know how to turn off the filter.

Whole other business

There comes a time in a suburban dad’s life (at least in certain parts of this great country), when he decides he’s had enough with shoveling and goes shopping for a snow blower.

That man was me. That time was now.

But since it’s 2021 and we’re still in a pandemic, my “shopping” consisted of looking up reviews on Amazon, then figuring out where I could get a snow blower quickly in stock.

Every once in a while, I do this sort of thing, and I realize how smart it was of Amazon to have built reviews into its website long before anyone else did — and long before the company even opened its platform to allow third-party merchants.

In fact, if Amazon were to somehow spin its reviews off as a standalone business, it would likely be worth billions, just judging by how the stock market values other large review-based businesses. (Comparisons: Tripadvisor’s market cap is $4.9 billion right now; Yelp is at about $2.9 billion.)

There's a big asterisk next to all of this, however: the question of how many reviews on sites like Amazon and elsewhere are actually fakes, posted by unscrupulous vendors in order to boost their own ratings or else drag down the competition.

Last month, three business professors — two from UCLA and one from USC — released a study: The Market for Fake Reviews. They say they found about 20 “fake review related Facebook groups,” each with an average of 16,000 members, and hundreds of posts a day in which sellers offered around $6 per fake review.

According to a NYT report on the study:

The researchers found that Amazon eventually deleted roughly one-third of the bogus reviews, but typically only after an average lag of more than 100 days. Long before then, unhappy customers left a significant number of one-star reviews, a sign that they didn’t like what they bought and possibly even felt deceived by it.

So, that’s disconcerting. Amazon said in response that it uses “powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyze over 10 million review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published.”

Not that I should encourge this, but here’s a more humorous example: A couple of years ago, a British man who'd made a living writing five-star reviews on TripAdvisor ran an experiment.

He created a fake listing for a restaurant that didn't exist on the site, and used the dark arts of fake-review-generating he'd learned to boost its reputation.

Eventually, it was the top rated in all of London on Tripadvisor. People called for reservations and were disappointed when they couldn't get in (because again, it didn't exist).

Anyway, there’s enough other stuff going on right now that I doubt enforcement will get tough—not until consumers perceive it as a big enough deal to threaten the whole system (and the multibillion dollar value of the networks that companies like Amazon have built). Until then: buyer (and rater) beware.

I’ll let you know if the snow blower works as well as advertised. Not that you can trust a weather forecast, but there’s at least a chance of a big storm where I live over the next few days.

7 other things worth your time

  • Florida officials say “an unidentified hacker” gained access to a system controlling a city water treatment system, “and changed a setting that would have drastically increased the amount of sodium hydroxide in the water supply.” It was caught quickly, “but signaled that the hacking attempt was a serious threat to the city's water supply.” (Vice)

  • Trump’s second impeachment trial began, with six Republicans joining Democrats in a vote that says the trial itself is constitutional. Reports said Trump was unimpressed by his own lawyer’s opening argument, but it’s still a near-mathematical certainty he won’t be convicted (although 56% of Americans supposedly think he should be), since that requires a two-thirds majority. (USA Today, CBS News, Business Insider)

  • “Among the many earthly possessions being sold off by the executors of Jeffrey Epstein’s estate are not one but two private Caribbean islands he owned. They’re caught in a tug-of-war between the estate, which says it is strapped for cash, and the attorney general of the Virgin Islands, who is making a move on all assets that once belonged to Epstein.” (Miami Herald)

  • I wrote about this sympathetically last year, so here’s the follow up: “The leadership of the USS Theodore Roosevelt failed to put in place measures to stop a coronavirus outbreak on board the aircraft carrier and exacerbated a growing problem by releasing sailors too early from quarantine, a Department of Defense inspector general investigation concluded.” (CNN)

  • “Enrollment in Roman Catholic schools in the United States dropped 6.4% from the previous academic year amid the pandemic and economic stresses — the largest single-year decline in at least five decades.” I had a good experience attending a parochial high school, for what it’s worth, but this isn’t surprising news. (ABC News)

  • Mountain Dew’s Super Bowl commercial included a contest: count how many of the (many) bottles depicted in the ad, and you could win $1 million. Inevitably, a company specializing in computer vision created a program to do it quickly. (Roboflow)

  • Speaking of Super Bowl commercials, Reddit — which ran a 5-second, static ad during the game that you had to pause and rewind to view — is now worth $6 billion after its latest funding round. (CNN, Reuters)

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