Dr Barry Clayton and the strange world of Amazon book reviews

Dr Barry Clayton and the strange world of Amazon book reviews

Dr Barry Clayton loves to review books on Amazon. In fact, he reviews so many books that he is, at the time of writing, the #181 ranked reviewer across the site. His bio says he’s both a retired army colonel and a university tutor, though he doesn’t have a picture. He ‘would like to think reviewers have actually read what they are reviewing’. Strange, then, that having reviewed more than a book a day until 22 October 2018, when he abruptly stopped, none were verified purchases. Why did he stop? He must have felt tired after all that reading. Or perhaps he felt intimidated by #386 ranked rising reviewer Dr Barry Clayton, a former senior army officer and university academic, who posted over 70 reviews in the past month [13th-13th], which he must have been buying in bricks and mortar shops, since none of those were verified purchases either.

On the face of it, he is simply a nice retired colonel-academic who has changed email addresses recently (and was running both accounts concurrently in August and September), who buys several hundred pounds’ worth of books at his local Waterstones each month or stakes out a very well-stocked local library before reviewing them on Amazon. Voracious reviewer though he may be, he is not deaf to his literary milieu: on the contrary, he has been accused of copying one assessment directly from the Literary Review, and in another taking whole sentences from the Sunday Times (sentences he wisely appears to have amended).

Now, at this point, you may be thinking that Dr Barry Clayton is not a real person but a fake account named after the recently deceased voice actor who played Count Duckula and introduced Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast’. To you I say: this rabbit hole goes deeper. In fact, he has a LinkedIn profile (albeit with one connection). If his prolific letter writing is anything to go by – he writes to the Telegraph, Blackpool Gazette, Wigan Today and the Lancashire Evening Post and argues with Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday – he is a real human resident of Cleveleys, Lancashire. The local Cleveley’s News website definitely seems to think there is something fishy about him, but I am inclined to take a more generous view.

Even if he were, for instance, writing paid reviews, who could blame a man for supplementing his meagre colonel’s pension? He might just be a speed reader. Perhaps he aspires to Amazon’s reviewer Hall of Fame, and dreams of having his name up in lights alongside S Riaz, who has posted 6,800 reviews, mostly Vine reviews of free children’s toys, or Overclocker’s Heaven, a Custom PC specialist and No1 Hall of Fame reviewer as recently as 2018, who has apparently written 0 reviews.

If the landscape is starting to sound a little weird, that’s because it is. It’s almost impossible to understand what is going on with the review system on the site. Amazon explicitly says that the reviewers I have mentioned are ‘the best of the best’. They have also tightened the rules over the past few years to make it harder to post reviews if you have received a free or discounted item (outside Vine), and have started only accepting reviews from a verified purchaser (for Amazon white label products).

But it remains painfully easy to manipulate the review process. Across the site, Amazon claims that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate, but in popular product categories Elizabeth Dwoskin of the Washington Post found that ‘the vast majority appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews’. Thousands of people co-ordinate fake reviews using at least 100 Facebook groups for the purpose – the Amazon Review Club alone has 80,000 members. Aside from paying for reviews, sellers can pay to push their item to the top of the product listings (in effect gaming the algorithm by adding a product to carts and wishlists without buying it); you can pay to mark reviews as ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’, or to remove reviews you don’t like.

Even Verified Purchases are being gamed by creating fake accounts and actually shipping the product to a random address (hence why people sometimes report receiving odd and unwanted items in the post). Paid reviewers are sometimes asked to search a generic term like ‘bluetooth speaker’ and click a few products first to throw off the algorithm, but apparently it’s easy to fool. According to the Reply All podcast, the ‘best practice’ to escape detection is: don’t review everything you buy, don’t review too many of the same type of product, and make your review almost all positive, with one tiny minor criticism to give it a sense of realism. I guess the best practice for customers is, don’t believe everything you read in an Amazon review.

I’d love to know whether the company thinks this is a fair characterisation but Amazon doesn’t really do interviews. We know they are feeding their algorithms to spot fakes but they don’t like using human moderators on principle, so whenever they close a loophole, humans, creative, adaptable creatures that they are, simply find another one. The way I see it, the real problem is that Amazon wants to sell as many products as possible and that does not automatically mean selling you something good. Reviews make people buy more products. Ergo, reviews are by definition a good thing and lots of reviews are even better.

If we assume that Dr Barry Clayton is exactly what he appears to be – a more conscientious reviewer than you or me – he represents Amazon’s ideal reader: burning through books at a rate of knots, consuming them, quantifying them and moving on, all day, every day. He reserved a rare one star review for Yuval Noah Harari’s Twenty-One Lessons for the Twenty-First Century – but he hasn’t yet reviewed Brave New World.

Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll get to it soon.