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Top Reviewers or Bot Reviewers: the Goodreads Bot Problem

Goodreads, the popular book cataloging website, functions as a hybrid social media platform and digital library. The social media aspect of Goodreads allows for interaction between users. Users can see their friends’ reviews, reading progress in a book, and even the giveaways friends have entered. The reviews on Goodreads are public, meaning anyone — even those without an account — can access and read reviews.

When anyone does a quick search for book reviews, Goodreads is frequently the first result. The problem with Goodreads being within the first search results for book reviews is that makes the reviews on Goodreads that much more desirable. Goodreads reviews, for many, feel more trustworthy because they are peer written. 

For the most part, Goodreads reviewers are average readers. Their reviews are imperfect, full of grammatical errors, gifs, and internet slang. Goodreads users write their reviews in a way that makes sense to them. Some users write reviews for their own cataloging use, others write reviews to be helpful to others, some reviews  are simple and short.

Goodreads reviews feel honest until they don’t. 

Rankings and Ratings

 Like many social media platforms, Goodreads can  feel like a competition. In addition to a yearly reading challenge, Goodreads offers stats on their users. Anyone can read and access these stats to see the Top Reviewers and Readers, Most Popular Reviewers, Most Followed, and Top Librarians. It’s a popularity contest no one signed up for. Stats are updated on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, and can be sorted by country or worldwide ranking of Goodreads users. It’s important to note that clicking “Meet People,” under the community tab, directs to Most Popular Reviewers, even though it’s in the center of the list. Top Reviewers is second on the Meet People option.

On similar websites, Top Reviewer and Most Popular Reviewer might refer to the same type of ranking, based on community votes or interaction. On Goodreads, however, Top Reviewer refers to number of reviews written within a certain time frame. A Goodreads reviewer can be a Top Reviewer without being a popular one. This type of ranking makes it extremely easy for people and not-people to fake their ranking as Top Reviewers and Top Readers. The Top Readers are simply ranked by number of books read.

Weeding through the weekly Top Reviewers, many profiles appear ordinary. The astonishing number of books read and reviewed per week by the Top Reviewers makes it clear that these profiles are not average, albeit avid, readers. To read 400 books per week, every week, is simply not possible, by human standards. While there is nothing preventing actual people from inputting hundreds of books every week into their Goodreads accounts, there isn’t much of a reason to do so. So, what’s going at Goodreads? 

Bots, Scammers, and Fake Reviews

Bots. Bots are what’s going at Goodreads. Since Goodreads is also used by non-account holders, it is a desirable internet space for advertisers. What happens is that a company or individual will pay for hundreds of positive reviews of their product, so that when a potential buyer sees the reviews, all they see are positive reviews and 5-star ratings. In the case of Goodreads, the product is books. These reviews can be written by a bot or a person with multiple fake accounts.

Top Reviewers’  fake profiles might not always be easy to spot, as they often use stock images as the profile picture, or leave the avatar blank. Their reviews, though are fairly easy to spot. Hundreds of reviews per week? Check. Poor grammar and short reviews? Check. Strange, vague, or unrelated reviews? Check, check, check. If it sounds like the warning label on a blood pressure medication, rather than a review for a regency romance, a bot probably wrote it. Bot reviews are often copied and pasted from another book. Many fake accounts will post multiple reviews of the same book. Going down the list of the Top Reviewers, reviews will often trend towards the same book or topic. 

If all of the Top Reviewers are posting reviews for the same 400 books, isn’t that going to bump those books up in ratings in their respective genres? Yes. Those reviews might not be the top reviews for that particular book, because the most popular reviews are ranked by number of “likes” by Goodreads users, but the overall rating will have a higher curve. Bot accounts are sneaky. These accounts will like reviews and comments by the thousands, and that’s all they do. A bot profile is likely to be blank, with no books, reviews, or comments. Bot accounts will interact with other bot accounts, creating a weird, stilted dialogue in the comments section of a post that would otherwise go unnoticed. A certain book might be a “target,” for instance, and when a review is posted, the bot accounts swarm to that review, liking every comment on that review. Again, to boost it for positive rankings. 

Positive reviews aren’t the only scam being pulled on Goodreads either. Scammers will write hundreds of negative reviews of a book, claiming the book contains incorrect, inflammatory information. Then, using a different profile, the scammer will contact the author of the book and offer to “fix” the bad reviews for a steep fee. After all, better reviews equals better sales, right?

In the digital age, social media reviews and reaction play a huge part in sales. An author, especially a new or independent author cannot afford to have their book’s page flooded with negative reviews. This kind of scam is dangerous for authors and Goodreads users alike. It is not, however, the same as an author receiving genuine poor reviews from readers and disagreeing with the reviews. Fighting on Twitter with readers isn’t a cute look for anyone.

So why doesn’t Goodreads do anything about the bots, fake profiles, and scammers? Goodreads knows about the scammers. Users are asked to flag the reviews and keep it moving. That seems extremely unhelpful of them. Fake reviews and reviewers are a well-documented phenomenon. Goodreads isn’t the only website filled with profiles named “Keyboard” with blank avatars. In 2019, the popular skincare brand, Sunday Riley settled with the FTC for writing positive reviews on the Sephora website, for over two years. These reviews were written by Sunday Riley employees. Amazon, Goodreads’ parent company, is also riddled with fake reviews.

Amazon shops rely on reviews to get consumers’ attention. Five-star reviews, whether they’re genuine, or from a bot, boost the rating and boost the buying potential. Amazon is the top bookseller in the world, so of course it would want to boost reviews of books. Whether Amazon is paying for the ersatz reviews or it’s another party is unknown, but Goodreads is absolutely swarming with bot accounts. 

The Solution

While faux reviews are somewhat easy to spot, there is no real solution, at least on the end of the consumer. An average Goodreads user has no real pull in getting rid of all the fake profiles who earn the Top Reviewer spots. It’s up to Goodreads, and by extension Amazon, to update their systems to find the real Top Reviewers. Why is that spot based on numbers? Goodreads allows users to vote on helpful reviews. Why aren’t the most helpful reviewers the Top Reviewers, or the reviews with the most page views? 

The Most Popular Reviewers are determined by votes and likes, but why not combine Top Reviewers and Most Popular Reviewers into one slot? Reviews are not chronological on Goodreads, they shift towards the top of the reviews as they get votes and likes. A negative review, if it’s funny, insightful, or describes the plot well, can shift to the top of the ranks just as easily as a positive review. The Most Popular Reviewers do not necessarily only write positive reviewers. They are well-liked reviewers because they are real book lovers, with popular book blogs, Bookstagram accounts, and BookTube Channels.  

For the majority of Most Popular Reviewers on Goodreads, their other ventures brought their followers to them. Goodreads allows a different kind of connection. Sharing quick thoughts on Goodreads is easier than filming a 60 second TikTok, especially during a reading sprint. 

The Most Popular Reviewers Worldwide

  • Jayson: A Canadian-based longtime reviewer who shares gifs in his reading updates, reads comics, and crime books, and is known for one-line reviews. Jayson is the #1 Top Librarian on Goodreads. 
  • Ahmad Sharabi: An Iranian Librarian and computer software designer who keeps careful record of the poetry, science, fiction, and history books he reads. Sharabi is the #2 Top Librarian on Goodreads.  
  • Nilufer Ozmekik: A California blogger and Bookstagrammer, who shares her reading notes, and writes thorough, personable reviews. 

These three Most Popular Reviewers have something in common: they interact frequently with followers. Like many social media platforms, becoming popular on Goodreads is about connection. Commenting back, liking updates, and interacting with friends’ reviews are just a few ways Goodreads allows users to connect. It’s not about the number of books read or reviews written, or number of followers, because those can all be faked. 

Until Goodreads decides to do something about the bots and fake accounts, what can users do about the Top Reviewers? Nothing. There is nothing human people can do to out-read and outrank bots that “read” and review 400+ books a week each. Instead, Goodreads users can use their power to lift content creators they enjoy by upvoting reviews they find helpful or entertaining, and writing to Goodreads support. An alternative to Goodreads is Storygraph. There is no ranking system, no competition, just books, personal goals, and easy-to read reviews. Learn about the alternatives to Goodreads and checkout our Goodreads archives for more ideas about Goodreads pros and cons. 

*Stats and information are based on research completed in June 2021. 

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