Click by Click, Reviewers Gain Clout

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, July 12, 2009

If you value your spare time, don't start posting comments and reviews on Amazon, Mark Espinosa suggests. It can be a hard habit to break.

Given his rank as the online retailer's No. 1 reviewer, he would certainly know. Espinosa might be one of the most influential consumer-tech pundits whose name you've never heard. Although he specializes in gadgets like memory cards and video game systems, he also dabbles in movie and jazz criticism. He's even reviewed a kitchen faucet. ("A pleasure to install," he wrote of a chrome, double-handle model manufactured by Delta.) A tech security consultant who lives in New Jersey, Espinosa has weighed in on more than 500 products. He spends about 10 hours on a review -- and no, he doesn't get paid for it.

In the age of user-generated content, with Web users getting into the habit of turning to sites such as Yelp for restaurant recommendations, reviews like Espinosa's carry increasing weight among manufacturers and consumers alike.

That influence is manifesting itself in surprising or impressive ways. When Electronic Arts released a game last year with restrictive software controls dictating how many times a game could be installed on computers, Amazon customers flooded the game's page with harsh reviews advising against a purchase. The company's subsequent releases left out that offending bit of software. Earlier this year, a wireless router company was busted when offering to pay Amazon users for positive reviews.

More commonly, reviewers at the top of Amazon's charts say they regularly hear from publishers and wannabe authors hoping for a positive word; some prolific or influential reviewers have personal Web sites detailing the books they're interested in receiving from publishers.

"When you've got the power of a community behind a product, that's more important than any one reviewer for a publication," tech industry pundit Michael Gartenberg said. "Amazon reviews are very, very important."

Not coincidentally, perhaps, Gartenberg is an investor in a newly launched tech site, GDGT, that attempts to blend social networking with user reviews and general gadget lust while competing with newsy tech blogs such as Engadget and Gizmodo.

As a guy who bought a plasma screen TV based on its reviews at Amazon -- who can argue with 147 mostly five-star notices? -- I tend to believe in the wisdom of the crowd. But while Amazon says more than 10 million reviews have been posted, the company doesn't track how closely positive reviews correlate with sales, said Russell Dicker, senior manager of community content at Amazon.

The Web retailer maintains two reviewer charts. One lists the site's most active reviewers, measured by the sheer number of posts. A newer type of list uses a slightly mysterious set of algorithms to rank the site's most influential reviewers, determined by the number of "useful" votes a review generates among other Amazon customers.

Espinosa is at the top of that latter list and has been since last October. He started out recording his thoughts at the site years ago when he wanted to defend a book that was getting a lot of negative comments; nowadays he uses Amazon for personal expression in the way that others use blogs.

"Almost nobody in my regular life knows about this hobby," he said. "The one or two people who do think it's a colossal waste of time."

Those folks might have a point. So obsessed is Espinosa with analyzing products that he has had to consciously try to put a lid on his participation. "I decided a long time ago that if I was going to function and keep a normal job, I would limit myself to an hour a day, two hours max," he said.

Espinosa describes being at the top of the stack as a "bittersweet" experience because of grumbling among his fellow reviewers about Amazon's ranking system. Amazon's other champion reviewer offered a similar take.

A former librarian who lives in Georgia, Harriet Klausner is the author of 19,463 reviews, by a recent count, and has topped that list for years. Klausner, clearly a speed reader, says she gets heated e-mail on a regular basis from fellow reviewers who don't believe that she can plausibly consume books at the rate she cranks out reviews. She favors romance novels, and says she'd be happy enough if Amazon did away with the ranking system altogether, considering the resentment it generates.

And for all the time the two reviewers spend at the site, there's one product neither has written about: Kindle.

Although Klausner describes her house as being packed with "piles on piles of books," she doesn't seem very interested in Amazon's much-hyped book-reading device. "Why would I get the Kindle?" she said.

Same for Espinosa, sort of.

"I want a Kindle, but I can't afford to buy one," he said, not long after admitting that he owns about a dozen MP3 players. "I can't justify the cost."

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