It’s widely accepted in the indie publishing world (and beyond) that reviewers on the social reading site Goodreads are more discerning / harsh than their counterparts on Amazon.com. Some people have suggested that Goodreads users are better read, and therefore choosier about their books. Others have pointed to unscrupulous review practices that hit Amazon harder than other sites. I’d like to point to a third contributor to Amazon’s optimistic reviews: User experience design. Specifically, the UX design at Amazon encourages better reviews from all of its users.
If we compare the process of reviewing books at Amazon and Goodreads, there’s a big difference in how the ratings are presented. On Amazon, selecting any star level prompts the UI to tell you what that review means. On Goodreads, you have to hover over the stars for a second or two to get a tooltip with the suggested rating interpretation. Right off the bat, Amazon’s system goes farther to make the 5 star scale less subjective and have clearer defined meanings.
On top of that, Amazon’s interpretations are much more generous that Goodreads’. For example, on Amazon 5 stars means “I love it,” and 4 stars means “I like it.” But at Goodreads, the UI says 5 star reviews are for “amazing” books, while 4 stars means “I really liked it.”
Here’s a complete breakdown of how each site interprets the ratings:
- 5 Stars: On Amazon: “I love it”; On Goodreads: “it was amazing”
- 4 Stars: On Amazon: “I like it”; On Goodreads: “really like it”
- 3 Stars: On Amazon: “It’s okay”; On Goodreads: “liked it”
- 2 Stars: On Amazon: “I don’t like it”; On Goodreads: “it was ok”
- 1 Star: On Amazon: “I hate it”; On Goodreads: “did not like it”
The way Amazon has designed its interface explicitly sets the bar lower every rating. Think a book was OK? That’s 3 stars on Amazon and 2 stars on Goodreads. Like a book? 4 stars on Amazon and 3 on Goodreads. And so on and so forth.
I know that — due to these scale differences — I’ve given a book 4 stars on Goodreads and 5 stars on Amazon. I loved the book, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it amazing and I followed the sites’ guidelines. These guidelines definitely shape other users ratings as well, and over time that changed behavior will raise Amazon’s average scores meaningfully. A lot of books that would read receive poor to middle scores on Goodreads will receive middle to good scores on Amazon.
One could certainly debate whether or not there is any sinister motivation behind this system. Some might say that Amazon’s reviews are there to encourage others to buy products, not give unbiased opinions, and therefore high reviews serve their purposes better. You could also argue that the language behind the scales is arbitrary, and that Amazon may have just chosen that language based on other factors. Whether or not they had some reason to intend it, Amazon’s ratings are higher than others by design.