Amazon's 2008 Change to the Ranking System

In fall 2008, Amazon added a "second" ranking system which resides literally right on top of their existing one. If you are #10 in one system and #2,000 in the other system, your public shown ranking is #10 (the higher of the two). This means there are twenty people in the "top 10", two hundred people in the "top 100" and so on. Right there, I find this to be silly. If you are going to have a ranking, it needs to be mathematically sound, not inherently flawed.

What is this new ranking system? In essence, the new system rewards latest posts. Whoever posts the most frequently right now gets moved up. Someone who wrote amazing reviews one year ago - even featured reviews on items still in the top selling list - gets squashed down.

You would think, as I am #40 in the original system and #9 in the new system that I would be thrilled about this new system. However, as you might tell from the tone of my intro statements, I am very disappointed with the reasons they instituted it and the way it is being used.

Why Did Amazon Add a Second Ranking System?
First, why did they do this? Solely to drive up traffic. The more that reviewers feel they can "move easily", the more they will post reviews. The more they keep coming back to post reviews, the more they will buy things. The more reviews for others to read, the longer they'll stay on the site, the more chance they'll buy things. This is all about luring people with the "rat-cheese instant reward" system into posting reviews like rabbits pop out babies. The original review system made you actually work to increase your ranking diligently. This new one lets you pop up and down like a pogo stick if you hammer lots of reviews into the system.

I take that back. There is a second reason. Impatient reviewers who started with 10 reviews wanted to leap up high in the rankings. They did not care if other reviewers had put hard work into well respected reviews - hundreds of them - which had been quite helpful to readers. They wanted to vault to higher numbers with the minimum of effort. Even though Person A had spent months writing quality reviews and earning their votes, Person B now wanted to quick-post 10 reviews and get that same ranking. So they began to complain "How come HE gets to be #2000? Everybody should get to be #2000 without all that work. That way we can all be happy!"

Rewards Without the Actual Achievement
Is there inherently something bad about instant-rewarding someone who posts a lot, thereby instant-demoting people who aren't posting at this frenzied pace? What's wrong with giving those mass-posters jolts of quick reward point increases, even if it means driving down the others as collateral damage?

My concern is that itís like the awards programs in schools that give an award to every kid. If rewards are no longer earned, and people get high credit just for "showing up", we dilute the value of effort. Numerous studies have shown that kids in those "everybody wins" situations no longer feel any real sense of achievement when they get the award. It becomes meaningless. People like growing and being rewarded for their achievements. If they get rewarded for doing nothing, it demotivates them.

As a personal example, I provide rewards at BellaOnline for editors who post weekly for three months straight. That is a real achievement. If I started giving rewards to editors for posting something at all in 3 months, I might have lots of happy editors, but what would I be teaching them? Iím not a great fan of empty rewards.

The original Amazon ranking system rewarded quality and endurance. The new Amazon system rewards spamming. It active harms people (in the sense of demoting their rank) who do not spam.

What Does this Ranking System Actually Rank?
I have polled many people about this change. I get the sense that many (if not most) people who love the new system love it solely for their high numbers and donít know or care if it actually equates to them having higher quality reviews in the system. They literally have no idea what the new system is ranking. They just want a higher number. So to many, the ranking system isn't about quality - it's about moving up while others move down for whatever reason. It's solely a "system" to "take advantage of" to get higher numbers.

Many of the complaints with the new system center around the knowledge that very poor reviewers are now being inflated up, solely because they post a lot of new reviews. Many excellent reviewers are dropping down solely because their library of content was not all posted yesterday. To me - and to many others - thatís not a valid rating system. The basic numbers are invalid.

An important point to remember is that any movement does not happen in a vacuum. If person A moves up, it is at the expense of person B moving down. If that swap occurs solely because person A has new content, and person B has less-new content, and quality is not a key factor, then the rating system is inherently flawed.

Here is an example. What if you had a blog and worked daily to get yourself into a list that was of the "top 5 news blogs as rated by newspaper editors for quality". You would be thrilled when you got into that list! You would consider that an achievement and work hard to maintain that rating. However, what if instead the rating company decided that everyone should get a high rating and instead made up random meaninless categories such as:

Top 5 blogs for blogs beginning with the letters AB
Top 5 blogs for blogs beginning with the letters AC

And so on. Yes you'd be in the top 5! But what does that mean? Is a ranking of any value at all if people do not know or understand the reason the ranks are created? Does everybody want to go around shouting "I'm #1!" when #1 means they are the top person who was born on date X in town Y who has a webpage with exactly Z hits? Should people really be seeking higher numbers just because the number is higher, without any idea of how the ranking works or if quality is counted?

What Have You Really Achieved?
I was much happier working my way up honestly to #40 through diligent effort. To "jump" to #9 seems random. It seems to have happened solely because I happened to post random new reviews of items that didnít even get any votes, which seems wrong to me. It makes the ranking increase seem undeserved. Iím honestly ashamed of that, that the system would do that. I want to earn my rewards, not to get them just for posting in 400 random words. It bothers me to see the numbers change like that with no basis on quality. It bothers me that in a system of millions of reviewers, with many having thousands of reviews each, that I can write 3 new reviews and have that "matter" enough to change my ranking up. Someone else was demoted just because I posted in 3 reviews. That is not a valid metric to me.

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