More on the GoodReads meltdown

After reading quite a bit about GoodReads, both from the site itself and that which has been written about it, I have come to the conclusion that the current problems which have come to light are an outgrowth of a fatal flaw in the structure of the site itself, and unless that flaw is addressed, things are just going to get worse.

Much has been said about the behavior of both reviewers and authors, and there is certainly much to criticize regarding how the users of the site have chosen to escalate their conflicts.  I, however, am more interested in the genesis of those conflicts.

I believe that the essential problem that GoodReads faces lies in the confusion between rating for review and rating for recommendation, and that the structure of the site encourages such confusion.

To take a counter-example, let’s look at Netflix–one of my favorite sites of all time.  Netflix is designed so that users rate for recommendation.  I rate movies and TV shows based on my own personal preferences, and the purpose of the rating system is to allow the site to suggest other films similar to the ones I have enjoyed.

For example, I love Con-Air.  Sweaty guys blowing stuff up, fist fights in the belly of a plane, landing an aircraft on the Vegas strip, fergoodnessake, it’s an hour and a half of brainless fun.  When I’m stressed, I put it on and let Nick Cage and John Cusack pummel my brain into jelly.  But when I rate Con-Air five stars, I am not saying that it’s the best film since Citizen Kane, what I am saying is, “I enjoy this–show me more like it.”

On the other hand, if I rate Whatever Happened To Baby Jane as a two, I am not saying that it’s a bad movie–technically, it’s brilliant–I am saying, “I don’t enjoy this one, so don’t recommend movies like it.”

In short, my ratings on NetFlix have very little to do with the quality of the film in a cinematic sense and everything to do with my tastes.  NetFlix doesn’t suggest Westerns to me, not because Westerns are bad, but because I’ve made it clear that my taste doesn’t run that way.  If someone were to use my NetFlix ratings as a scale of value, it would suggest that William Castle was a better director than John Ford, which is absurd.  Netflix ratings aren’t meant to be used that way, they are a way for me to keep track of what I’ve liked, and to find more of the same.

Now let’s look at rating for review, which is what you see on a site like Amazon.  For an Amazon review, I use a much different (and, it is to be hoped, more objective) standard of value.  Obviously my own taste will influence how I like a particular book or movie, but when I write a review for public consumption I try to address the quality of the work more than my own experiences.  I am rating it not only for myself, but also for others.  I would not give Con-Air five stars on Amazon, nor would I give Whatever Happened To Baby Jane two.

GoodReads is set up for rating for recommendation.   It is designed to introduce readers to books based on the reader’s own preferences.  It was built by readers, for readers.  As such, it is good at what it does.


The problem lies in the way that ratings are shared.  Because unlike NetFlix, GoodReads doesn’t keep my personal ratings private.  What’s worse, it uses an aggregate rating system that is visible to other users and to the author of a work.  And that, I believe, is the root cause of the reviewer/author flamewars so rife in the site’s forums.  GoodReads uses a rating for recommendation system, but publicizes it like a rating for review system and the two standards of value are incompatible.

In my opinion, the solution is simple–stop showing ratings to anyone other than the user who rated the work.  I don’t need to know that a fan of Historical Romance isn’t interested in reading Catskinner’s Book (I can probably figure that out for myself.)  Although the site does make it clear that ratings are personal and for the purpose of recommendations, the fact that everybody gets to see everybody else’s ratings makes it look like a review site.

Because of that, how I choose to rate something effects not only my own recommendations, but also how other people see a book.  If a mystery comes up rated at two stars, I don’t know if it’s a poorly written book, or just a book that had the bad luck to be rated by a bunch of people who don’t like mysteries.

What’s more, the way in which the aggregate ratings are calculated and displayed allows for abuse of the system.  These abuses have been adequately documented elsewhere, there’s no need for me to list examples.  My point is that keeping individuals ratings private would remove the pay-off for malicious use of the rating system and remove the incentive to artificially inflate ratings with sock puppet accounts.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Promotion, On Publishing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to More on the GoodReads meltdown

  1. Reblogged this on Legends of Windemere and commented:
    I apologize for the reblogs, but this has to be one of the greatest posts on types of reviews that I’ve ever read. Big difference between rating for review and rating for recommendation.

  2. I think I’ll be staying away from Goodreads. It sounds scary.

  3. Of course there are many that I haven’t read, but this is by far the best Goodreads-related article, post, discussion, rant, or whatever that I’ve ever read. Outstanding! 🙂

  4. I say let the readers and reviewers have their opinions. The cream will always rise to the top no matter what a few silly detractors say. Case in point, Dan Brown, Stephanie Myer and E.L. James are without a doubt some of the most ridiculed authors today but they don’t whine. Heck, they act like they don’t even have critics.

    Now I am against trolling and sock-puppeting but it’s has been a reality in the publishing business for decades. Back in the pre-internet days, there have been authors blacklisted because an editor or agent didn’t like them. Also, there were reviewers who repeatedly slam certain authors or genres just for fun. The online world has just seems to have exacerbated it. I think authors would do well to watch J.K. Rowling and create their own place where they can interact with their fans and not worry so much about smacking down trolls.

  5. KokkieH says:

    I think there is another problem besides the one you highlight here – Goodreads has become like most fan forums, with a group of insiders who dominate it and anyone who dares to disagree with their opinion gets attacked personally. Just read the type of comments given to reviewers who write a negative review about a book that tends to be popular (and vice versa). They don’t care that the reviewer makes valid points with literary merit. They just care whether or not the reviewer parrots their opinions. They pick on reviewers just as easily as on authors and, as your previous post and some of the links in the comments make clear, there’s no moderation and no way to report abuse.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that, along with chat rooms and the comment sections on news sites, Goodreads is part of the dark side of the internet and I’ll be avoiding it.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That’s another issue that also needs to be addressed, true, but other sites have had problems with forum moderation and been able to clean house. More moderators and clear rules would go a long way towards fixing that.

      • KokkieH says:

        Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to bother Goodreads. If they don’t care about abusive comments (and downright illegal behaviour), why will they implement these measures, simple as they are? And taking legal action to force them might turn out more costly than it’s worth, even if you manage to beat what I’m sure is Amazon’s very formidable team of lawyers.

        I’m afraid I don’t share your optimism that it can be fixed 😉

      • MishaBurnett says:

        And you may be right. We will see–one things for sure, if they don’t at least try to address the problems people will continue to leave the site in droves.

  6. Patti Hall says:

    Rationality when we need it. Thank you!

  7. Green Embers says:

    I kind of agree. You’re mostly talking about people who leave just a star rating but not a written review right? Alternatively what goodreads could do when it recommends a book for you is to show what they think you will rate it like Netflix does. Still show the overall aggregate of star ratings but then also show what they think you will rate it. Netflix has gotten pretty good at predicting what I will rate something actually, lol.

    I don’t know what is going with this meltdown thing do you have a quick summary?

  8. I’m trying not to be discouraged by this type of behaviour. There is a line between having a thick skin as a writer and enduring harrassment. I think the entire review/recommend system on Goodreads is flawed as in many cases it is being used to reflect the reviewer’s personal taste and not on the quality of the book itself. I’m interested to see what people have to say on Goodreads about books that I want to read but I am unwilling at this point to engage in any promotional activities for my own book when it’s ready. I’ve heard of one star reviews given because someone didn’t win a giveaway. Many, many things will have to change.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I don’t think that ratings based on personal taste is a problem–providing that everyone involved understands that. As I said, I think the GoodReads recommendation system would work if the ratings weren’t publicized.

      • This is what I was getting at – I don’t think some users understand the system.. A book may be rated at 1 or 2 stars because the reader simply didn’t like specific character traits and wouldn’t recommend it. Another user might take this to mean that the book is lousy. I agree with your last point. Great post! Looking forward to future posts!!

  9. Interesting article. Leaves much room for thought. I personally enjoy Goodreads and have had good experiences. When I review books on the site I usually base the rating on how much I enjoyed the book. What I liked or didn’t like. I don’t criticize too much but then again I usually only read what I like. I find like minded people to see their reviews and go from there. Perhaps I am naive in this but so far I have enjoyed my Goodreads experience.

  10. atsiko says:

    I disagree. I want to know how other people have rated a book, even if they didn’t do an actual review.

    I think the real problem with Goodreads is not that it it is set up for rating as recommending, but claims to be rate for review. I think the problem is that it tries to do both things at once.

    I go to Goodreads–as I imagine most people without an account do–to see ratings for review. Whereas I imagine most people with accounts go to see ratings as recs. So there are those two sides fighting for dominance, and then to top it off you have Goodreads advertising to authors as a way to get their book out there, and that just makes the problem even worse. Step 1 should be to get rid of the author-side crap. That prevents most of these blow-ups because it makes it clear the reviews and the site are NOT ABOUT THE AUTHOR.

    I don’t know that there’s an easy way to solve the whole review vs. recommendation issue. Perhaps have public AND private ratings? That seems like it could get confusing, though. One step at a time.

  11. mrsgillies says:

    Wow. I totally didn’t know that Goodreads was meant to be like that. I thought it was rating for review. Good job Goodreads, good job. Not.

  12. Brilliant! I love Goodreads to keep track of my own reading records. I don’t even like to rate or review stuff, because I don’t want to get involved in that nonsense. But if it worked on a recommendation algorithm like Netflix–man I’d be all over that!

  13. Tuan Ho says:

    Great post. This is something that all reviewers need to address. I see way too many bloggers/authors get hung up on deciding if a book is a 4-star book or a 5-star book, but it really doesn’t matter. When I read a review, I rarely pay attention to the actual rating itself. I look for why/why not I should read it based on what the reviewer thinks.

    Even if a reviewer has given it a glowing review, but has left a mediocre 3-star rating, I’ll still check out the book.

    Whereas if it was the opposite — mediocre review for a 5 star book, I would question whether the reviewer has actually articulated themselves properly as to why the book deserved 5 stars.

    And I also do what you do. I got flamed on the IMDB messageboards a few years ago because I rated movies either a 1/10 or a 10/10. But I wasn’t using the rating system properly (and of course I know that) I was using it as a ‘thumbs up, thumbs down” reminder for myself.

    Again, great post. I’m glad someone brought it up. 🙂

  14. Gen Xavier says:

    So far the only scary thing for me about Goodreads is authors that doc-drop people because they don’t like them. Rick Carufel’s a peach.

  15. Excellent post! You’ve nailed one of the major problems starting the misunderstandings. I agree that they’ve tried to do everything at once without clear direction to the users, and ended up creating a mangled mess. I’ve had good luck there, but it’s taken quite a bit of research and staying ultra professional. Fortunately, that’s my default when in doubt.

  16. scantan says:

    Reblogged this on Simon Cantan and commented:
    Extremely good points about the Goodreads system that I’d never considered before. I’d definitely recommend a read.

  17. Pingback: My Top 13 Posts Of 2013 | mishaburnett

  18. Ky Grabowski says:

    Hi Misha!

    Awesome name by the way. Thanks for sharing your post! I really enjoyed reading it. I liked how you put it together, the example with Netflix is genius.

    I really miss Netflix ha-ha.


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