I’m not anti-Goodreads. In fact, I usually love the site. I’ve managed to sidestep all the upset about the policy changes in recent months, especially the uproar over deleted shelves and reviews. I participate in Goodreads because I love tracking my own reading, keeping up with friends’ reading lists and reviews, and staying on top of new releases that I might otherwise miss. No drama for me, please! I have enough in my real life, thanks.
So what’s bothering me today?
It may seem like a minor point, but my issue today is with… (drumroll, please!) … SORT ORDER.
Huh? You may well ask…
On any book’s page, we get a synopsis and some details. Scrolling down, we see My Review, Friend Reviews, Lists with This Book, and then Community Reviews. And it’s in the Community Reviews section that I start getting annoyed. I supppose that it’s my own damn fault that until today, I never noticed that there’s a sort option for how Community Reviews are displayed. The choices are newest, oldest, and default. So what’s “default”? Goodreads describes its default sort option thusly:
The default sorting algorithm on Goodreads uses a variety of factors to determine the most interesting reviews. The recipe for our special sauce is a closely guarded trade secret, but the ingredients are: length of the review, number of people who liked it, recency of the review, popularity of the reviewer (i.e., number of people who have liked reviews by that person across all books).
So what’s my problem with this? The problem, for me, is that the review(s) that get the most prominence in the default sort order tend to be by reviewers who write the type of reviews that I personally try to avoid like the plague.**
**Hey, let’s be clear: To each his/her own! It takes all types, and I respect everyone’s right to write whatever they want, however they want! But I have preferences, and I know what I don’t like to read, and that’s all I’m saying here.
Again, just personal preference, but I can’t stand ranty reviews, the “look at me, I’m so clever” reviews — and I know some people love ’em, but I just don’t like looking at reviews with graphics/GIFs.
But beyond all that, I see no value in tearing down a book, and by extension, its author, for the sake of showmanship or attention-grabbing. But for whatever reason, it’s exactly these type of reviews on Goodreads that seem to get tons of “likes” — and therefore, those are the reviews that show up at the top of the sort order.
For a lot of books that are well-received overall or have a huge number of reviews, perhaps that doesn’t matter so much. But for a book by a new author that hasn’t “traveled” much yet, having a harshly negative (but highly “liked”) review pop up first in the default sort can only be damaging to its success. Let’s be honest: How far down do you scroll once you get to Community Reviews? Probably not that far, right? So if the first couple of reviews that show up are intensely negative, how likely are you to keep reading?
Don’t throw things at me when I state that I like Amazon’s lay-out better, where we see a graph of the reviews (how many per star category) prominently displayed above the individual reviews. Did you know you can read Goodreads reviews that way too? I didn’t, before today. Because it’s not obvious, and I just never thought to look. But yes, underneath the Community Reviews header, there’s an option for Rating Details, which displays all reviews sorted by stars.
Lo and behold! The picture really changes if you look at a review via Rating Details. In the case of the book that first set me off today, here’s what happened:
Under Community Reviews, by default sort, the first review is a one-star rant that, among other things, compares reading the book to “eating a rectum”. (There’s a lot more to the metaphor, but I’ll spare you.) Unbelievably, this review received 55 likes and 43 comments (many by the reviewer herself). Again, just to be clear, I respect the reviewer’s right to review the book as she sees fit. But is it fair to potential readers to have this review appear on top by default, unless they specifically change their sort order?
Looking at the very same book, if I click on the Rating Details menu choice, suddenly the book appears in a whole new light! 59% of reviewers gave the book either a 4 or 5 star rating, and only 4% of the reviews were 1 star. Wow, a lot of people liked this book! But you wouldn’t know that based on the default sort.
And when I open the page for other books I’ve read recently, the pattern seems to hold. For whatever reason, the ranty, negative reviews seem to get a lot of likes, which by the Goodreads “special sauce” formula means they rise to the top of the sort.
I don’t know why this particularly set me off today. Well, yeah, I do. I just felt bad, that’s all. I felt bad for the author who poured her heart into a first novel, and whose book’s page consistently shows this awful rant at the top of the Community Review section. How disheartening!
Like I said, I respect every reader’s right to give out one-star ratings as well as five-star ratings. And if you enjoy reading ranty reviews, by all means, have fun! But this super secret algorithm of Goodread’s seems a bit unfair in the long-run, as the picture that ends up being painted isn’t necessarily backed up by the totality of reviews given.
So, what do I want? I guess I’d like Goodreads to change their page lay-out, actually, although I suppose that’s wishing for the stars. Still, I think there must be a way to display data initially that doesn’t skew one way or the other, and that lets readers decide what type of reviews they want to focus on. I’m all for the fair and open exchange of ideas, but sometimes it’s the presentation that ends up mattering the most.
And when it comes down to deciding whether to give a new book a try, particularly when it’s by an author we’ve never read before, are we going to try the book that seems to have received very good reviews from most of its readers? Or are we going to read the book compared to eating very unsavory body parts? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
This is mostly a reminder to myself to dig deeper, I suppose, and not be unduly influenced by the first review I see, no matter how many “likes” it has. But for those of you — like me — who never paid enough attention to know that you have a choice, I have just two magical, important, life-changing words for you:
A note after the fact: When I posted this earlier today, I had a momentary brain lapse resulting in not quite getting the post title to say what I’d meant it to say. In other words, I screwed up my pop culture reference! Couldn’t rest until I fixed it. Aaah. All better now.