Will Amazon click with photography reviews?

Some ardent followers of Digital Photography Review are worried new owner Amazon.com will hurt editorial independence.
Written by Greg Sandoval, Contributor
Digital photographers on Monday were debating whether a retailer can also offer professional camera reviews without creating the perception that the opinions are biased.

The discussion was prompted by Amazon.com's announcement that it had acquired Digital Photography Review, a London-based Web site that specializes in reviews and news for shutterbugs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Amazon, of course, has for a long time posted user reviews to its site. But with its purchase of Dpreview.com, the e-tailer picks up a company that features professional reviewers who have amassed considerable credibility with a growing community of photography buffs.

Does the difference between reviews written by amateurs and those written by professionals matter? Amazon has never been seriously accused of gaming user-generated reviews and, though it hasn't disclosed the price of the acquisition, it would be hard to imagine the e-tailer would do anything to make Dpreview's 7 million monthly unique visitors question its integrity.

"One of the things we like about Dpreview is the fact it provides readers with unbiased, in-depth reviews," Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "We don't want to change the features that Dpreview customers enjoy."

On the site's message board, shortly after announcing the sale, Dpreview's founder, Phil Askey, posted a note telling users that reviews won't be compromised by the new corporate ownership. "I'd like to reassure you that this is a good day for everyone," Askey wrote on the board. "Amazon will have no affect on the reviews we write or the products we choose to review."

Still, some in his audience remained skeptical. One person who posted a reply to Askey wrote: "The minute they decide they can make more/faster bucks by starting to tailor reviews, mix marketing/editorial content and edit out negative user feedback it will happen. It's up to Amazon to decide."

What is Amazon's focus?
Skeptics also note that digital photography is white hot, generating about $18 billion in still-camera sales alone last year, and amateurs and professional photographers are plunking down thousands for digital cameras and equipment. With that kind of money involved, some Dreview fans fear the reviews will lose their independence.

Scores of companies enable users to post reviews or offer professionally written critiques on their sites, including Yahoo, AOL and CNET Networks, parent company of News.com. Most if not all of these companies have had to defend the integrity of their reviews at one time or another. Whether the item being reviewed is a movie, music or gadget, people often question whether a reviewer has a hidden agenda.

That leads to the Amazon question: why would an online retailer want to employ independent reviewers? That question was being asked even among the congratulatory e-mails posted to Dpreview.

Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research analyst, offered one explanation: Amazon can post some of Dpreview's content on the site and then crosslink to help sell cameras. In other words, Amazon doesn't have to do anything nefarious to make money with Dpreview, she said.

"There are many things that Amazon does that seem unintuitive to me," Mulpuru said. "This seems intuitive. Amazon is all about reviews, and getting cheap, quick content vetted by somebody else. I don't think Amazon has any interest in doing anything but putting links on the site that can help readers purchase cameras."

That's what Amazon did in the case of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). In 1998, the retailer bought IMDB, the company famous for supplying movie information. Since then, IMDB has remained largely independent and it indeed is hard to find much Amazon presence on the site other than links users can click on to purchase DVDs.

Amazon also has a record of trying to protect the integrity of reviews.

Three years ago, Amazon stopped accepting anonymous customer reviews, replacing them with a program called Real Names. A badge was posted to reviews of customers who wrote under their real names. Amazon notified customers that "a community in which people use their Real Names will ultimately have higher-quality content." Customers used their credit cards to prove their identities.

Michael Reichmann, a professional photographer for more than 25 years and operator of the site The Luminous Landscape, said it's a compliment to Dpreview's Askey that the site's users are worried about its future.

"They are smart to ask questions. Who has the purity of Consumer Reports?" Reichmann asked. "That said, if you are into photography, his reviews are very good and he's a very trusted voice. I don't see any harm to anyone as long as the reader continues to believe that he's editorially independent from his new parent company."

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