Building Web Reputation Systems

This review was originally printed in the June 2010 edition of the UKUUG newsletter, which is now defunct.

Title: Building Web Reputation Systems
Authors: Bryce Glass, F. Randall Farmer
ISBN: 9780596159795

Building a reputation system can be a fiendishly difficult task. How do you allow new users to build up trust, whilst still being able to participate from the offset? How do you ensure that ‘trusted’ users are rewarded for their efforts, without opening the system to abuse? Fortunately, help is at hand with this focussed and niche book from two employees of Yahoo.

The first chapter introduces the concept of reputation systems, with some useful case studies and examples. Refreshingly, no mention is made of software at this point, which allows the reader to understand the topic properly before getting bogged down with implementation details. The authors move on to discuss the various aspects of reputation, such as who is making a claim and what is the claim about? This sometimes seems like an obvious question, but by breaking a reputation statement down into its constituent parts, the authors make you think much more deeply about what a claim (e.g. ‘Person X enjoyed film Y’) actually means.

The next few chapters concentrate on reputation in more detail, looking at aspects such as the difference between a qualitative claim (e.g. ‘this restaurant was excellent’) and a quantitive one (e.g. a 5 star rating). They also cover some of the pitfalls you may encounter with reputation systems, such as the problem of trying to assign an overall reputation to something which has only received a small number of ratings. Common reputation methods are also covered, working up from the most simple models to more complex ones which require a certain amount of thought and planning.

Later chapters cover interesting topics such as how reputation should be displayed (arguably there is no pointing in earning reputation if no one knows about it) as well as how to use it to rank results and weed out undesirable content. Not until chapter 9 do we hear any serious discussion about integration, testing and tuning, together with an interesting warning about the dangers of excessive tuning of reputation systems. A detailed case study of an existing large-scale reputation system (Yahoo! Answers) rounds off the book nicely, although an appendix on reputation frameworks is available for those who want to probe deeper into the technical aspects.

Overall, whilst this book might seem like a niche topic, reputation systems are something which need to be considered by anyone working on a site which allows users, registered or anonymous, to contribute and rate content and each other, from eBay sales to forum posts. If you fall into this category, this book is well worth a read as it covers all the aspects of building a reputation system, yet does so in an abstract way which does not rely on any one technology or language. Even if you are not in a position where dealing with reputation systems is part of your everyday work, the book is worth a read simply for the interesting and in-depth analysis of how these systems can work, and why the final rating of an object might not mean what you think it does.


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