Amazon Gets Patents on Consumer Reviews

Review your local dry cleaner, pay $10 million?

User reviews are a hot new content area, being used by Google , Yahoo and MSN to sweeten their local search results. But as of Thursday, such consumer reviews could put search providers, as well as thousands of e-commerce sites, video rental or review sites and online booksellers, in the sights of’s lawyers.

The online retailer of books and just about everything else was awarded three new patents, covering its purchase circles, search and consumer reviews. While’s patent police would go after Web publishers, not consumers, the review patent could put the kibosh on the social networking components of many search services.’s purchase circles can be based on everything from a hobby to an employer, or they can merely peep to see what’s the hot book among Oracle employees. The patent covers methods of forming circles and marketing to them, for example, by showing one person looking at a book detail page and who else in the circle has bought that book.

The second patent covers a method of discovering and delivering as search results related products from multiple categories, such as books written by Steve Martin, as well as DVDs of movies in which he appeared.

The third patent is the real kicker. It covers methods for encouraging consumers to write reviews of items they’ve purchased by determining the optimal times to send them e-mails or reminders.

In one embodiment of the patent, the system sends consumers a message inviting them to write a review in a predetermined amount of time after the purchase. It’s a method widely used by online retailers, including Yahoo Shopping. The patent also covers the method of tracking who returns to rate products by asking them to click on a unique link in an e-mail.

But the patent even covers collecting reviews by letting visitors to a Web site fill out a form.

Yahoo has made a big push into user-generated media. In August, users of Yahoo 360 got the ability to rate local businesses and search for reviews written by others in their networks. spokesman Craig Berman said he couldn’t speculate on whether the company would attempt to license its new intellectual property.

As one of the first e-commerce companies, has been on both sides of patent infringement suits based on patents issued for practices that, in the time between patent application and award, have become standard operating procedure on the Web. These so-called submarine patents for business processes suddenly surface after other companies have based their operations on practices they cover.

For example, the Web seller has a hotly contested patent on one-click buying. It sued Barnes and Noble for infringing, but the rival bookseller won on appeal in 2001 and the companies settled in 2002.
Another covers hosting electronic forums for discussing items for sale.

At the same time, is being sued by another e-commerce pioneer, Cendant Publishing. Cendant holds a patent on using a customer’s purchasing history to recommend other items that might be of interest.

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