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Clout of the online critic carries promise of megasales

SEATTLE -- Keith Moerer is one of the most powerful music critics in America. But don't look for his writing in any major newspaper or magazine. He is music editor-in-chief at Amazon.com Inc., and his name appears in tiny italic letters at the bottom of Web pages.

In Mr. Moerer's world, commerce and commentary swirl together as never before. For the past year, he has used the online merchant's Web site to extol singer Lucinda Williams. As a result, her compact disks have soared in popularity, becoming some of Amazon's best sellers. For jazz buffs, he and his staff this month are pointing visitors to 11 compact disks that they portray as "the essential" Duke Ellington.Suddenly, the Internet is revitalizing the critic's role -- as online opinion leaders sway shopping habits to a degree that almost no one expected. "We can see something start at No. 2,347 on our sales chart and zoom to No. 87 within five or six hours after our reviews are posted," Mr. Moerer says.

He used to write for Rolling Stone and Spin magazines. Asked where his writing has the most clout, he says: "Amazon. No question about it."

A year ago, professional reviewers seemed helpless online in the face of a cyberspace free-for-all, in which millions of ordinary consumers with an opinion and a modem could announce their tastes to the world.

Now, paid critics are getting the last laugh. They are greeting online visitors earlier than ever in the shopping process, helping them pick out anything from a good spy novel to a reliable washing machine. Major Web sites are showcasing critics' top picks with easy-to-click shopping links that instantly turn readers into customers.

Microsoft Corp. this year paid $76 million for CompareNet Inc., a small San Francisco company that provides online guides for consumers wanting to buy cars, computers or appliances. That price amounts to more than $1 million per CompareNet employee. But Matt Kursh, a Microsoft executive, says that may be a bargain if it "lets us do a better job helping consumers sort through considered purchases."

Meanwhile, About.com Inc., New York, has built its business around providing expert overviews of 650 subjects, ranging from baseball to sightseeing in Warsaw. About.com's overviews are jampacked with links to other Web sites, including plenty of shopping services. Authors of these overviews are paid a percentage of transaction revenue generated from their site, which in several cases produces yearly paycheck and stock-option packages of more than $200,000.

For all their new power, Internet companies' in-house reviewers have their own critics, who accuse them of puffery and compare their generally favorable notices with criticism in other media.

Certainly, critics writing for the nation's leading newspapers and magazines traditionally have had no compunction about savaging works that displeased them. As one among countless examples, Pauline Kael, the New Yorker magazine's venerable former film critic, characterized "The Sound of Music" as "sugar-coated lies for the masses."

Online critics say the happier tone that prevails at their Web sites is a function of a different kind of business. Amazon's editors say their role is more like that of a store manager, putting everything in its appropriate context and then letting the public choose what it wants.

"I happen to think that 'Armageddon' is an incredibly stupid movie," says Jeff Shannon, editor of Amazon's DVD section. But his Web pages offer only the gentlest of rebukes for the shoot'em-up spectacular.

"There's nothing we could do to stop it from being a bestseller," Mr. Shannon says. "And why put down the large audience that would enjoy it?"

What's more, the Internet economy's dividing line between content and advertising is much blurrier than in traditional media. "At online stores, you never know what's spontaneous and what's been paid for," says Patricia Holt, a former book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Amazon, Ms. Holt notes, advertisers can buy prime mentions for specific books, movies and films. Such plugs are hard to distinguish from critics' free-standing choices, unless users check fine print at the bottom of Web pages to see which endorsements were paid for.

"There's some good critical writing on Amazon," Ms. Holt adds. "But I end up doubting the credibility of all of it."

In response, Amazon's executive editor, Rick Ayre, says the vast majority of Amazon's recommendations are done without advertiser support. Also, he says, Amazon's editors will veto advertisers' promotions if they believe the work in question isn't much good.

The heart of Amazon's reviewing strategy, Mr. Ayre says, involves a move away from title-by-title critiques in favor of broad overviews of an entire genre. Online stores now offer an enormous selection of merchandise, he says, with Amazon alone packing 16 million books, movies and music titles into its catalog.

Public commentary is endless, too, with at least two million customer reviews sprinkled across Amazon's pages. That sheer breadth can overwhelm consumers who aren't quite sure what they want.

So Amazon has embarked on a hiring spree, looking for editors who can beef up the company's most trafficked Web pages with detailed overview articles that double as shopping guides. That has been an especially fruitful strategy in areas such as jazz, classical music, art-house films and biography, where visitors want to build an impressive library but worry about making dumb choices if they don't get a little coaching. Among the company's recruits are Anne Hurley, the former executive film editor of the Los Angeles Times, and James Marcus, a long-time book reviewer for New York's Village Voice.

Ms. Hurley says she discovered the power of online recommended lists in February, just a few months into her Amazon job, when she and Mr. Shannon compiled a tribute to film director Stanley Kubrick immediately after his death. They included the obligatory praise of "2001," "The Shining" and "A Clockwork Orange." But some of the warmest words were saved for "Paths of Glory," a lesser-known earlier work. During the next two weeks, "Paths of Glory" sales surged 360 percent.

Being able to steer readers directly into purchasing a top pick is an intoxicating addition to a critic's repertoire, says Mr. Moerer, Amazon's music editor. "At Rolling Stone, I was never sure if a review had much impact," he says. "And in two weeks, that issue was gone. If I hadn't connected with readers, my chance had disappeared. Here, a review has an immediacy that can last forever."