A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 6, 2018

How Sellers Trick Amazon To Boost Sales

As Amazon becomes more dominant, the benefits of gaming the system have risen - and the risks have decreased. JL

Laura Stevens and John Emont report in the Wall Street Journal:

The tactics threaten to undermine the integrity of one of the world’s largest web marketplaces (by)spawning an entire underground economy offering to deceive Amazon’s algorithms. Chinese sellers include the control of 8,000 U.S. buyer accounts to stimulate fake purchases and generate phony reviews.Another markets itself as having more than 10,000 Amazon accounts, local IP addresses, 100% real buying behavior and zero risk. The accounts can be used to generate reviews for products, and purchases are made with real credit cards,
Every day, dozens of young men crowd into tiny rooms with 30 computers each in northern Bangladesh. Their mission: Trick Amazon.com Inc. AMZN +0.57%
They open Amazon.com and repeatedly type in search terms, each time clicking on the links of products they were paid to boost, according to people familiar with the practice. Amazon’s algorithms begin recognizing that these products are popular, ranking them higher in the search results. The higher the ranking, the better chance of sales.
The scams are used to try to outsmart Amazon’s automated system that ranks some half-billion products in search results, according to interviews with consultants and businesses engaged in these practices, as well as sellers who say they have been approached by such businesses. It’s one of an ever-rotating wheel of tricks used to game Amazon’s algorithms. Some sellers pay off workers inside Amazon to gain competitive information. Others hurt rivals’ listings by barraging them with overly negative or positive reviews.
The tactics aren’t thwarting Amazon’s sales, which rose 39% in the second quarter, but they threaten to undermine the integrity of one of the world’s largest web marketplaces, which collects nearly half of every U.S. retail dollar spent online.
An Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement that those trying to abuse its systems “make up a tiny fraction of activity on our site.”
“We use sophisticated tools, including machine learning, to combat [bad actors], and we are making it increasingly difficult for bad actors to hide,” she said, adding that Amazon pursues civil and criminal penalties.
Amazon isn’t the only tech giant that has dealt with bad actors in the form of bots and click farms. Twitter Inc. has recently started clearing accounts flagged for suspicious activity from its systems, while Facebook Inc. has rolled out new features to make it easier to identify fake pages.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other advertising platforms have also faced an increase in potentially fraudulent traffic. In a recent study, Adobe found that about 28% of traffic across thousands of its clients’ websites showed strong “non-human signals,” leading the software company to believe that the traffic came from bots or click farms.
Fake Amazon reviews have been a problem for years, and Amazon has developed better countermeasures to fight them. But sellers are becoming more creative, spawning an entire underground economy offering to deceive Amazon’s algorithms.
The trickery can be seen on Amazon. A search last week for a blackhead-remover mask turned up more than a thousand options. One of the top-ranked results, labeled “Amazon’s Choice,” had hundreds of reviews averaging 4.3 stars.
But only the first four reviews were related to the mask—the hundreds of others mostly evaluated a battery charger. The merchant, labeled by Amazon as “just launched,” likely co-opted an old listing with positive reviews and changed the product’s image and description to fool Amazon’s algorithms, according to sellers and consultants familiar with this general practice. An attempt to reach the seller was unsuccessful.
Amazon’s algorithm typically weighs a variety of factors to give a product an “Amazon’s Choice” label, including positive reviews and price. After an inquiry from the Journal, Amazon removed the unrelated reviews and the product was no longer labeled Amazon’s Choice.
“Reports of abuse have spiked enormously,” says Chris McCabe, who formerly worked at Amazon as an investigator and now helps sellers fight these problems as a consultant. Companies providing these types of “services are bolder, now, too” he says.
Competition has grown fierce as the number of items on Amazon’s marketplace is estimated to have doubled over the past five years to more than 550 million, according to data-tracker Marketplace Pulse. Amazon also is pushing to expand internationally by soliciting manufacturers from China and elsewhere to sell direct to consumers.
Each time a shopper enters a search term, Amazon weighs a product’s attributes including sales volume, price and Prime-membership eligibility. It also factors in aspects like the quality of verified reviews or the number of times customers have clicked on a product.
To leave a review, a customer needs to have spent at least $50 over 12 months using a valid credit or debit card, according to Amazon’s policy. A “verified” review means that the customer purchased the product on Amazon and didn’t receive it at a deep discount.
Amazon allows some methods for boosting a product in its search rankings, including advertising on the site and selling at a steep discount. Sellers can also pay to have a product reviewed by a small, random selection of Amazon-authorized reviewers, though this doesn’t guarantee that the reviews will be positive. But sellers say those measures can be expensive, and they don’t always work.
Instead, some sellers--particularly those in China, according to the people familiar with the practices--are turning to other sources for help. For a range of about $30 to $180 a month, some websites viewed by the Journal promise a certain number of positive reviews by offering reviewers cash and discounts as incentives, flouting Amazon’s rules. Others promise to help sellers with rivals’ information.
Some China-based Amazon employees have been paid off by sellers to pull confidential seller-account stats, search-optimization tricks and other internal information, according to people with knowledge of the practice.
“Data security is a top priority, and we have strict policies and procedures in place to protect it,” the Amazon spokeswoman said in response to allegations of sellers paying Amazon employees. “We are conducting a thorough investigation of these claims.”
Click farms that manage thousands of Amazon accounts have also proliferated.
In China, for example, some secretive businesses rent or sell accounts so that merchants can use them to make purchases and leave positive reviews. To trick Amazon and boost a product’s ranking, sellers will ship an empty box with a real tracking number to accomplices in the U.S., who then leave a positive review for the product. They’ll also ship knick-knacks, like cheap watches, as a way to reward people who allow the use of their addresses.
One Chinese product seller said a company recently approached him, offering to help improve his sales. The pitch quickly turned to include the control of 8,000 U.S. buyer accounts used to stimulate fake purchases and generate phony reviews.
Another company markets itself as having more than 10,000 Amazon accounts, local IP addresses, 100% real buying behavior and zero risk, according to a presentation viewed by the Journal. The accounts can be used to generate reviews for products, and purchases are made with real credit cards, according to the presentation.
It charges an average of $5.42 per review—higher than its rivals’ average of $1.29—because of its claimed precautions. The company limits each account to eight reviews a month and only about 15% to 20% of products bought by each account is reviewed, according to its presentation, to mimic the behavior of real customers.
The Amazon spokeswoman said it determined that fewer than 1% of hundreds of millions of reviews were fake last month, and the company has sued more than 1,000 people for such abuse. Former employees and sellers say Amazon is frequently scrubbing suspicious listings, reviews and sellers, and it is catching some tricks like adding items to shopping lists to boost rankings.
In addition, Amazon has been working with Facebook to remove groups on Facebook that promote fake reviews, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But the tactics keep evolving, according to sellers and consultants.
Innoventic co-founder Michael Hartman said his company’s listing for a UFlex Athletics knee compression sleeve was recently attacked by a rival. His listing for the product was split into three listings, one for each size he offers. Not only did that cause the product to drop in the rankings, it also meant that consumers who found the listings were frequently ordering the wrong size. It took Amazon about three weeks to fix the problem.
Mr. Hartman has also dealt with counterfeiters, who have increasingly attacked small brands’ listings and have hurt his reviews.
“You don’t know how much time I’ve spent on this over the past year,” he said, estimating he’s filed between roughly 200 cases with Amazon.
After an inquiry from the Journal, Amazon removed some of the illegitimate reviews.
Sellers say fake reviews became more prevalent after Amazon tried to crack down on incentivized reviews in Oct. 2016, where sellers gave away or heavily discounted merchandise to solicit reviews.
As Amazon has cracked down on fake reviews, some sellers are leaving five-star, fake-looking reviews on rival listings so they trigger Amazon’s scam-detecting algorithm and get the rival seller suspended, according to the people familiar with the practices. Another tactic is to vote rivals’ bad reviews the most helpful. Others buy the product and leave safety complaints, which typically trigger an immediate listing suspension as Amazon investigates.
Sellers who are unfairly suspended will ask Amazon to investigate, but they lose sales during a typically weeks-long probe, said Howard Thai, a Shenzhen-based consultant who works with Amazon sellers to improve sales. “You have to climb back up that ladder,” he says.
Some consumers are catching on. Jennifer Bowen, an Arizona-based photographer, has bought ineffective products like eye cream based on five-star reviews, including some that appeared fake. Now she only looks at two-, three- and four-star reviews when she shops on Amazon.
“Nothing’s perfect,” she said. “I want the real honest assessment from people, and I feel like you find that more in less-glowing reviews.”


Post a Comment