A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 24, 2019

Why 'Amazon's Choice' Isn't the Endorsement It Seems To Be

Like so much on tech platforms, the label is an implied endorsement which the company, in this case Amazon, then claims is something less due to legally obfuscatory verbiage buried in its website.

These chronic attempts to enjoy the benefits of questionable behavior and then disavoying them when caught are among the reasons that popular support for tech is waning. JL

Shane Shifflett and colleagues report in the Wall Street Journal:

Amazon attaches the badge to products regulators have raised safety concerns about, that make false claims or whose listings have been manipulated by sellers to get the endorsement. Amazon gives the badge to items that violate its own policies.(And) the badge favored Amazon’s own products: the AmazonBasics brand had the most Amazon’s Choice badges of any brand identified. Amazon’s Choice status is valuable to sellers because it can garner a 25% bump in sales.A big reason “Amazon’s Choice” gets onto problem products is that an industry of sellers, consultants and software developers has sprung up to help game the algorithm.
Americans searching for last-minute Christmas gifts on Amazon will get lots of results that include “Amazon’s Choice” products. Many shoppers will assume that is a dependable stamp of approval.
It isn’t.
Amazon attaches the badge to countless legitimate listings, but also to products regulators have raised safety concerns about, that make false claims or whose listings appear to have been manipulated by sellers to get the endorsement.
Amazon sometimes gives the badge to items that violate its own policies. One is the energy supplement Redline Microburst, which calls itself a “fat burner” and which last week carried an Amazon’s Choice designation, even though Amazon rules explicitly prohibited sales of Redline-brand products.
Amazon has awarded the badges in recent months to a sexual-enhancement drink the Food and Drug Administration said contained Viagra, which is a prescription-only medication, and to five cellphone chargers claiming Apple Inc. certification that weren’t certified brands.
Amazon discloses little about the mechanics behind its Choice badge. Algorithms make most of the decisions, some former Amazon executives said. An Amazon executive in a September letter to U.S. senators said it uses “tools, including algorithms.” An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on the algorithms, saying the company considers product popularity, availability, customer reviews, pricing and other factors.
Sellers say they covet the badge because it can boost sales. For merchants marketing low-price knockoffs and illicit products, it offers a sheen of quality.
The spokeswoman said Amazon doesn’t tolerate policy violations such as fake reviews, counterfeits and unsafe products, and will remove Amazon’s Choice badges for products “that may not meet our high bar.” Amazon said it reviewed and addressed the problematic items identified by The Wall Street Journal. It updated or removed some of them.
Amazon’s website had listed Redline among prohibited brands of dietary supplements. After the Journal began inquiring about the Redline products’ Choice status, Amazon updated its list of prohibited products to include only specific Redline-branded supplements. Microburst is no longer among the banned items.
An Amazon’s Choice badge appeared in October on another Redline product, Xtreme, which the label said contained N-methyltyramine. The FDA includes that substance in an advisory list of ingredients it says it is still studying but has determined may not be legal to put in dietary supplements based on a preliminary evaluation. The Xtreme listing with the Amazon’s Choice badge was taken down after the Journal pointed it out to Amazon. There were Xtreme listings without the badge on Amazon on Sunday.
Jack Owoc, chief executive of Redline-products maker Vital Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in Florida, said the company is removing the questionable ingredient from future products, which are sold on Amazon only by other merchants.
To get a better picture of what gets the Amazon’s Choice badge, the Journal between August and December looked at 54,400 listings that included top listings from among 10 of Amazon’s most-popular categories—clothing, electronics and supplements among them—as well as results of spot checks that searched for brand names and prohibited items.
Of those, 27,100 proved to be Amazon’s Choice items, most with four-star-or-better ratings. The label appeared even more often for products such as supplements in the sports-nutrition category: 84% of about 1,000 listings with four-star-or-better ratings earned the badge.
Among findings from the 27,100 Amazon’s Choice listings:
* The badge favored Amazon’s own products. The AmazonBasics brand had the most Amazon’s Choice badges, 540, of any brand identified by the Journal.
* The Journal identified dozens of products that fail to meet safety standards, banned items, and listings falsely claiming official safety certification. A children’s musical instrument claiming FDA approval was Amazon’s Choice for customers searching for “noisy toys for 2 year old,” although the FDA doesn’t approve toys.
* Amazon’s Choice items came up when using some search terms for controlled substances such as steroids and marijuana products. A search for “psilocybin,” a hallucinogenic illegal in the U.S., offered “smart shrooms” with the badge.
* Nearly 1,600 listings showed signs of being manipulated by sellers attempting to obtain the badges—appearing to have tricked Amazon’s algorithm by promoting keywords that were highly specific, were misspelled to capture customers’ mistyping or contained brand names of other items.
Amazon launched Choice in 2015 so customers could shop through voice-activated devices such as its Amazon Echo speaker, which at the time didn’t have a screen for buyers to see listings.
The company chose “Choice” because it thought it wouldn’t imply as much backing as “Amazon Recommends,” said a former executive involved in the decision, adding: “We chose it carefully to try to signal that this is a great product, but this is not something that we endorse.”
Amazon developed an algorithm to determine its Choice assignments based on specific keywords. A customer could state “toothpaste,” say, and the speaker could add the Amazon’s Choice result to the shopping cart.
Amazon’s Choice status is valuable to sellers because it can quickly garner a 25% bump or more in sales, said Brandon Young, a Florida-based Amazon seller who said he sells toys and other products and who teaches classes on Amazon selling. Many merchants pore over Amazon’s sales and search data to figure out how to game the Choice status, say Amazon sellers and consultants who advise them.
“Amazon’s Choice is just free advertising,” said Ilia Belov, a dietary supplement-seller based in Austin, Texas.
A big reason “Amazon’s Choice” gets onto problem products is that an industry of sellers, consultants and software developers has sprung up to help game the algorithm, say sellers and consultants.In one tactic, sellers send links in social-media messages to consumers urging them to click and make a purchase, sometimes offering reimbursements. Those links are associated with keywords that aim to trick Amazon’s algorithm into thinking the product is more popular than it is and can help result in an Amazon’s Choice badge, sellers and consultants say.
Some sellers urge consumers to post high ratings, a factor in the badge math. The Journal ordered HempBri capsules, whose labels say they contain “hemp extract” and another supplement sometimes used to treat arthritis. The Amazon’s Choice product arrived with a card directing the buyer to a Facebook chat bot that asked if the buyer liked it. After the Journal replied affirmatively, the bot offered to put money in the buyer’s PayPal account if the buyer wrote a review.
The Amazon spokeswoman said the company is “relentless in our efforts to protect the integrity of reviews” and has prevented millions of attempts to leave inauthentic reviews. She didn’t address questions about the HempBri capsules, which were still listed as Amazon’s Choice on Sunday.
The capsules were one of 10 listings—among the 27,100 Amazon’s Choice products—that implied they had an ingredient not allowed by Amazon or that used information that could mislead customers into thinking they included such ingredients, such as photos of marijuana plants or marketing testimonials that mentioned the banned ingredient. These products are listed for as much as $100 an ounce with promises to alleviate pain, anxiety and stress—claims and price points often associated with cannabidiol, or CBD, which is banned by Amazon. The more-common hempseed oil often sells for under $1 an ounce.
“It’s a shame because consumers just don’t know how to tell the difference between these products,” said Erica Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association. The Journal couldn’t identify the company behind HempBri.
Amber Naturalz, a Tooele, Utah, pet-products maker, this summer learned that a counterfeit of one of its herbal supplements had the Amazon’s Choice badge. Terri Sutherland, an employee at the company, said the fake’s seller undercut the legitimate listing’s price, driving orders to the illicit seller—which, she speculates, helped get the badge.
Ms. Sutherland ordered the fake and enlisted a chemist to test it. The ingredients, she said, were completely different from the authentic product’s.
The counterfeit was removed from the site after she notified Amazon.
“My concern,” she said, “was people buying things on Amazon that can be ingested and it isn’t the right product.”


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