During two recent trips to Amazon.com, I was looking for two very different products.
One of them was a pair of inexpensive iPhone headphones. The other was a body wash.
Although the products themselves have nothing in common, both researches revealed a disturbing link: each list contained tons of positive reviews – but for completely different products. Merchants who sold the items I was looking for had apparently merged their new ads with older, outdated ads for completely independent products, such as an alternative-replacement pillow.
Their likely goal was to use the quantity and quality of unrelated old critics – the important signals that Amazon uses to rank products in search results – in order to improve the ranking of headphones and body wash, which made customers more likely to discover them.
These merchants managed to persuade me to discover their lists, but I recognized that something was wrong and I ended up feeling fooled.
I also left the website both times without making any purchase – and I felt much less confident about Amazon in general. And for Amazon, which has striven to build "the most planet-centric society," this mistrust is a big problem.
An opportunity generates exploitation
Over the past 17 years, Amazon has followed a brilliant book: recruiting millions of small businesses to sell on its Amazon Marketplace, allowing you to create everything without the risk of having to store your business. full inventory.
In many ways, this strategy has been a resounding success. More than half of the items sold on Amazon worldwide now come from these small and medium-sized businesses. just during the holiday season, these sellers have generated more than $ 13 billion and a revenue B – from Amazon. It is also a lucrative business for many small and medium-sized traders; more than 50,000 of them made sales of more than $ 500,000 on Amazon's platforms in 2018, the company said.
But the same opportunity Amazon has seen and sold to millions of merchants has attracted scammers and scammers around the world. Sometimes these scams are simple, as in the case of obvious counterfeit products. In other cases, as in the case of the site search algorithm, they are more discrete.
In both cases, the two types of deception lead to the same puzzle: the more Amazon's megastore grows and gains popularity, the greater the risk that it will explode.
If this sounds extreme, be aware that Amazon has not accumulated its current strength nor its market position through a magnificent shopping experience. Instead, it results from Amazon's powerful cocktail of convenience, selection, low prices and, perhaps most importantly, trust.
What happens while Amazon gives more and more third-party access to its global store? The number of opportunities for bad actors to plot harmful things is multiplying. The trust of customers and merchants is at stake – and Amazon knows it. The biggest threat to Amazon's future success is not an imaginary antitrust case; it's Amazon itself.
"We're working very hard to earn the trust, it's something you have to win," said Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon's vice president, responsible for customer trust and partner support, in a recent interview with recoding at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle. "We believe that we gain this through the actions we have taken, but we realize that we are not perfect, so we are constantly learning and trying to improve."
Amazon claims to be investing more every year to try to stay ahead of the bad guys, combining the best of what "machines" can do with the monitoring and evaluation for which "humans" are always the best suited.
The company says that for every ad that passes and is tagged after the fact, it now detects 100 lists of alleged counterfeit goods before a brand reports them. This is due in part to a new automated machine-learning system that the company officially announced Thursday morning, February 28, 2019.
Amazon on Thursday introduced two new anti-counterfeiting initiatives, but both require one brand to do more: one is a tool that allows brands to self-eliminate them. counterfeit suspected ads, while another would probably require brands to change their packaging design add a specific serial code to Amazon.
In addition, for more than three years, Amazon has been filing lawsuits against fictitious farms, warning traders, the press, the government and buyers that they are taking customers' trust very seriously. False valuations remain a major problem and the Federal Trade Commission has begun to act.
At the same time, Amazon's insatiable ambition means it's a long-term battle in which the company can never claim a 100% victory. If Amazon simply wanted to act as a normal retailer and secure all products directly from the brand that creates them, the online commerce giant could choke a good deal. Target, for example, announced this week its own market platform on which outside traders can peddle their merchandise, but via an invitation-only process that it says will maintain high product standards.
But Amazon does not want to be home just a massive selection of products. Amazon executives will not be satisfied if the Amazon product catalog is just bigger than any competitor in the world.
Instead, Amazon wants to sell "every authentic product in the world," according to Mehta.
At first reading, it could look like a technical manager in the throes of change. But Mehta referred to the same idea several times in a 30-minute discussion.
"We want all the products in the world to be at the lowest prices, as long as it's genuine," he told me.
And even: "[O]Your general mental model … is actually quite simple: we want the wide selection of all the authentic products in the world. [and] we want it at the lowest prices. "
You had the idea. (Wait a minute.) Are we really at the point of accepting such a goal as healthy?
If you believe it's really a central place Amazon's pursuit, compromises will always be necessary. You can not take all the products in the world if you buy each item directly from the brand that makes it.
Amazon is open about it. The company wants to get a product about as much as it can – even if it sometimes involves restricting and disrupting popular brands.
"Yes [a brand’s] three intermediaries have turned to a reseller who gets a genuine product – and they have great prices – we want it, "said Mehta.
This type of allocation creates all kinds of openings for what Amazon's trusted team calls "bad actors"; If you want to legitimately get your hands on all the products in the world, you have to accept some risk. Mehta's teams are so perilous where Amazon's appetite for growth comes up against what she says she can not do without: customer confidence.
And the list of projects they face is long. Beyond counterfeit goods, false positive reviews (intended to mislead customers) and false negative reviews (intended to harm a competitor), there is the problem of merchants "hijacking" the list of another seller. , which can involve all kinds of tactics to essentially steal the customer. the traffic of a reputable Amazon seller.
There are also more subtle sneaky tricks, highlighted by my experience results from the merger of sellers of new ads with old ones. Another popular system involves that a seller creates some sort of variant of a product sold by a big brand – a different package size or color, for example – and that list is added to the main product detail page on Amazon.
The latter is making the marks crazy, have recently confided leaders of the start-up Boomerang Commerce, because these "variants" are essentially negotiated on trust between a customer and a brand – or between a customer and Amazon – but can price per unit. Buyers might not do the math and end up paying more for their bundled products.
Despite Amazon's current and past investments in the prevention and tracking of various strategies and strategies, several connected sources that do business with Amazon believe that more clean-up might be on the horizon, perhaps as seismically as the update of the 2011 Google Panda algorithm.
Panda Google's internal search algorithm evaluated Web sites on the Web, improving the ranking of high-quality sites and by itself, crushing dozens of search engine game websites with poor quality content. Something similar for Amazon would want, hope its partners, eviscerate legions of shady merchants who use tips and tricks to get game search results.
It can be wishful thinking. If Amazon has such an initiative in preparation, it says nothing, although Thursday's anti-counterfeiting ads could be related.
In addition, Amazon will not recognize any major changes in the way it has begun to aggressively control its market over the past 12 to 18 months, although many of my sources say that something seems to have changed in Seattle over the past year. this period.
"In all the years I am here, we continue to invest more every year," Mehta said.
This makes sense because the long-term risks are real. Take my own recent buying experiences as uplifting tales. Prior to the incidents that I described at the beginning of this story, I generally trusted the average rating of reviews for the highest ranked Amazon products that had hundreds or thousands of reviews.
Now, I am more and more suspicious of all notices posted on the site – especially if they accompany a brand or product with which I have no previous experience. This comes from a family – mine – that has averaged about two orders from Amazon each week over the past year.
Customer confidence does not erode overnight. This happens slowly, disappointing order, disappointing order – and all at once.
Meanwhile, Amazon continues to create the all-consuming store. Will the compromises be worth it?