Incentivized Reviews, Listing Restrictions and Cozying up to Brands

Review manipulation never really went away, listing blocks can be hard or soft, and Amazon is getting to be BFFs with brands. Whatever next?

This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Amazonian and founder of ecommerceChris.com. ecommerceChris shows Amazon sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.

The ban on incentivized reviews is over a year old, but the old adage on prohibition has held true: the practice hasn’t disappeared, it has just gone underground.

Amazon’s relationship with big brands has long been rocky, due to aggressive pricing and rampant fakes. But the times they are a changin’ as Amazon strikes a friendly deal with Nike. Who will be next?

HQ2 continues to make headlines, but while officials desperately bid for Amazon’s attention, are they leaving local small businesses out in the cold?

Meanwhile, “soft” listing blocks are common but not well understood. Do sellers ever need to do more than just edit and relist?

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Incentivized Reviews: The Sequel

Sellers have created new ways to unfairly influence product reviews, and Amazon has renewed its interest in stopping them.

It’s a little over a year since Amazon banned sellers from giving away free or heavily discounted products in return for reviews.

But recently I’ve been seeing a lot of suspensions for “review manipulation”. Sellers have continued to offer incentives for reviews, but instead of providing Amazon-generated discount codes, they have moved the practice elsewhere. They are now offering PayPal refunds and other financial incentives for reviews, thinking Amazon would never know. Many have now been suspended. Are sellers not aware that Amazon looks outside of its own borders, and off its own site?

Here’s a comment I’ve seen a few times from sellers when they get suspended for review manipulation:

We sent messages asking for reviews from Amazon top reviewers, from an email that has no connection to our business.

One of the reviewers actually emailed the seller back, citing the email queue they used (review-appeals@amazon.com) and saying, “You have been reported to Amazon”. If you want to know what Amazon will do when they hear directly from these reviewers, then this is it. Reviewers are now trained to report sellers, just the way Amazon wants. Amazon abuse teams want to know who’s trying to game the system, then they act.

They’ll shoot first and ask questions later, per the usual application of their Standard Operating Procedures.

Some sellers are still surprised that these suspensions happen, but they shouldn’t be. If a reviewer reports you to Amazon policy teams, for whatever reason, then you should expect a swift and ugly reaction. Don’t be shocked; this is bound to happen if you message someone who could easily turn around and report you.

Amazon may not take a lot of time to figure out the details of what you were trying to accomplish, or how you tried to do it. They’ll shoot first and ask questions later, per the usual application of their Standard Operating Procedures. Genuine top reviewers are afraid of being pitched offers, and associated with them upon later discovery.

What else is on the “don’t do this” list? Asking friends and family members to leave you reviews. They usually leave you good ones with nice comments, right? Sellers who wound up suspended for this and related activities often ask me, “How can Amazon tell?” The short reply is that they have in-house tools which are fairly sophisticated for determining relations between accounts, and then, beyond that, you also have competitors who are watching you and reporting what they see. The more they encourage investigators to look, the more the odds rise of them finding something they don’t like about how you pursue reviews.

So, be careful what you reach for, and understand that you can be reported at anytime, by anyone. Any seller who insists on using these tactics will pay for it, eventually.

Listing Restrictions: Soft Blocks and Hard Blocks

Sellers have been expressing confusion about Amazon’s listing restrictions, especially “soft blocks”, where they are able to edit and relist themselves.

I’ve been talking to a lot of sellers who find it difficult to take “soft” listing restrictions seriously. What does it mean if Amazon takes an ASIN away due to a “negative buyer experience”, only to allow the seller to relist it themselves? How bad could it be, versus a “hard” listing suspension, if Amazon offer sellers the chance to put it right back up?

Many of these soft blocks are warning signs, and we all know it’s risky to ignore those.

So, what exactly are hard listing blocks? These are ASINs that Amazon takes away completely, until they are convinced on appeal that the listings are safe to reinstate. Amazon’s hard block notifications ask for Plans of Action, with specific steps describing how the seller has identified past problems, rectified them, and put solutions in place to prevent recurrence. Enough hard blocks without proper response will eventually lead to a manual review of the whole account. We all know where that can lead.

But what about soft listing blocks? These allow the seller to edit and relist on their own, without appealing to Amazon. For ASINs near and dear to a seller’s heart, the temptation is strong to relist immediately and move on. Soft blocks often happen because return rates edge too high. Any seller who sees return comments like, “I picked the wrong size”, or, “I found it cheaper someplace else”, may consider the block illegitimate. A buyer made a mistake, or didn’t read the product description properly, or regrets paying up when they could have got it for less on another day.

It’s tempting to brush soft blocks aside as bot-generated, automated keyword-hits that need no further attention beyond a relist. But I encourage sellers to avoid falling into that pattern automatically. Today’s buyer mistake could be tomorrow’s genuine concern over the listing accuracy or the item quality. Many of these soft blocks are warning signs, and we all know it’s risky to ignore those. Sellers will assume that buyers are making up return reasons to get free shipping, or that the buyer failed to read the description properly. Either of those remain possible, sure, but do you want to gamble that Amazon sees it the same way?

My recommendation, beyond always reviewing soft blocks and taking them seriously, is to look for ones that require action, and take that action. For example, if items show up damaged, make sure your next batch has stronger packaging. Not sure what’s causing the problem? Pull some inventory back from FBA to inspect them, and find out. Removing a few items now could help prevent the permanent loss of your right to sell those via FBA later. Consider de-listing the product temporarily, too, while you determine what’s going wrong.

Action shows that you take buyer experience seriously, and you’re willing to undergo a few painful and time-consuming steps to make sure future buyers won’t be negatively impacted. I don’t always recommend that sellers email Product Quality laying out everything they’ve done to investigate and correct past problems, because that should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But in many instances, sellers can help protect their accounts with well-reasoned correspondence that proves to Amazon they are taking effective action.

Will Sellers Suffer as Amazon Gets Cozy with Brands?

Business Insider: Nike exec: ‘We’ve elevated the Amazon experience’

Nike has been selling direct to consumers on Amazon since earlier this year, under a pilot program. It has also been pushing Amazon to crack down on third-party resellers.

Amazon’s partnership with Nike hardly came as a surprise. Nike, as we saw with a lot of top-selling brands, needed to take action on the many reports of fake or counterfeit products sold online, even to the extent of public and aggressive action. To protect their trademarks and the entire reputation of the brand, they had absolutely no choice.

Recent inquiries indicate a spike in Nike-related suspensions.

Amazon’s efforts to follow up on buyer complaints around authenticity represents a core piece of this new Nike deal. This has resulted in a significant increase in enforcement actions against third-party (3P) sellers, both those reported legitimately by concerned buyers and those reported in error, or in fear of fakes.

Recent inquiry forms coming through my website indicate a spike in Nike-related suspensions. 3P sellers of Nike products have it tougher now than ever before. For some, they have only lost a few ASINs, perhaps even a few top-selling items. They may even tolerate some listing suspensions, if they have a shot to retrieve them on appeal, or if they find themselves out of stock for those items. If there is no immediate impact, then why worry?

Others have had account suspensions that ask for proof that they sell authentic Nike products, as part of an appeal. At that point, the seller may lack viable options. Do they have to give up selling Nike for good, or could they ever convince Amazon of product authenticity with only a store receipt?

Typically that steers the conversation into the ever-popular, “Is retail arbitrage dead as a business model?” topic, but that’s not where I want to take things now. I’m more interested in addressing Amazon’s interests in cozying up to big brands, at the expense of marketplace resellers. Let’s consider the broader patterns of Amazon’s behavior.

Amazon must protect the integrity of their marketplace at all costs, and for good reason. The influx of potentially counterfeit product expanded greatly in the past couple of years, resulting in numerous bad buyer experiences, bad press, and complaints from legitimate sellers competing with lower-priced bad product. This trend made all parties and stakeholders unhappy, across the board, except for the perpetrators themselves, and Amazon had to do something about it.

From Nike’s side of the fence, they clearly had concerns over where various sellers were sourcing inventory. Lower-priced Nike products that were trending far below norms concerned them for obvious reasons. They needed to know, one way or the other, if these items were legitimate, and the best means available were to either buy the products and test authenticity that way, or to submit repeat Notice Claims of infringement around trademark or IP violations.

Then a path opened up that appealed both to Nike and to Amazon: let’s do this thing together. Nike can feel better about the prices of their products and spend less time, and money, worried about who is selling what on Amazon. They can sleep more easily, knowing Amazon will take care of that for them.

It’s a major sign of things to come, and you can expect Amazon to negotiate continually behind the scenes with major brands on similar arrangements.

HQ2: What Will it Mean for Sales Tax?

CBS News: “Further complicating the Amazon sales tax debate are the efforts of states to land the company’s second headquarters, expected to generate as many as 50,000 jobs.”

Complicated indeed. The above quote comes from Jonathan Berr’s piece for CBS/Moneywatch on the sales tax amnesty program, not from a story about Amazon’s search for another HQ.

What’s more important to a city or state? Generating jobs, or speaking up for small businesses?

So what has the search for Amazon’s second U.S. headquarters got to do with sales tax? Well, many states need to show they have at least attempted to lure Amazon to their cities, lest they be accused of failing to show interest in job generation in their backyards. Which state house or city mayor wants to be taken out by an opponent in the next election, because they failed to act on this kind of opportunity? None that I know of.

But that means they may be less inclined to rock the boat on sales tax in any way that could be against Amazon’s interests. That might include not pushing for Amazon to accept they are responsible to collect taxes on sales through their marketplace, instead of individual third-party sellers.

So, what’s more important to a city, or state? Generating jobs, or speaking up for their small businesses? Many SMBs sell on Amazon.com and other marketplaces. Those businesses employ people, too. As time goes on, we’ll all need to analyze the complex impact of all ecommerce on the economy, not just Amazon’s impact. These questions go way beyond the recent sales tax amnesty or even taxes, period.

More generally, how interested are politicians in discussing the effects of major policy initiatives that attract large corporations to their regions? Do they focus on the positives and the negatives, looking beyond the immediate benefits to the burdens that long-term relationships with powerful companies can bring? How involved are citizens and local business owners, and do they get a seat at the table when it’s time to talk about the “Thanksgiving feast” of an economic boom or bust?

Most of what I read in the local and national press about Amazon’s choice focuses on trying to predict who will “win” and who will “lose” this lottery. For now, let’s count my hometown of Boston as one candidate with legs, due to the highly skilled and educated workforce. Talented and driven people from all over the U.S., indeed, the world, have demonstrated solid willingness to move here. They come to attend Harvard or MIT, so why wouldn’t they move here to work at Amazon? Other than the freezing cold and snowy winters?

And Finally… Hey, Big Spender!

Bloomberg Gadfly: Amazon Doesn’t Deserve a Blank Check

Amazon’s Q3 revenue rose about 34 percent, but spending is growing faster. 98% of the money coming through the door is poured into current operations as well as future ventures.

Amazon’s a big spender. They postpone immediate profits and forego share price spikes, in order to reinvest in the company’s growth. They would never have made moves into various industries ripe for disruption, without bold reinvestment choices that required spending giant piles of cash. Maybe the cloud-computing services area dominated so forcefully by AWS would not be with us today, without moves that put off profit gains and investor gratification.

As indicated in the Bloomberg piece by Shira Ovide:

The company has changed how millions of people shop, created a giant cloud-computing operation from scratch and greatly expanded its market by serving as a middleman for product sales by millions of merchants.

So far, so good. But what if investors demand certain guarantees, or at least a bit more insight into how those investments are evaluated prior to execution? Are today’s winners going to be tomorrow’s losers?

Let’s look at Amazon Studios, as I have previously, with its reputed $5 billion investment in entertainment content. Have we seen returns on that cash in the form of bankable hits? Or do stockholders need to hear more about how they operate within industries that are relatively new to the company?

Amazon hires like crazy and builds FCs anywhere they can, it seems. Can that last forever, or will the spending slow to accommodate any unrealized profit potential in the future? We’ll certainly see soon enough.

What’s new and impacting your business as a marketplace seller? Drop an email to thisimpactsme@webretailer.com and I’ll look into it for you.

Chris McCabe can be contacted via ecommerceChris.com.

Surprised Man
Want to grow your Amazon business?
Automate pricing, request feedback and reviews, improve your marketing & SEO and a lot more. Amazon consultants help with difficult issues like suspension, or help grow your business. All in the Web Retailer directory.
View Amazon Selling Tools Now

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