This post is by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy.
As a former Amazonian, I am amazed that sellers of their own private label brands face as many listing attacks as they do.
The attacks themselves are no surprise. They’ve been going on for years, given a highly competitive marketplace where some sellers compete by trying to cheat. What unnerves me is the many kinds of abuse these brands see without a reliable means to report it, and how easy it is to attack another seller without consequences.
Nowadays, hundreds of third-party service providers exist for the sole purpose of helping a seller attack their competitors. Aside from a few targeted lawsuits and intermittent seller account suspensions, Amazon hasn’t slowed black hats down.
Amazon sellers need to understand the nature of these attacks and how to report them properly.
When black hats attack, what can Amazon do to help you?
Amazon’s enforcement teams only appear to be able to identify obvious attempts to conduct abuse, like unauthorized detail page edits or insertion of back end keywords intended to trigger the policy violation bots.
If you get a notification from Amazon that you have a listing which violates their policies, and you are sure that this was due to competitor sabotage, then:
- Download a Category Listing Report for any content changes that you didn’t make. If you don’t have this report, contact Seller Support to get it added to your Inventory Reports
- Call the Catalog team through Seller Support. This may help you to determine what happened. Was it a technical problem, a glitch, or something more sinister?
- If the Catalog team can’t explain what happened, it may just mean they don’t know where to look or don’t understand what they’re seeing. Sometimes they can tell that something that should not have been changed was altered by Amazon staff, and they can’t or won’t try to explain it. So they focus on proposing solutions instead. You may need to call more than once to get a proper answer.
- You can also try creating a ticket via Brand Registry. These tickets can be routed to the appropriate team on occasion, but rarely do you find the right actions taken in a timely manner (often nothing happens at all, other than standardized copy and paste responses with no useful information).
- If you have one, your Strategic Account Manager can help you with filing Strategic Account Services Core tickets to report abuse and route the complaint internally to the appropriate team. For product review abuse, it goes to PRA (Product Review Abuse). If the issue is related to your listing or branded content, they send it to MPA (Marketplace Policy Abuse).
- A lot of sellers report brand, listing or reviews abuse via email queues (email@example.com), which Amazon encourages them to do. Rarely do they hear anything back other than a boilerplate message saying Amazon has investigated and taken “appropriate action”. This doesn’t actually mean that any action was taken. It just means that they may have looked into it and done something as a result, but don’t count on it.
What happens when sellers report abuse, using those steps?
It’s best to think of Seller Support tickets or emails to the open queues as a starting point, not the finish line. You may see a lack of action even when they DO reply to you. Amazon loves to say that they cannot disclose the specific steps they took to resolve the report, but is that simply an excuse not to do anything at all? Most sellers who hire my company have already tried low-level approaches like this and got absolutely nowhere.
I don’t believe that Amazon plans to offer transparency into their process anytime soon, that’s the bad news. The good news is that Brand Registry showed a recent uptick in deleting some fake negative reviews, and occasionally, they help sellers resolve obviously bogus IP complaints against their brands. These teams still act mostly on obvious, easy cases that require almost no time to review, but at least that’s a start. We used to see no action on any case sent to abuse teams.
Black hat sellers have become savvy after years of gaming the system and from paying for services that know how Amazon’s system works, and what to exploit. Some abuses continue unabated because fraudsters constantly observe and adapt, to stay current on what they can manipulate.
Abuse tactics we are seeing now are not the same ones being used a year or two ago. And Amazon is usually behind the times. I’ve spoken to Amazonians that have left the company recently, and they all described how inundated with cases those teams are, to the point that crucial details are missed in the chaos. This often results in poor decision making.
In fairness to Amazon, if they close one gap, fraudster sellers or service providers find new loopholes. Amazon also sees that sellers misidentify abuse when they have actually committed listing policy violations themselves. On top of that, sellers will report bad reviews that were not from a competitor, but they instinctively blame competitors anyway. Make sure you don’t fall into this, and always give Amazon accurate reports that can be used to take action.
What more can you do on your own, or with help?
Brands are usually perplexed when they receive an ASIN takedown notice, telling them that their top selling product was suspended for violating detail page rules. The seller may be aghast at these actions, because they didn’t enter the violating terms in their backend keywords and didn’t change their images to a totally different product.
When this happens to you, what should you do first? Depending on the situation, consider the following:
- Are there specific fake negative reviews within a short space of time? Those can be reported to PRA (Product Review Abuse) teams. Make sure you show evidence of a pattern.
- Do you know who your main competitors are? Have you seen them buy from you before? See if you can find a trail of evidence, then lay that out for abuse prevention teams to follow.
- Are your competitors active in a popular mastermind or social media group? Amazon has gradually become aware of certain groups known for black hat behavior. If the seller is active in one of these groups, you may be able to use that. Report the group, or the competitor, or both, if you have found a connection.
- Were product images changed, bullets edited, or illicit terms added to your keywords? This could indicate “internal team abuse”. Amazon needs to know if someone on their staff took action against you. Flag the abuse to show you’re under attack, and appeal for ASIN reinstatement while also showing the MPA (Marketplace Policy Abuse) team what changed on your listing.
- Bogus IP complaints are everywhere. Do you have all of your rights ownership documentation ready to submit and open cases via Brand Registry and Seller Support? If Brand Registry ignores you or copies and pastes you to death, complain to marketplace VPs that infringement teams aren’t doing their jobs properly. They won’t be shocked! Poor investigations are part of Amazon’s “new normal”, sadly.
We know this is a lot to take in. As a growing brand struggling to keep up with increasing sales, murky template messages from Amazon don’t help at all. They create a difficult environment for you to communicate with their teams. Unfortunately, it’s up to you to push them to solve the problem.
Brand abuse on Amazon: the steps we recommend
The first thing we usually ask a seller is to identify who is doing the abuse. That may or may not be possible, but it gives you an avenue to track a competitor’s behavior against you over time. If you can only report what actions you saw were taken against you, then yes, go with what you’ve got. But if you can nail down date and time stamps of their attacks and harvest additional information such as the service they used, that will help Amazon justify spending time on your case.
Secondly, since listings can be changed via a flat file or feed, maintain a paper trail of changes within a Seller Support case or Brand Registry ticket. If you can’t narrow down which seller is attacking you, then give Amazon enough crumbs to follow the trail back to your attacker. Pushing Amazon to help you based on a combination of their own internal info and your supplemental evidence is the only way you’ll get this fixed.
Thirdly, show Amazon teams your open, unresolved cases. If they complain that you haven’t sent reports to the right queue, show them your initial submissions in Seller Central. If you have a SAM (Strategic Account Manager), show them the last time you updated your listing batch ID and ask them to find out where your unauthorized listing changes originated. If you get ignored, quickly escalate to a manager or VP for an actual investigation, and real action.
Emphasize that none of the offending information was in your listing until someone else added it. Whoever it was, it wasn’t you, and you’re the brand! Why can’t Brand Registry protect you against this? Indicate that the listing was attacked using gaping loopholes and it’s costing you the revenue that your SAM is meant to grow.
In the course of working on these problems for sellers, multiple Catalog team members indicated to us that no visible audit trail exists for API changes. So you need to maintain your own listing history to refer Amazon back to. Some Amazon teams only look at the current state of your listing. You have to prove that you did not make those changes. As unfortunate as this is, Amazon Catalog teams need your help in terms of where to look for backend keyword abuse. If they can’t track it and they can’t see it, you’ll require escalations to demonstrate that the attack really did take place.
And finally, if you’re attacked repeatedly, use that to your advantage. If it’s the same ASINs every time and the same competitor pulling the strings, force Amazon to acknowledge the pattern. You need to figure out where that sniper’s nest is, so they can go after the source.
Lead with the number of times it’s happened to you, or to that ASIN. Promise that your escalations will only repeat if Amazon has to mop up this mess over and over and over. If they continue to ignore these cases that strike so many sellers, mountains of work piles up on top of the mountains they already have. Amazon must treat the disease and not just the symptoms!
What examples do we see a lot? Sellers trying to get competitors flagged for restricted products is a big one. Pesticide restrictions are a hot topic, and black hats know that algorithms are going nuts on those right now. Targeted sellers have found terms related to pesticide products inside their backend keywords. Amazon’s bots pick those up and the listings get suspended immediately, even if the products have nothing to do with pesticides. The fact that you can get a competitor’s ASIN suspended by monkeying with their branded content scares a lot of people. But Amazon can’t seem to close that loophole.
As a result, some sellers use software tools to update their listings every six hours via the API, just to be sure that their own data contributions stick. When we worked at Amazon, we were able to see an audit trail of updates to the listing. Whether the tools changed or Amazonians just aren’t trained in how to use them now, they can’t backtrack properly and fix this problem.
What do you do if Amazon ignores you?
We work with brands who are getting attacked by competitors who manipulate Amazon internal teams to their advantage. We recommend that you get prepared and build a “how-to” guide into your SOPs. Learn how to escalate these appeals accordingly!
Why is Amazon so bad at this? Abuse teams have metrics, just like Seller Support or Seller Performance do. Like anyone else at Amazon they need to complete a lot of casework each hour. The fastest way for them to get something resolved is just to toss it aside. If they’re not being judged or graded on the quality of their investigations, they aren’t incentivized to actually act on abuse reports. So you have to push upper management for review and response.
Abuse cases must be escalated in order for substantial action to happen. Use the wealth of information in press reports, congressional testimony and LinkedIn to uncover Amazon’s management hierarchy. Find out who manages these teams and reach out to them to report bad behavior on the marketplace.
I wish I could tell you that once you finally break through and get action from the “issue prevention” teams, that your problem will be solved. But in our work with clients, we see people who have top ASINs attacked every 24 hours.
In the old days, bogus safety or one-word complaints of “fake” would happen every other week. Now black hat sellers and services realize they can just go right at your listing to get it flagged by algorithms and get you suspended. A lot of the ASIN-level suspensions for “unsubstantiated health claims” came from this type of abuse, and NOT from the wording that sellers left in their own detail page content.
Final advice for the newly initiated
Consistent listing removals and policy warnings put your whole account at risk. If Amazon thinks you keep breaking the rules, and they have no better info about what is happening, they will suspend your account until your “Plan of Action” comes along.
Remember, Amazon is a “shoot first, ask questions later” marketplace. You need to resolve abuse problems before you receive warnings or have to go through reinstatement appeals. Some sellers may see their Account Health bar go from green to yellow before they start paying more attention, but by then they are already in a hole. So prepare now for trouble down the road.
Any successful seller could be harmed while Amazon is struggling with abuse prevention. They largely react to reports instead of initiating independent reviews of shady behavior and proactively reducing it.
You would think that a trillion-and-a-half-dollar technology company would muster a bit more than we are seeing in terms of giving brands a chance to defend themselves, but for the moment, it’s all up to you.
This post was by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy. Chris was formerly an Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team.
To learn more about defending your business against brand abuse on Amazon, register for Chris McCabe and Leah McHugh’s workshop at the Prosper Show on July 13th: When Black Hats Attack: Defending Your Amazon Business.