This post is by Dave Bryant, an ecommerce business owner and co-founder of EcomCrew.
In this article, I’ll discuss some of the strategies sellers are using to get an unfair advantage selling on Amazon.
Often these strategies are innovated in China, for a number of reasons, including Amazon’s heavy recruitment of Chinese sellers. But now they are slowly making their way to all corners of the globe.
Along with review manipulation, other nefarious strategies exist including stealing competitor data with the help of Amazon employees, sabotaging competitor listings, and using multiple seller accounts. I’ll discuss each of these black hat strategies in detail below.
Fake reviews and review manipulation
For many sellers, manipulation of Amazon begins and ends with reviews. As Zack Franklin, a consultant for Chinese sellers explained to me:
To many Chinese Amazon sellers, the question of how to succeed on Amazon has a simple answer: reviews equal sales.
When it comes to manipulating product reviews, there is a wide spectrum of strategies. These range from the very gray such as compensating real customers for leaving a review, to the very black such as outright buying of fake reviews.
At the lower end, sellers offer some type of compensation in return for the customer leaving a review. Incentivizing reviews was banned by Amazon in 2016, but that hasn’t entirely been preventing sellers from using this practice.
In the picture shown below, a Chinese seller of private label batteries offers a lifetime extended warranty in exchange for the customer leaving a review:
At the other extreme, sellers purchase completely fake reviews. If you’re a seller on Amazon, you have no doubt received an email offering fake reviews for your products. These are from third-party services, often based in developing countries such as China and Bangladesh, operating thousands of “zombie” Amazon accounts.
Amazon has restrictions on who can leave reviews:
To contribute to [customer reviews] you must have spent at least $50 on Amazon.com using a valid credit or debit card in the past 12 months.
So, these service providers create accounts which look as real as possible – including simulating real browsing behavior and making fake purchases. Prices depend on the detectability of the reviews but, from service providers I have spoken to, generally range from around $3-$5 per review.
As Amazon has grown increasingly sophisticated with detecting reviews, some sellers have avoided buying fake reviews for their own products and instead purchased dozens of fake reviews for their competitors’ products.
Why would a seller do that? Well, if Amazon detects suspicious reviews it will often suspend that seller’s account. One colleague of mind selling tactical supplies had a listing “review bombed” in this way, and his account was suspended by Amazon for alleged review manipulation.
Competitor listing sabotage
Another way sellers can sabotage their competitors is through changing product information such as photos and descriptions.
For products not enrolled in Brand Registry, other sellers can fairly easily request changes to be made to the listing data of these products. Replacing a listing’s main photos with poorer quality images (even showing a damaged or different product) can have a devastating effect on sales.
Even for products that are brand registered, sellers can use a backdoor that allows changes submitted through Vendor Central to take precedence over changes submitted by third-party sellers. You can ask Seller Support to have these removed, but it’s often days or weeks before the changes take effect.
Third-party tools exist to monitor listings for any changes made to them. Sentry Kit is one of the most popular of these although there are many others on the market now. While these tools don’t stop the changes from occurring, they do allow you to detect when your listing has been attacked in near real time.
Data provided by Amazon employees
One of the more surprising ways sellers are getting ahead is by purchasing stolen proprietary data from Amazon employees based in China. These employees have access to a company-wide VPN that allows them to obtain a number of reports and other information not available to the public.
These range from competitors’ sales and conversion data, to “ASIN reports” showing search history and volume for a particular product.
Amazon has reportedly been aware of employees accepting bribes for this information for some time and has threatened both termination and legal action. But as of today, these services are still prolific. Asinspy is one particular Chinese-only service that charges less than $20 per report.
While some English-language services exist for purchasing these reports, the vast majority of are available in Chinese only, giving a strong indication of who the most frequent buyers are.
These ASIN reports offer insights into how Amazon’s A9 search algorithm works. Sellers can see conversion rates for particular keywords (an important ranking factor) and target those keywords appropriately. Purchasing these reports is just one more way in which black hat sellers gain an unfair advantage.
Multiple Amazon accounts
The consequences of being detected using any of the above strategies can be devastating for a seller: it can mean a permanent account suspension. One of the ways sellers avoid being detected is by registering multiple “stealth” Seller Central accounts.
Operating and maintaining multiple Seller Central accounts is prohibited. If you have a legitimate business need for a second account, you can apply for an exception to this policy.
Amazon is very good at detecting sellers with multiple accounts, so they will go through great lengths to hide their additional logins. This includes using separate bank accounts, credit cards, and email addresses (the bare minimum requirement from Amazon to open an additional account) and then using VPNs and even separate ISPs and computers.
I have personally seen first-hand, from a Chinese seller in the pets category, a diagram listing their five separate Seller Central accounts.
So what can we do?
Seedy selling tactics are inevitable with any marketplace as popular as Amazon is today.
These strategies can be, at a minimum, extremely frustrating. The best thing sellers can do is to be aware of such threats to their business and vigilantly be on the defensive.
The consequences of a direct attack on one of your listings – or your entire account – can be mitigated by being made aware of these attacks sooner rather than later.
This post was by Dave Bryant, co-founder of EcomCrew, a website which provides advice to ecommerce business owners. Dave started his first business importing from China in 2008, and sold it for just under $1 million in 2016. He ran the website ChineseImporting.com before it merged with EcomCrew in late 2017.