This post is by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy.
Black hat seller behavior continues unabated this year.
We’ve seen spikes of listing hijacks and seller sabotage, mostly via loopholes exploited within Vendor Central. We’ve seen sellers inflating their positive reviews, but no action taken by Amazon’s Product Review Abuse (PRA) teams after they were reported.
There have been overnight spikes in negative reviews for products that had gone months without a single negative, clearly due to malicious targeting. When the impacted sellers report these fake reviews, Amazon’s ability to understand and act is often lacking.
Unauthorized changes are made to private label listings, resulting in chaos and lost sales for legitimate sellers. Competitors with barely any track record have been able to boost their profiles overnight with piles of positive “verified” reviews.
Just how bad is seller abuse on Amazon now? What does Amazon need to do to address the problem? What can sellers do to get Amazon to take effective action?
How extensive is seller abuse on Amazon?
I’ve read enough about Amazon product review abuse in the past few months to make anyone’s head explode. It’s been reported more or less everywhere in the media.
A bit less understood and cared about publicly (although well-known in seller circles) is that hijacked listings remain a major problem. A new seller suddenly appears on a branded product as if they sell the same item, even if they have no source of those products.
These sellers may manage to change the listing images, title, and even the brand name to suit their purposes, even if the genuine seller is supposedly protected by Brand Registry. It’s commonly known as “VC abuse” in many circles, because Vendor Central is the back door to gain the necessary control over the product detail page. We’ve seen many changes to Vendor Central accounts this month, and we can safely conclude that this is one reason why.
Is this all down to Chinese sellers?
I get asked this all the time. Abuse is coming from some China-based sellers, sure, but the tactics that started in China are also being used by sellers here in the US.
They are helped by China-based black hat service providers, now marketing their software and services to US sellers, who are only too ready to pay for any edge to help them compete.
Sometimes these services provide fake buyer accounts that will buy products from a targeted seller, then claim counterfeit or safety problems, and leave dozens of ugly reviews. The next step in the process is when other fake buyers come along and upvote those negative reviews, giving them extra weight. All this can be had as a pre-packaged black hat service. Destroy your competitors overnight! It’s all there for the right price – a “black hat buffet” of poisonous bites that legitimate sellers fear.
Some sellers have gained access to Amazon’s precious internal data to help them gauge what to sell, in what category, at what price, and how buyers navigate from one product detail page to another. They can also discover what keywords to use and when to make changes. Sometimes, account managers inside Amazon are passing data directly to them. Other times, third-party services act as middle-men.
Unfortunately, once a critical mass of sellers begins operating this way, success on the marketplace comes down to who has the most money to spend on black hat tactics.
It’s up to Amazon, and the legitimate sellers who remain, to track it down.
What does Amazon know, and what are they doing about it?
Amazon knows about these problems. They also know they need to do more about them, and I’m sure they will. But how long will it take?
It’s not evident yet that they know how to position their multiple, overlapping teams to cope with a problem this big and this complex. Communication between different teams at Amazon is not great, but it has improved in recent months out of necessity.
Just as the PRA teams did not exist a few years ago, new teams and initiatives like Project Zero will likely be created to handle the increase in black hat tactics. Word is out, and Amazon teams know what they are up against.
We anticipate tougher action from Amazon (and the FTC) on all policy abusers this year, but not only against sellers exploiting the review system. The crackdown will likely focus on any attacks sellers initiate against their competitors. In many ways, it has already begun.
For instance, several internal Amazon tools that were previously accessible across various teams are now limited to just the main Amazon employees who need them. Account managers who passed internal data to sellers now find themselves with limited access, to maintain the integrity of ALL account managers. It’s not just the few who were “oversharing” who have had their privileges taken away.
How can Amazon resolve these problems?
To really get black hat sellers on the run will take tools, investigative time, training, and an interest in shutting down all the avenues that sellers use to abuse the platform.
Better machine learning may identify sales rank manipulation, and automated scripts can root out keyword re-use and clickfarm activity. Ultimately, however, there will always be a human element that’s needed.
In the past, Amazon had investigators working with account managers to handle particular sellers who were breaking the rules. More recently, some account managers have helped sellers in ways that they shouldn’t have, and they are the ones under investigation. These managers are starting to feel the heat, and have put their jobs are at risk by doing these tricks.
We’ve also seen major changes within Vendor Central to combat some of the rampant rule-breaking and listings abuse. Some accounts were canceled and some new applications won’t be approved, unless there are high-level manager approvals and “business case” exemptions. It will be tightly controlled from this point forward.
How does Amazon communicate with sellers who report abuse?
To date, Amazon’s standard reply to sellers who report abuse has been:
“Hello, We will investigate this issue that you brought to our attention and take the appropriate action. For privacy reasons, we cannot share the results of our investigation with you.”
I think we can all agree that they need to do better than that.
Amazon has had to deal with bad publicity over this mess, and they finally had to tell their stockholders that they have a counterfeit problem. Managers within Amazon will have to get more involved, not only in how investigators process abuse reports, but also in how other teams regulate the marketplace.
When the teams responsible for policing the rules fail to do their jobs effectively, managers on other teams get dragged into the fray during the appeal escalation process. Unsurprisingly, tensions are often raised and each team will blame the other.
Avoiding responsibility or passing the buck is not going to cut it in 2019. The abuses of black hat sellers and services are too successful and too widespread for vague responses to continue much longer. At every turn, we see the platform abused and misused.
Amazon’s mission is to prevent this sort of behavior, because fake sales, fake reviews and sabotaged listings create mayhem for buyers. There’s no way that buyers will continue to trust a platform where sellers who use dirty tricks not only survive but thrive.
Amazon might be able to live with sellers and consultants knowing what is happening, but when horror stories in the national press flag it up to their customers, it provokes a reaction and changes inside the company.
How should I report seller abuse to Amazon?
First of all, you should learn how to go beyond simply opening up cases with Seller Support.
That’s the first step, but there is rarely direct action as a result. it just creates a paper trail to reference later. Sellers will often also email [email protected] or other abuse-reporting queues, but again, you cannot depend on these teams to take definitive action. You really need to escalate to team managers, open Brand Registry cases, and contact Executive Seller Relations.
Also, know HOW to report abuse. You can’t expect any action from Amazon teams if your abuse reports are convoluted, hard to follow, really long and repetitive, poorly written or inaccurate.
Make sure you show policy investigators information that can be independently confirmed. Don’t toss speculation at them. If they see “we suspect this is all coming from XYZ seller” or vague insinuations that you’re under attack from unknown sellers, they will not act. If you’re unsure how to phrase abuse reports, find someone who knows and ask for help. Defending against hijackers and review abusers is one of our specialties at ecommerceChris.
If escalations fail, you need to reach out to anyone within Amazon who will listen to your cry for help. Have you interacted with category managers in the past? Do you have a Marketplace Growth manager? Did you interact with anyone in Business Development during your onboarding phase, if you started selling a year or two ago? Make use of those contacts now.
Is there anything else we can do to beat the black hat sellers?
Better abuse reports are one thing, but much more needs to happen on the seller side.
A lot of sellers take part in abusive activity, and many others tolerate illicit behavior by sellers that they know. You can’t just turn a blind eye because it’s “someone else’s problem.” It all makes the situation bigger and worse, and feeds the black hat service providers.
Here’s what needs to happen.
- Sellers need to stop hiring black hat services themselves. Don’t forget, they have no seller account to lose if things go sour. Your business is the one that suffers.
- Talk to your category contacts at Amazon. Make it clear that you want to help them control bad behavior. Cleaning up the category reduces bad buyer experiences and helps them show success. You can help them solve one of their biggest problems.
- Learn to see these tactics coming. If things are going well for you, then expect to be attacked. Sellers will offer generic or counterfeit products on your listing, get their own private label product to compete with yours, or directly attack your listings and reviews.
- Build a defense plan! You can’t prevent all attacks, but you can have a strategy to fight back. Plan for the “worst case scenarios” and define your steps to roll back bogus listing changes or fake reviews, as soon as they happen. Don’t get caught with your pants down.
- Stop turning a blind eye to black hat services because you think you may need them yourself someday. Report them early and often, to as many Amazon teams as you can find. Amazon need to see patterns to determine exactly which companies and people are behind those services, and your reports help provide that.
The future is in our hands
Black hat abuse cannot continue at the rate it is currently growing. More businesses will go under and brands will die.
If you are reluctant to report abuse, or stop at opening a case with Seller Support, it’s time to up your game. Escalate abuse reports as if your entire seller account depends on it (because it does). It’s worth the investment.
If you neglect to up the ante, you might be joining the other sellers forced out of business by black hat tactics. This work is mission critical.
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.