The Week (US)
The secret war behind Amazon reviews
In Amazon’s enormous marketplace, sellers will use every dirty trick to get the top spot in searches, said Josh Dzieza in Their best weapon? Amazon’s own impenetrable bureaucracy.
L AST AUGUST, ZAC Plansky woke to find that the rifle scopes he was selling on Amazon had received 16 five-star reviews overnight. Usually, that would be a good thing, but the reviews were strange. The scope would normally get a single review a day, and many of these referred to a different scope, as if they’d been cut-and-pasted from elsewhere. “I didn’t know what was going on, whether it was a glitch or whether somebody was trying to mess with us,” Plansky says. As a precaution, he reported the reviews to Amazon. Most of them vanished days later—problem solved—and Plansky reimmersed himself in the work of running a six-employee, multimillion-dollar weapons accessory business on Amazon. Then, two are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like weeks later, the trap was sprung. “You the one Plansky received can send a seller’s have manipulated product reviews on our business into bankruptcy, with few avenues site,” an email from Amazon read. “This is for appeal. against our policies. As a result, you may Amazon’s judgments are so severe that no longer sell on Amazon.com, and your its own rules have become the ultimate listings have been removed from our site.” weapon in the constant warfare of
A rival had framed Plansky for buying Marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of five-star reviews, a high crime in the world intricate schemes to frame their rivals, as of Amazon. The funds in his account were Plansky experienced. They impersonate, immediately frozen, and his listings were copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even shut down. Getting his store back would bribe Amazon employees for information take him on a surreal weeks-long journey on their competitors.
W through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that
HAT ARE SELLERS to do when they began with the click of a button at the botend up in Amazon court? They tom of his suspension message that read can turn to someone like Cynthia “appeal decision.” Stine, who is part of a growing industry of When you buy something on Amazon, the consultants who help sellers navigate the odds are you aren’t buying it from Amazon ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzat all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers antine rules by which Amazon governs it. on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s Stine runs a 25-person company out of third-party platform. They are largely hidthe den of her one-story house in a leafy den from customers, but behind any item neighborhood of Dallas. Her company for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, deals with about 100 suspensions a month all competing for your click. This year, and charges $2,500 per appeal, or $5,000 Marketplace sales were almost double if you want an expedited one. Each day, those of Amazon retail itself, according to sitting before dual monitors and jotting Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platnotes on her tablet, Stine takes calls from form alone the largest e-commerce business distraught sellers who have received the in the U.S. dreaded email from Amazon. On her walls: For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They photos of her family and the families of her rely on its infrastructure—its warehouses, support staff in the Philippines; a pegboard shipping network, financial systems, and with packing tape and shipping labels, vesportal to millions of customers—and pay tiges of her past life as an Amazon seller; taxes in the form of fees. They also live in and a sign that says “COFFEE...until it’s terror of its rules, which often change and time for WINE.” She calls the scheme that got Plansky a “dirty seller trick,” and she’s seen it before. As Amazon has escalated its war on fake reviews, sellers have realized that the most effective tactic is not buying them for yourself, but buying them for your competitors—the more obviously fraudulent the better. A handful of glowing testimonials, preferably in broken English about unrelated products and written by a known review purveyor on Fiverr, can not only take out a competitor and allow you to move up a slot in Amazon’s search results, it can land your rival in the bewildering morass of Amazon’s suspension system.
And Stine’s team had bad news: The only way back from suspension is to “confess and repent,” she says, even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. “Amazon doesn’t like to see finger-pointing.”
Amazon calls them “appeals,” which suggests that there’s a possibility of having the verdict overturned. In reality, they’re more like a plea bargain crossed with a business memo, the core of which is a “plan of action”—an explanation of how you’ll make things right. And to make things right, you need to admit to having done something wrong. So Plansky sat down with Stine’s team and looked for something, anything, to confess to. In his appeal, he admitted to providing discounts for reviews before Amazon banned the practice, and to sending customers emails about printing out shooting targets that the algorithm might have mistaken for bribes.
“It was crazy,” he says. “I felt like I was in prison for a crime I didn’t commit, and the only way out was to plead guilty.”
In a way, Plansky had it easy. He at least knew what he had to confess to, even if he hadn’t done it. Many sellers can’t even figure out what Amazon is accusing them of. Stine has a client whose listing for a rustic barn wood picture frame was deemed unsafe and taken down; it turned out the offense was a single customer review that mentioned getting a splinter. (The customer had actually given it five stars.) The seller was allowed back when he promised to add “wear gloves when installing” to his listing.