Every day, dozens of young men crowd into tiny rooms with 30 computers each in northern Bangladesh. Their mission: Trick Amazon.com Inc.
Type in search terms, each time clicking on the links of products they were paid to boost, according to people familiar with the practice. Amazon’s algorithms begin recognizing that these products are popular, ranking them higher in the search results. The higher the ranking, the better chance of sales.
The scams are used to try to outsmart Amazon’s automated system that ranks some half-billion products in search results, according to interviews with consultants and businesses engaged in these practices, as well as sellers who say they have been approached by such businesses. It’s one of an ever-rotating wheel of tricks used to game Amazon’s algorithms. Some sellers pay off workers inside Amazon to gain competitive information. Others hurt rivals’ listings by barraging them with overly negative or positive reviews.
The tactics aren’t thwarting Amazon’s sales, which rose 39% in the second quarter, but they threaten to undermine the integrity of one of the world’s largest web marketplaces, which collects nearly half of every U.S. retail dollar spent online.
An Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement that those trying to abuse its systems “make up a tiny fraction of activity on our site.”
“We use sophisticated tools, including machine learning, to combat [bad actors], and we are making it increasingly difficult for bad actors to hide,” she said, adding that Amazon pursues civil and criminal penalties.
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Fake Amazon reviews have been a problem for years, and Amazon has developed better countermeasures to fight them. But sellers are becoming more creative, spawning an entire underground economy offering to deceive Amazon’s algorithms.
The trickery can be seen on Amazon. A search last week for a blackhead-remover mask turned up more than a thousand options. One of the top-ranked results, labeled “Amazon’s Choice,” had hundreds of reviews averaging 4.3 stars.
But only the first four reviews were related to the mask—the hundreds of others mostly evaluated a battery charger. The merchant, labeled by Amazon as “just launched,” likely co-opted an old listing with positive reviews and changed the product’s image and description to fool Amazon’s algorithms, according to sellers and consultants familiar with this general practice. An attempt to reach the seller was unsuccessful.
Amazon’s algorithm typically weighs a variety of factors to give a product an “Amazon’s Choice” label, including positive reviews and price. After an inquiry from the Journal, Amazon removed the unrelated reviews and the product was no longer labeled Amazon’s Choice.
“Reports of abuse have spiked enormously,” says Chris McCabe, who formerly worked at Amazon as an investigator and now helps sellers fight these problems as a consultant. Companies providing these types of “services are bolder, now, too” he says.
ompetition has grown fierce as the number of items on Amazon’s marketplace is estimated to have doubled over the past five years to more than 550 million, according to data-tracker Marketplace Pulse. Amazon also is pushing to expand internationally by soliciting manufacturers from China and elsewhere to sell direct to consumers.
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To leave a review, a customer needs to have spent at least $50 over 12 months using a valid credit or debit card, according to Amazon’s policy. A “verified” review means that the customer purchased the product on Amazon and didn’t receive it at a deep discount.
Amazon allows some methods for boosting a product in its search rankings, including advertising on the site and selling at a steep discount. Sellers can also pay to have a product reviewed by a small, random selection of Amazon-authorized reviewers, though this doesn’t guarantee that the reviews will be positive. But sellers say those measures can be expensive, and they don’t always work.
Instead, some sellers–particularly those in China, according to the people familiar with the practices–are turning to other sources for help. For a range of about $30 to $180 a month, some websites viewed by the Journal promise a certain number of positive reviews by offering reviewers cash and discounts as incentives, flouting Amazon’s rules. Others promise to help sellers with rivals’ information.
Some China-based Amazon employees have been paid off by sellers to pull confidential seller-account stats, search-optimization tricks and other internal information, according to people with knowledge of the practice.