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 TheVerge.com. Their best weapon? Amazon’s own impenetrable bureaucracy.
Last 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 weeks later, the trap was sprung. “You have manipulated product reviews on our site,” an email from Amazon read. “This is against our policies. As a result, you may no longer sell on Amazon.com, and your listings have been removed from our site.”
A rival had framed Plansky for buying five-star reviews, a high crime in the world of Amazon. The funds in his account were immediately frozen, and his listings were shut down. Getting his store back would take him on a surreal weeks-long journey through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that began with the click of a button at the bottom of his suspension message that read “appeal decision.”
When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the U.S.
For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure—its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers—and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.
Amazon’s judgments are so severe that its own rules have become the ultimate weapon in the constant warfare of Marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of intricate schemes to frame their rivals, as Plansky experienced. They impersonate, copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even bribe Amazon employees for information on their competitors.
What are sellers to do when they end up in Amazon court? They can turn to someone like Cynthia Stine, who is part of a growing industry of consultants who help sellers navigate the ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzantine rules by which Amazon governs it.
Stine runs a 25-person company out of the den of her one-story house in a leafy neighborhood of Dallas. Her company deals with about 100 suspensions a month and charges $2,500 per appeal, or $5,000 if you want an expedited one. Each day, sitting before dual monitors and jotting notes on her tablet, Stine takes calls from distraught sellers who have received the dreaded email from Amazon. On her walls: photos of her family and the families of her support staff in the Philippines; a pegboard with packing tape and shipping labels, vestiges of her past life as an Amazon seller; and a sign that says “COFFEE…until it’s 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. Another seller was suspended for selling Nike shoes that were “not as described.” After he’d filed appeal after appeal proving the shoes were genuine Nikes, Stine’s team figured out the problem: Some buyers complained the shoes were too small. That seller was let back on after promising to add a line to the listing recommending that customers wear thin socks.
“That’s what we call ‘speaking Amazon,’” Stine says. “In my mind, I imagine a checklist, and it doesn’t even have to make sense. It’s just that the previous appeals hadn’t included this all-important proactive step they were going to take to prevent the complaint that the shoe was too tight.”
JC Hewitt, whose law firm frequently works with Amazon sellers, calls the system’s mandatory guilty pleas, arbitrary verdicts, and obscure language “a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with bad writing.” Inscrutable rulings emerge as if from a black box. The Performance team, which handles suspensions, has no phone number; there’s no one to ask for clarification. The only way to interact with them is by filing an appeal, and when it’s rejected, sellers often have no idea why.
The secrecy can be so frustrating that sellers have traveled to Seattle or Amazon’s London office to try to find a human, to no avail. One seller flew to Seattle from Shengzhou, China, and lived out of a Honda Pilot he bought on Craigslist while he wandered around Amazon’s offices trying to find someone to hear his case. The receptionist gave him the same phone number for Seller Support he’d been trying for weeks.
Plansky had reported the fake five-star reviews as soon as he’d gotten them, and after he was suspended, he’d played by Amazon’s rules and confessed to everything that could possibly be considered review manipulation. But in the end, it wasn’t enough. Several days after filing his appeal, he received an email saying it had been rejected. Amazon won’t read the same appeal twice, so now Plansky had to find another infraction to confess to. Unable to think of anything and utterly exasperated, he and Stine’s team decided to email Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—a last resort. “Once you’ve gone to Jeff, there’s nowhere else to go,” Stine says.
Emailing the richest man in the world is actually the standard method of escalating an Amazon seller appeal. It’s called a Jeff Bomb, or as Stine prefers, a Jeff Letter. “Dear Mr. Bezos,” they wrote. “We desperately need your help.”
It’s probably not Bezos reading the emails, though one former employee who is now a consultant to sellers says that during his time at Amazon, he was forwarded several appeals with only a question mark written on them, a signal of Bezos’ displeasure. Generally, fortunate sellers will have a member of Bezos’ staff take pity and respond.
Stine: ‘Confess and repent’—even if you’re innocent.
Plansky’s Jeff Letter was never answered, but after he’d sent it, a fellow Amazon seller at a local meet-up gave him the name of someone “high up” in the company. He emailed them, and shortly afterward, he got his account back. (Stine maintains that it was the Jeff Letter that did it.) All told, he estimates his suspension cost him about $150,000 in sales.
In the intensely competitive world that Amazon has built, any efforts by the company to clean up seller misbehavior are quickly turned into weapons for sellers to wield against competitors. The crackdown on fake five-star reviews begat the five-star bomb Plansky was hit with. After hoverboards started exploding in 2016 and Amazon became more vigilant about safety claims, sellers started buying one another’s products, setting them on fire, and posting photos in the reviews.
The viciousness of this competition can be surprising given the items being fought over, but Amazon’s scale changes the traditional dynamics of counterfeiting. Rather than knock off a luxury good, it can be lucrative to go after the mundane commodities people buy every day without much thought: USB cables, cutlery organizers, various extruded plastic things. Stine has a client whose shoe tree business was barraged with phony infringement claims, hijackings, and threatening phone calls that she ended up referring to the FBI. Surveying crib cushions and safety locks in Amazon’s “baby” category, Stine sees a world of chaos and conflict. “All of these sweet little products are definitely potential targets,” she says. “We tell people: Whenever you’re successful on the Amazon, you have a target on your back.”
For most sellers and a growing number of traditional businesses, Amazon is so big, so much the default place people go to shop, that they find ways to tolerate constant sabotage as just another cost of doing business. When sellers get in trouble for customer complaints or attacks from counterfeiters, the solution is often to more fully meld with Amazon—to enroll in its fulfillment program, to purchase Amazon’s labels to make sure product isn’t being diverted, or even make their brand exclusive to Amazon, which brings special protections. Revenue from seller commissions and other fees is growing far faster than Amazon’s online sales overall.
For Stine, too, business is booming, and she says Amazon has been a force for good in her life. She uses it constantly for everything from groceries to appliances. As we’re speaking, she gets a Kindle alert for a new James Patterson novel. Selling on Amazon’s platform got her out of a tight spot. She published books about Amazon selling, using Amazon’s tools. Now she’s built a business interpreting its rules and systems, and she’s flying around the world to speak at gatherings of Amazon sellers. She thinks the company will only grow, that it will expand its business supply marketplace, providing coffee to offices and machinery to factories, and that one day we’ll wake up and it will be like Demolition Man, says Stine, a sci-fi fan, where Sylvester Stallone’s character comes out of hibernation to find every restaurant is Taco Bell.
She recently learned that Amazon may make seller consultants like her part of the site. She doesn’t know exactly what it will look like yet—maybe a list of Amazon-approved finance, advertising, and other support services on the seller dashboard—but she’s eager to join. She’s done several interviews explaining her business already, even flying to Seattle of her own volition to meet with Amazon representatives. She’s also wary. She knows how Amazon works, and she’s given the company a lot of data about her business.
“I figure I’m going to get everything I can out of it while the getting’s good,” she says, reaching for another sci-fi reference. “I mean, it’s like the Borg. Someday, we will all be assimilated.”
Excerpted from an article the originally appeared in TheVerge.com. Reprinted with permission. ■