This month Amazon clarified policies related to methods and workarounds that use off-Amazon incentives and url manipulation to improve product ranking, such as two-step urls, super urls, funnels, treasure hunts, and search-find-buy.
To wit, a long list of such practices violate Amazon’s terms of service and they are putting sellers on notice.
I’ve been selling products online since 2013, and have been a part of the Amazon seller community since around late 2016. I personally have used product launches, two-step URLs, and search-find-buy to grow my own brands (none of which I am involved with anymore). This clarification of Amazon’s policy doesn’t come as a surprise to me, and doesn’t change the way experts in the industry are approaching strategies to grow. Let me explain why…
Amazon News That’s Not News
To all of this we say, yes, we’ve seen all of these as black hat or at best grey hat tactics for a long time now. These methods skirt around the rules of the Amazon game, making the playing field uneven.
As our friend Chris McCabe said on LinkedIn, “It’s not really news; it’s been going on for a long time.”
So what’s the best trick to achieve a high ranking on Amazon? Straight forward PPC advertising.
Let us explain.
How Did We Get Here?
Sellers are a clever bunch and always looking for the smartest tricks to outrank their competitors. So it’s no wonder these types of hacks have been a part of the Amazon story for years.
As Amazon indicated in their notice, many sellers probably didn’t even realize they were breaking the rules when they discovered these strategies. Here’s how they put it:
We would like to remind sellers that you are responsible for the actions taken by your account, even those handled through third-party service providers. Sellers who may not have understood this policy previously should end these practices immediately, as they are in violation of the Amazon Seller Code of Conduct.
Five years ago, reviews that were essentially bought by Amazon sellers were rampant on the site. It was a common way to gain and maintain traction because reviews do influence buyer decisions. Good reviews and lots of them do lead to better rankings.
Amazon Banned Incentivized Reviews
In 2016 Amazon clearly banned incentivized reviews in an effort to create a reviews system that shoppers could place their trust in. The ban meant that even trading products for reviews of those products was against the rules.
The ban didn’t mean there hasn’t been any way to request reviews with the white hat on. Becky Trowbridge, the queen of reviews, tells us that you can safely request reviews through buyer-seller messaging, “Request a Review,” or third-party software, so long as you follow Amazon’s rules for doing so without coercion.
Does this all mean that all sellers stopped incentivizing reviews? Nope, clearly not given that Amazon saw the need to clarify.
To quote the note:
We consider it a violation of the Amazon Seller Code of Conduct if off-Amazon rebates, discounts, and other schemes are designed to drive customers to products that are listed and sold without those incentives on Amazon. These practices are potentially abusive to customers and other sellers, as they may inflate search ranking, incentivize product reviews, and generate artificial traffic and conversion behaviors.
So we know sellers have been doing these things, but doing so did and does risk suspension if Amazon catches you, so we really can’t recommend it.
The warning is doubly true now that they’ve explicitly clarified.
Two-Step URLs, Super URLs, and Search Find By, Oh My
So that’s the deal with reviews, but what about the other schemes the note referred to?
Again, quoting the clarification from Amazon:
Specifically, it is a violation of the Amazon Seller Code of Conduct to manipulate search rank to artificially boost your products’ search ranking, including through ‘two-step urls,’ ‘super urls,’ ‘funnels,’ ‘treasure hunts,’ ‘search-find-buy,’ and any other form of false or misleading behavior. A service by any name that’s intended to artificially boost search ranking or portray a discounted sale as full-price, is a violation.
Schemes like two-step urls and search-find-buy deliberately use off-Amazon tactics to move shoppers onto and through Amazon in ways that inflate search data and therefore artificially contribute to higher ranking.
Search-find-buy is actually a double no-no because it incentivizes shopper behavior and it manipulates search data.
Here’s how it works: shoppers are instructed to go to Amazon, search for particular keywords a seller wants to rank on, scroll until they find that seller’s product, buy the product, and then get reimbursed for their purchase.
This artificially inflates the performance of the keywords, tells Amazon’s algorithm that the association between those keywords and the product is a strong one, and boosts the likelihood of ranking organically on those keywords.
Super URLs are essentially a variation on the same type of manipulation. Instead of instructing shoppers to find products using particular keywords, the seller does the search themselves. Based on that they identify the URL for the SERP and send shoppers to that URL.
When shoppers use the URL created by the search, it mimics the process of searching for the keyword, makes it look like shoppers are searching that keyword, and like that search is leading to purchasing that product. Again, the result is improved organic ranking.
These Practices Violate The Rule of Acting Fairly
Basically, what all these hacks have in common is attempting to game the system to improve ranking.
Amazon considers them all to be in violation of the Seller Code of Conduct. Specifically, the code of conduct states sellers must “act fairly and not misuse Amazon’s features or services.”
The code provides examples of what might be covered under the fairness rule including, “manipulating sales rank (such as by accepting fake orders or orders that you have paid for) or making claims about sales rank in product titles or descriptions” and “artificially inflating web traffic (using bots or paying for clicks, for example).”
Good news: if your competitors were using these practices, hopefully, they’ll be scared off by the clarification.
Bad news: if you were using these practices, you need to rethink those choices. But what alternative can improve your ranking?
The Fair Way To Improve Rank Is Ads
The way to rank playing Amazon’s game, with Amazon’s tools, and following Amazon’s code of conduct, is with advertising.
Ads within the Amazon system, get you among the top search results, leading to more clicks, and more conversions, which kickstarts the flywheel, driving better organic traffic, and snowballing your growth.
Those ads do work best when thoughtfully implemented with fully optimized listings, unimpeachable customer service, and products that shoppers love.
So, yeah, there’s no free lunch on Amazon. We’re not going to lie, it’s hard work to run a successful Amazon business. But if you want your business to stay in Amazon’s good graces, and continue to grow there, you’ve got to put in the work.