An emerging black market offers Amazon sellers pricey ways to cheat the marketplace and mislead customers
We have investigated many articles about Amazon Sellers Paying $10,000 A Month To Trick Their Way To The Top!
Some sellers who employ black hat tactics say they’re reluctant to do so, but don’t know how else to keep up with their competitors. A seller who uses Howard Thai’s suite of services on SellerMafia.com and asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News that he’s been using different versions of black hat techniques since 2014, when Amazon’s marketplace became inundated with dirty selling tactics. That’s around when he said he noticed people using Amazon’s messaging system to send emails to shoppers offering free products in exchange for reviews and learned about offices full of people in Bangladesh paid to write fake reviews.
“Everybody is doing it,” he said. “People have to survive, so of course they’re going to do it. … They’re like,
‘Why the hell am I spending money on ads and I’m not on page one?’”
The seller said that without Seller Mafia he would barely break even on sales because the cost of advertising on Amazon is so high. He said he spends about 30% of sales on advertising. He currently makes about $3 million a year in net profits, but before he used Thai’s services he was making $73,000 a year.
“They’re upsetting me,” he said about sellers who depend on black hat tactics on Amazon. “You always want to do things the right way.”
The following article was written
By Leticia Miranda
BuzzFeed News Reporter
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For the millions of third-party sellers on Amazon’s marketplace, maintaining a successful business is a constant battle to rank high in search results, collect positive product reviews, and keep up with Amazon when it releases its own branded versions of sellers’ most successful products. This intense competition has led to the emergence of a secretive, lucrative black market where agents peddle “black hat” services, sometimes obtained by bribing Amazon employees, that purportedly give marketplace sellers an advantage over their rivals, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The most prominent black hat companies for US Amazon sellers offer ways to manipulate Amazon’s ranking system to promote products, protect accounts from disciplinary actions, and crush competitors. Sometimes, these black hat companies bribe corporate Amazon employees to leak information from the company’s wiki pages and business reports, which they then resell to marketplace sellers for steep prices. One black hat company charges as much as $10,000 a month to help Amazon sellers appear at the top of product search results. Other tactics to promote sellers’ products include removing negative reviews from product pages and exploiting technical loopholes on Amazon’s site to lift products’ overall sales rankings. These services make it harder for Amazon sellers who abide by the company’s terms of service to succeed in the marketplace, and sellers who rely on these tactics mislead customers and undermine trust in Amazon’s products.
“The extent to which sellers go to game the system, and the amount of resources they devote to doing it, [are] a testament to how Amazon’s recommendation and ranking algorithms shape consumption,” Renee DiResta, director of research at cybersecurity company New Knowledge, told BuzzFeed News. “While Amazon repeats that ‘even one fake review is too many,’ the fact remains that manipulative tactics from dishonest sellers make honest business owners afraid that they can’t remain competitive. And when manipulation is successful, it’s Amazon’s customers who are the victims.” “When manipulation is successful, it’s Amazon’s customers who are the victims.”
This black hat economy continues to elude Amazon’s detection, despite the company’s efforts to better combat fraud on its site. Although shoppers tend to trust Amazon, the site has long struggled to deal with scams on its marketplace, which include secret organized fake review rings and get-rich-quick schemes that scam sellers out of thousands of dollars. Some third-party Amazon sellers told BuzzFeed News that the use of black hat tactics has become so widespread that when one seller is banned for employing these methods, another seller doing the same thing pops up in their place.
Amazon declined to comment on the specific black hat consulting firms named in this story, but it told BuzzFeed News that these “bad actors make up a fraction of activity” on the site.
The rise of black hat consultants comes as Amazon’s marketplace continues to become a more significant piece of its retail business. Amazon’s third-party sellers now make up 58% of total sales on the platform, at $160 billion, compared to $117 billion in sales by the company’s own retail business, according to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. But as that third-party marketplace grows, so does the fierce competition among its millions of sellers across the world.
Davide Nicolucci, founder and director of the Amazon marketing consulting firm Growth Hack, has been critical of black hat tactics on Amazon. He told BuzzFeed News that the marketplace has become so competitive and fraught with black hat manipulation that some sellers feel compelled to break the rules and employ these tactics.
“Amazon is so slow in responding to cases, by the time Amazon resolves your issue, you’ve lost so much money you might as well do black hat,” he said. “It’s crazy. It’s a war.” “It’s crazy. It’s a war.”
While Amazon has made some effort to police manipulation of its marketplace, the business of black hat consultants continues to prosper, largely hiding in plain sight. A simple search on YouTube for “super URL” brings up dozens of tutorials on how to manipulate Amazon’s ranking system by writing a few words into a product URL that tricks the algorithm into believing real shoppers are finding a specific item through popular keyword searches and adding it to their shopping carts and wish lists. Amazon black hat consultants frequently speak at Amazon seller conferences and events, and some run their own private groups on Facebook, which is where most Amazon sellers connect with one another. For sellers, buying black hat services can be as simple as sending a message on Facebook or attending an online webinar.
One such site that markets black hat services to Amazon sellers, AmzPandora, offers clients a menu of services, which range in price from $1 for a single thumbs-up on a product review to $10,000 to reinstate a suspended account, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. The site AmzPandora.com disappeared after BuzzFeed News contacted the site’s owner, a China-based consultant who goes by the name John Zhu, who operates another black hat tactics site called ClockWorks.deepbrief.net. This site also went offline before publication.
AmzPandora’s services ranged from small tasks to more ambitious strategies to rank a product higher using Amazon’s algorithm. While it was online, it offered to ping internal contacts at Amazon for $500 to get information about why a seller’s account had been suspended, as well as advice on how to appeal the suspension. For $300, the company promised to remove an unspecified number of negative reviews on a listing within three to seven days, which would help increase the overall star rating for a product. For $1.50, the company offered a service to fool the algorithm into believing a product had been added to a shopper’s cart or wish list by writing a super URL. And for $1,200, an Amazon seller could purchase a “frequently bought together” spot on another marketplace product’s page that would appear for two weeks, which AmzPandora promised would lead to a 10% increase in sales. Amazon declined to specifically comment on AmzPandora and the services it offered marketplace sellers.