Black hat tactics: chess pieces

Play by the Rules or Get Sued — How Amazon Is Cracking Down on Black Hat Sellers

Fake reviews, search engine manipulation, and other dirty tactics won’t win you a lot of friends with the big, orange ecommerce giant in Washington State.

According to GeekWire, Amazon is suing two “Amazon seller gurus” for overpromising on Amazon success, giving paying customers tips on “fake reviews, dishonest marketing, infringement of Amazon’s trademarks” and more.

The gurus promised get-rich-quick schemes using Amazon.

But as we’ll cover in this article, Amazon is not a get-rich-quick scheme, and thinking like that could place you on Amazon’s legal team’s bad side.

Why do Amazon sellers continue to use black hat practices?

Some of the paint points many new Amazon sellers face include difficulty in getting reviews, increased competition, and an ever-changing marketplace.

Since the infamous October 2016 change in Amazon’s terms of service — which changed to forbid the practice of giving away free or heavily discounted products in exchange for product reviews — many sellers feel that getting reviews on new products has become increasingly difficult.

They believe it’s tough to sell a product if it has zero or few reviews.

And a product with one bad review can effectively ruin a product’s chances of performing well on Amazon. Therefore, desperate sellers use services like the aforementioned bad actor “gurus” offered to help them get around these hurdles.

Here are a few of the consequences you could face if you’re caught using black hat tactics:

  • Suppression of your product listings: Your product listings won’t show up in Amazon’s searches.
  • Review ban on your products: Customers won’t be able to leave reviews, legitimate or otherwise.
  • Suspension: You could lose access to your Amazon seller account, which could also mean losing access to any unpaid funds Amazon owes you, or even your inventory in fulfillment centers.
  • Legal trouble: If things get too out of hand, Amazon could target you for a lawsuit as well. 

5 tips to help you avoid black hat tactics on Amazon

If you’re going to be an Amazon seller — and a successful one at that! — take it from me: using black hat practices might work as a short-term solution, but in the long term it can ruin you.

Think of it like speeding. Is there anywhere you need to be five minutes sooner that’s worth a $150 speeding ticket?

Well, it’s the same with selling on Amazon. Are those additional monthly sales (even if it’s a 25% increase) worth a suspension?  Or worse, a lawsuit?

Plus, when it comes to getting caught, with Amazon it’s all but a guarantee. 

Here are five ways you can avoid black hat tactics on Amazon:

1 – Realize that selling Amazon FBA is not a get-rich-quick scheme

One thing our team of Amazon sellers has said from the beginning is that selling on Amazon FBA is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Sure, there are ways to make a quick buck. But long-term financial gain and stability created through ethical (white hat) practices takes time, energy, and a lot of patience. This is especially true in the modern selling environment where things like incentivized reviews and Amazon search engine manipulation have been banned by Amazon. 

Although Amazon is not a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s still the number one opportunity to get started in e-commerce. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Data-driven market research. Thanks to powerful Amazon product research tools, it’s easy to predict how well certain products could perform on Amazon. Within a few minutes and a couple of clicks, you could find a profitable product with low competition, helping you find a spot in a strong niche on Amazon. 
  • Amazon’s FBA program. Amazon does a lot of the hard work of running an ecommerce business for you. It stores sellers’ inventory, then picks, packs, and ships it when a product sells on the platform. And if that’s not enough, they even handle customer service on the sellers’ behalf. Learn more about Amazon’s FBA program.
  • Recognizable name. Perhaps the biggest boon of all is the name Amazon itself. When your products are on Amazon’s platform, they appear to be sold by Amazon — even if Amazon is only the fulfillment agent for your goods. This results in higher conversion rates and greater brand trust.

2 – Know Amazon’s terms of service and adhere to them

Amazon does a pretty good job of outlining what you can and can’t do as an Amazon seller, and their first priority is always their customers.

If they feel a seller is taking advantage of a customer through subterfuge — explicitly or implicitly — they will take action against that seller. 

Here are the resources for Amazon’s terms of service. Note that you will have to have a seller account and be logged in to read the imaging and video services terms and conditions:

And for a more “digestible version of this information, be sure to read our article on the do’s and don’ts of Amazon product reviews, especially if you’re a private label seller on Amazon.

3 – Recognize that Amazon wants brands, not growth hackers

Ultimately, Amazon’s desire is to build brands on its platform. It does not wish to have “growth hackers;” those who only want to quickly find profitable products, and then sell those products for a quick buck with little regard to the overall brand.

Those who find success on Amazon now — reviews or not — have learned this. 

Of course, building a brand has the potential to generate a lot more long-term returns than a flash-in-the-pan product every will.

Here are a few brand benefits:

  • Branded searches on Amazon. When people search for your product, they’ll search by its name, leading to your item appearing at the top of the results. And that helps with sales. For example, a search for Cards Against Humanity is more likely to result in a purchase of Cards Against Humanity, compared to a search for the generic ‘funny card games.’
  • Early reviews. Brand recognition allows you to leverage your existing product and market to increase your reviews shortly after a new product launch.
  • Unaffected by negative reviews. Furthermore, brands/celebrities, etc. who have their own audiences see their products purchased despite negative reviews. For example, Ree Drummond’s “Pioneer Woman Cookbook” has 3.7 out of 5-stars, yet it still sells close to 900 units per month.
  • Amazon independence. If your brand can exist on its own, you won’t have to rely on Amazon nearly as much. This also protects you from any sudden changes that may occur on Amazon.

4 – Heed the mantra, “What would Amazon do?”

This one is pretty straightforward. But, whenever you’re about to do something that doesn’t seem to follow the norm, ask yourself the question, “What would Amazon do?”

Again, Amazon’s top priority is pleasing their customers, so every move they make is driven towards that end. Here are a few examples of what that means.

  • The search algorithm is built to put the products that customers want in front of them. Therefore, manipulating a product’s position in search results is seen as a negative for customers.
  • Coercing customers to leave good reviews is a two-fold form of manipulation. First, you’re taking advantage of a customer’s good graces by asking them to leave a review that they may not have left otherwise. Second, future customers may not get an accurate depiction of your product. They may end up purchasing a product that fails to match their wants and needs because of it.
  • Focusing on revenue-building instead of customer-building is just bad business all around. Amazon itself didn’t claim a profit until the fourth quarter of 2001 (Wikipedia), more than seven years after its founding. Their focus was on building brand trust. This isn’t to say you can’t try to be profitable. However, your customer’s trust is far more important than a few dollars on a quick sale.

5 – If it seems sketchy, it probably is

This is an easy one. If someone tells you about some new hack or “strategy” that seems sketchy, that’s because it probably is.

If a strategy seems manipulative, short-lived, or like it circumvents the rules, chances are it’s black hat. And if Amazon hasn’t already cracked down on it, they surely will in the near future.

If you aren’t sure whether or not something seems like a bad practice, ask your friends. Ask the seller community. Even ask a customer success specialist involved with Amazon; you will usually get a fast, honest reply.

This isn’t the end of black hat

Of course, this lawsuit won’t end black hat practices.

After all, how many times have you driven down the highway only to see a car pulled over, and an officer writing a speeding ticket? Maybe those drivers thought to themselves before getting stopped, “Oh they won’t catch me.”

Maybe you’re thinking the same thing about some questionable tactics you’re debating using for your Amazon business. Well, consider this fair warning. Amazon’s getting better and better at “catching people.”

Better to keep going the speed limit, so you won’t suffer the same fate as the gurus who got sued.

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