The Sky Is Falling: Epilogue

skyfall

We’re now over six months post-TOS-gate…the change that rocked the Amazon world. Everyone released their statements and speculations at the time. Some predictions came true, some appear to have been entirely misguided. For the most part, however, the dust has settled. Now it’s time to weigh in on what has happened since then…and to comment on the ways you’re being misguided.

Why are people still arguing over what all the changes really mean?

Because fear mongers continue to disseminate false information. This is so pervasive that it has actually leaked into the world of “professional” reviewers, who are perpetuating this information throughout review groups. And while we understand why Amazon has put these changes into effect, it is unfortunate that they have engendered an atmosphere of fear.

In the wake of the TOS update, the word “blast” became almost a profanity. People, whether out of ignorance or perhaps ulterior motive, have worked hard to tarnish the concept by spreading false information and conjecture about the definitions of words or interpretation of terms.

Yet, six months later, when everyone said ZonBlast and companies like it would be out of business we’re as strong as ever, and putting more brands on the map than ever before. While some said Amazon was clearly levying an attack on blasting services, we’ve had no such occurrence to report. Neither we, nor any of our sellers, have had negative repercussions from blasts.

Why is that? Because the popular interpretations and rumors are as wrong now as they were then.

What the Hell Do the Terms Really Mean?

ZonBlast, as well as multiple other mainstream seller services like it, followed up independently with many departments in Amazon to get to the bottom of the then-new terms. In each of the instances where service owners, including ZonBlast, personally got in touch with higher levels of support in Amazon, and as seen in countless anecdotal reports throughout forums and Facebook groups, excessive coupons were prohibited from being delivered to a single buyer as an incentive to obtain a more favorable review.

The terms clearly state that excessive coupons for the purpose of inflating sales rank is prohibited. But, we all know that one person buying 50, 100, 300 units doesn’t do much for ranking as the algorithm weights single buyer purchases). So what gives?

Well, in the “blackhat” parts of the Amazon seller world there are those who use “services” where a single person has the ability to place countless orders through proxy IPs and/or VPNs, each with its own independent Amazon account. This means ONE PERSON can take possession of any number of coupon codes, place those orders, leave reviews and spike sales rank. If you’re in a high competition space, you’ve probably seen this and you may not even know it. Ever wonder how the brand new seller who launched 5 days ago suddenly has 100 [broken English] reviews and page one positioning? This is precisely the activity Amazon is attempting to clamp down on with those changes.

Many have been attempting to get Amazon Seller Support to define what “excessive” is.  There’s two problems with this. First, the lower levels of seller support are not as familiar with the finer points that lay within the mountains of terms Amazon has. Oftentimes you can ask 5 different reps the same question and get 3 different answers. Also, either as a result of their training or unintentional, they can be led into an answer.  If you frame your question in such a way that it implies you think a given activity might be in violation of terms, there’s a damn good chance they’re going to feed you precisely that answer. Which is why we tend to avoid lower level support at all costs.

Second, those seeking to define “excessive” have a preconceived notion that Amazon must mean promotions with “too many” coupons isn’t allowed. They assume this age old sales, exposure, and launch strategy must be “manipulation” and must cease.

With this sort of thinking, it’s no wonder why it’s been confusing for the average seller when there are a handful of individuals who have used review groups and services, and who gave away a mere 10 or 15 codes – or even others that didn’t do any sort of promotion at all – getting performance warnings for “review manipulation”.

Instead, you should be focusing on defining the right word: “inflate”. When you give a person who has multiple accounts that is artificial inflation. The entire purpose is to trick Amazon into believing you made far more sales to individuals than were actually made…

Isn’t that what Blasting does? In a word; Nope. We put your offer in front of over 100,000 real, live customers who want your deal. We present the deal. They decide on whether they want to get in on it. You, the consumer, and Amazon all benefit in this scenario.

There is no deception in presenting a deal to actual buyers, with actual buyer accounts, who use actual money to make the purchase regardless of whether it was at a discount. In fact, who decided your widget was worth $29 anyway? You. But, as far as Amazon is concerned, it could just as easily be worth the $1.95 you sold it for to all those coupon buyers. So you are making REAL sales that still profit Amazon, and are a great deal for the buyers. You still pay all those handling fees and a minimum $1 referral too. And those buyers still put non-coupon items in their carts. And as an added bonus, because you were willing to put the expense in the form of inventory into driving traffic and promoting your product, you rank better. WIN – WIN – WIN.

However, there is deception when singular buyers with multiple accounts, or fake buy “bots” flood the system with artificial transactions.

There is a very clear distinction here between legitimate services and who Amazon is targeting with their terms.

On Super URLs

Despite this clear logic, many among us have decided to work on the assumption that Amazon is specifically stating URLs are not to be used and are in violation of the new TOS. Even fairly well known “gurus” and “services” have claimed that Amazon has explicitly prohibited super URLs.  Some even, again either due to ignorance or ulterior motive, have suggested listings using super URLs lose rank significantly, yet can never point to real data to prove this.

Here at ZonBlast, we had two primary points in the discussion on the August 2015 update. First, referring URLs are an easy way for Amazon to instantly shut down the effectiveness of super URLs. They know precisely where a user is coming from; ie, they know where the URL is posted or made available. Second, we said super URLs were less effective not because Amazon has algorithmically negated any positive effect they have on search positioning, but rather because most of the niches that private labelers are getting into are increasingly saturated. And when everyone is using the same tactic, the relative performance of that tactic is substantially decreased.

Amazon’s algorithm isn’t clunky and stupid. They have a means of control at their fingertips. They don’t need to add language to the TOS stating keyword-embedded URLs cannot be used; and they haven’t, despite some distorted interpretations proposed by some which requires some serious spin to get to. They can handle super URLs within the algorithm itself. The fact of the matter is they have not taken the action so feared and incorrectly proposed by so many. No one is getting penalized for usage of super URLs. And provided you’re not in a saturated space, they still work well. They probably also work pretty well for the countless listings and niches Amazon themselves advertise for and for major deals sites such as Slickdeals which are known to use keyword-embedded URLs.

The URL issue aside, this was precisely why we introduced a lineup of five URL types as part of ZonBlast 2.0; super URLs, ZonURL, our pride and joy Heatseeker.

So What’s Amazon REALLY After?

Amazon is and will always be all about the consumer. They’ll gladly allow you to go broke selling 1k units of your inventory at $1 per unit; they get paid either way. And if that means you’ll eventually sell 10k units at full price, even better.

But let’s forget speculation. Let’s put the tea leaves down and focus on the evidence. What has happened since the August 2015 TOS update?

At the time, we took a firm stance on reviews. We said Amazon is well aware of the unnatural skew in review scores that results from using review groups and services. That it tends toward the 5 star rating when in fact a more natural, organic rating might be 3 or 4 stars. We said Amazon likely does not like review groups and review services which weren’t named “Amazon Vine”.

Three specific events have happened since then, all of which send a clear message to the seller community.

  • Amazon sued more than 1000 people who are selling fake reviews of products. This is significant in that they didn’t necessarily sue the service enabling such fraudulent reviewers; rather, they sued the reviewers themselves. For good reason, as what they were doing was straight up fraud. They’d take delivery of empty envelopes and sing the praises of that product they “received”. They’d guarantee five stars. These are actions not just prohibited by Amazon, but also the FTC. Both reviewer and seller in those cases were violating the law.
  • They’re actively (and retroactively) stripping “verified” tags from reviews that come in as a result of deep discount promotions. About one year ago, Amazon changed their review score algorithm. Whereas it was previously based solely on quantity of reviews and scores, it now took into account how recent the review was, how helpful it is, and most importantly whether it was a verified review. Losing the verified status of those tags significantly devalued the weighting of those reviews in the overall score for any given listing.
  • Amazon wiped countless reviewers’ histories out. Not just reviews from deep discount promotions, but ALL reviews on a given account.

As we suggested six months ago, Amazon does not like review manipulation and is actively putting measures in place to quell the effects of the review service model as they unnaturally skew the real rating of a product.

However, this doesn’t mean Amazon is against giving product away for reviews. But, they want it to be done in moderation, by real buyers who also review non-coupon purchases. It is also probably fair to say that services actually requiring reviews before a future deal can be taken advantage of, or services that strongly suggest NOT leaving a poor review until the seller is contacted, are walking a fine line. These tend to heavily weight the 5-star balance in favor of the seller, which in our opinion was key in removal of verified tags since unverified reviews do not carry the same weight in overall review scores.

So, while Chicken Little is screaming about the falling sky, we will still be driving traffic to Amazon listings, generating sales, and putting clients on the map. We’ll still be making Amazon, customers, and clients happy while innovating more promotional strategies that help new entrepreneurs get traction on Amazon, and off, faster than they ever thought possible. What will you be doing?