The Sky is Falling…or is it?

“Pack up your private labeled bags. Say goodbye to the days of easy ranking and muscling your way to top dog status in your niche because Amazon has just pulled the rug out from under all of us!”

“We can’t use promotions any longer!”

“Wait…no, we just can’t do more than 25 unit giveaways!”

“Wait, that’s not it…I heard it was 10 per ASIN, maximum FOREVER. Yeah! No more than 10 giveaways!”

“Or was it 350 per month?”

“Ermmm, well I heard you can do as many as you want they just can’t be 100% off…”

“Um, wait no that it’s all about the Super URL, right? Can’t use that any longer because that has been deemed by the Amazon Gods as being blackhat, yes?”

“No wait, we CAN but we have to ensure timestamp is updated!”

Ugh I’m confused. Are you?

What was compliant again? What isn’t? Whose friend’s sister’s best friend’s brother-in-law’s BFF got banned again? And why?

Ah well, so goes the viral nature of rumors online.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard the rumors, most of which pulled from places sunlight just doesn’t reach.

Suspensions occurring after 10 coupons!
Amazon is cracking down hard on blast services!
Or was it review groups?
Wait, no, it was blackhatters!

Who can really tell? The fact of the matter is our scene…the Private Labeler scene…the one which sells – for now – almost exclusively on Amazon is infected with rampant rumors, speculation, and nonsensical theory that do nothing but foster unnecessary, unproductive, and downright destructive fear and panic.

And good lord, the services out there are rushing as fast as they can to try to take some authoritative stance (or an illusion of one anyway).

“OUR service is compliant…the OTHER guys are the ones breaking the rules. Don’t use them!” Nothing but scare tactics to drum up business. To be honest, the fear angle in marketing never sat well with me, and it never will. But that’s another discussion for another day. None of that matters.

What DOES matter is how Amazon interprets their own terms. And right now they have yet to define them in a concrete manner for anyone.

This ridiculously controversial issue, brought on by just a few sentences has created two camps.

One is in the camp ruled by those who suggest that all launch, blast, and review services are evil and pure blackhat. They preach from their pedestal of self-righteousness…“we KNEW this was going to happen!”

The other is service owners. Dazed, confused, losing clients and money, all without a REAL clue as to what’s going on. So they cling to the idea that SURELY they’re not doing anything wrong and it is everyone else who is “manipulating” or gaming the system.

And of course this naturally prompts the release of emails [read: sales letters] to their customers, blog posts full of misinformation and fear-mongering [with a plug for their own 100% legit (really!) service], and the countless speculative posts and threads in the countless FBA groups on facebook. This shouldn’t surprise you, of course.

Well that’s all fine and dandy, but you’re reading this to get ZonBlast’s take, right?

The truth is, we don’t have all the answers. And we aren’t going to claim to have the answers or attempt to break down the content of these new terms, word by word, letter by letter in an attempt to see something that just isn’t there.

There is only one simple FACT at the end of the day with regard to these new terms:

That is, Amazon has added a few sentences that are written in an incredibly broad manner and allow for an incredibly BROAD interpretation. That’s it. That is what we know FACTUALLY.

Everyone who has an IQ above 70 and has a basic understanding of the English language understands that the way those new terms are written are clearly WAY too broad to gather any real, meaningful interpretation. But there are those among us trying to squeeze every sentence, every word, every comma for all its worth, truth be damned.

Look, here at ZonBlast we have individuals that are dedicated to studying and testing everything humanly possible to make sellers the absolute most money, grow the bejesus out of their brands and otherwise provide MASSIVE VALUE for everyone involved. We’re the pioneers that created this space. We’re the thinkers that have tinkered with and discovered other ways sellers were not being served. And we apply the same fervent diligence to every endeavor.

And that is how we approached this situation.

We knew we couldn’t trust the nonsense making the rounds in facebook groups. We knew we weren’t going to trust the wild speculation put forth by other service providers. We knew we had to block that out and focus on what Amazon themselves said. But to do this the right way, we had to ask the RIGHT questions.

Not “can I give 10 units to a blogger? Is that OK? Pretty please?” That’s way too specific.

And not “I used a review service, am I going to be in trouble?” That’s way too leading.

These agents often don’t know how to interpret terms much more than we do. You know this if you’ve been selling on Amazon for any reasonable length of time.

If we demand clear and detailed answers about the stuff that matters, we’ll still get a bunch of misinformation, but in it could be nuggets of truth. So just like every service we run, we analyze the data and look for consistencies.

What do we know?

We are not 100% certain on anything, but we have received some consistent answers that have painted a clearer picture on this matter than some would have us believe.

First, seller central has assured us several times that the response to this “general guideline” will not be a suspension, rather a policy violation/warning. Does this mean you WON’T get suspended for violating whatever Amazon interprets these terms as? Of course not. SC are full of good-intentioned folks who often inadvertedly lead sellers down the wrong path. BUT if this is a consistent theme in information coming from Amazon – which it is – it gives us hope that seller performance didn’t authorize that they go seeking and destroying those they find to be in violation.

Next, we’ve been told there is an investigation and certain sellers have been targeted. Why is this good news? Because it means the intent isn’t to take down users of certain services. Instead, it seems they’re targeting individuals who are blatantly cheating the system using methods I’ll discuss in a bit. Does this mean they won’t target people using a specific service? No. But it appears much less likely than the rumor mill would have you believe.

We’ve also been assured that this is targeting people who are doing something wrong – fraudulent, even. And we received this information from multiple independent sources inside Amazon. This is the most telling of the information we’ve gathered, because it shows us that more than likely Amazon is laying the groundwork to oust these blackhat brands that are ranking overnight in competitive niches with 2 reviews.

You’ve seen this happening. We all have. It involves manipulation of the algorithm via fake orders using countless alias accounts. Blatant fraud. those folks will eventually somehow get the boot. This, we believe given the information we’ve gathered, is the start of that.

Other targets in this mess: those manipulating reviews via what essentially amounts to bribery; offering additional products or other products in exchange for not reviewing poorly.

Likewise, if we take the terms literally – and as confirmed by at least one representative – they’re also targeting sellers who give a single reviewer multiple products. Again, taking their pre-existing review terms literally, you can provide “a copy” of the product. Not “copies”. If you think you’re operating within TOS when you provide 5 units of the same product expecting to get an “honest” review out of that, you’re kidding yourself.

Does this mean we’re all safe?

Not necessarily. We don’t know for sure that Amazon doesn’t look at using Super URLs or blast services or review services or facebook groups as “manipulation”. However the more we speak with them, the less it looks like that is what is going on. There are truly nefarious individuals on Amazon and they deserve to get dealt with, and it looks like that is what these new terms are addressing.

Another important note: we asked SC to define “sales rank”. They specifically said they’re referring to best seller rank. Zero mention made about search rank for a given keyword; we have yet to find a reason to believe the Super URL is being targeted.

Speaking of which, why is a Super URL suddenly a wrongful manipulation tool? This seems to be a common theme over the last couple of days. They’re in wide use, not even in just our community. Go to any slickdeals-esque site. You’ll find plenty of static “super urls” in the wild. But in our world, if you run a promotion without it, you’re likely going to be instructing people on how to find your product in a search for your given keyword. Which, by the standard put forth by the rumor mill is “manipulation”.

It’s not “natural” for someone to purposely search for a keyword, go to a specific page, click a specific listing, and buy that product at a discount. There’s nothing natural about that. Oh sure it *looks* more natural to the algorithm and this is a good thing, but don’t kid yourself…you’re doing the exact same thing manually which services and scripts automate.

(Side note on producing a “natural” look to searches or sales: there are review services out there suggesting that drip-feeding your incoming reviews on a daily basis in an effort to make it look more natural and maintain a “natural looking” sales velocity (IE: BSR) is a wise and totally kosher move. If you’ve talked yourself into believing that’s “organic” and “natural” in this new world of anything-that-possibly-remotely-maybe-might-resemble-something-unnatural, well we have some oceanfront property in Arizona that you’ll absolutely love.)

Super URLs

All of that said, I’m mixed on Super URLs and always have been. As you know there are a number of services that use dynamic Super URLs, not just static ones that you can “generate” yourself. What’s the difference? The timestamp in the URL. Also known as QID. It’s a UNIX timestamp in UTC. Every paid (and even some unpaid) services out there uses the same fundamental technique: they code their linking script to update QID in real time. The theory is if it’s a “valid” QID, Amazon will “credit” it as a normal link, coming right from search results.

Couple problems with that…

If Amazon wants to devalue or completely obliterate Super URLs, whether or not they have a dynamically updating QID, all they have to do is examine and filter the referrer. A referrer is the page you came from. If your link is amztrackmaster.com/VivaSuppsOil, Amazon will see it’s coming from amztrackmaster.com. Alternatively, amztrackmaster can “blank the referrer”. I’m not going to explain what that means here. Google it. But even in this case, Amazon’s system can see that it was NOT an internal link.

And it doesn’t matter where the QID is updated, whether it’s on your own server script or a third party paid service. We’ve got several services and multiple developers and script-providers suggesting their solution is the best.

Newsflash: if you’re updating QID in your links, a) you’re not unique, and b) it doesn’t somehow magically make Amazon believe that was an internal link. You’re not “tricking” Amazon. In addition, to be totally frank, Super URLs, particularly the ones created by these services pushing dynamic URLs…they just don’t work as well as they used to.

Most people in the service provider game know this. And their effect has dwindled significantly over the past year. To the point where we’ve been testing blasts with naked/canonical URLs with similar results. We’ve also been testing and privately using multiple solutions to replace current linking strategy. One of which we’re ridiculously excited to be rolling out soon, as this will be a gamechanger.

So why are we testing new non-super URL links? Must be because it’s “manipulation”, right? No, though this appears to be one of those times that a feature has been tried and judged in the court of public opinion. Rather, because it’s exceedingly easy for Amazon to shut off the effectiveness, or worse, penalize for usage of the URL. Disclaimer: we are not suggesting that Amazon was, is or will be penalizing for Super URL usage; we’re simply explaining how it’s possible to achieve.

If (QID = dynamic AND (referrer = null OR referrer != amazon.com) AND keywordpresent = true)
{
ASINpenalty = true;
} else {
ASINpenalty = false;
}

Forgive me for geeking out… but I wanted to illustrate a point…that Amazon could easily modify their code to penalize or devalue links that don’t have Amazon as the referrer, has a keyword attached to it, and has a dynamically updating QID. In our opinion, the fact that they have not done so *suggests* such links are kosher.

And let’s have a little side bar on review groups and review services shall we?

First, to those in the first camp above using these services, thinking you’re completely within terms, recognize that with these groups and services, you’re treading a very thin line.

Let’s be real: most of the sellers reading this message have at some point used review groups. Practically all have used friends/family to get reviews. And many have used the pay per review (sorry, I meant “pay per coupon” 😉 ) and sites created for the sole purpose of getting product in exchange for your “honest” review.

There’s that word…”honest”. Are you using “My Cool Review Group”, “AmazingReviewsForCheap.com”, “VineLite.com”, “LaunchBro.com”, et al to get REAL reviews? Do you REALLY think that “honest” review that came in 5 days after purchase of a supplement that takes weeks to see results? Come on now. You know full well those reviews are inherently skewed towards the right side of the spectrum. That is, the 4 and 5 star review section of that spectrum. It’s the nature of getting super cheap product. It doesn’t even have to be implied or hinted in any way.

I guarantee you if you collected these services’ data across all products they’ve promoted (read: blasted, in most cases, given sales velocity spikes as soon as they’re put in front of that community in facebook, blasted out via email or sms, or promoted live at the top of a list on a site), there will be a statistically significant shift in review score to the right.

But that’s “honest” in review-club land. Do you REALLY think that’s “honest” in Amazon land?

This is why we stayed away from “review service” territory, much to the dismay of some of you who wish we pushed harder for reviews. Pushing hard for reviews, gating them in any way by preventing access to future deals (do you really think Amazon would take kindly to this? If your name isn’t “Amazon Vine”, and you’re not the one making the rules, I’m not so sure they’d be as receptive as you might think), suggesting any specific language (perhaps with the exception of a reminder to leave a disclaimer), and otherwise requiring reviews in any way is not territory I ever wanted our clients to be in.

We dabbled with some techniques that got close to this. And each time, I pulled the plug. Not because it didn’t work (it did…exceedingly well), but because I was not willing to take those kinds of risks any longer.

Amazon is ruthless when it comes to reviews. You’ve seen the sweeps they do. They don’t target ASINs. They don’t target review content. They target reviewers; perhaps frequent offenders. Once detected, they’re wiped clean of their review history. And many, even most may be completely compliant, with disclaimer and all. But they get wiped anyway.

Are you surprised by this? Do you think Amazon isn’t aware that review services are inherently skewed towards positive reviews and thus don’t provide a realistic picture of your product in the marketplace?

Some are even taking this to the nth level. And by nth, I mean the ridiculously absurd level. That is, suggesting that merely ASKING for a review, or seller feedback for that matter, is now outside of terms. There are literally people now scared of even asking for a review from a normal, organic customer.

Others are failing to realize that, if taken literally, these new terms effectively outlaw your ability to provide discounts or request reviews in exchange for discounted or free product from your own lists. The fact that you’re not INTENDING on improving sales rank via that internal discount sent to prior customers and current leads is irrelevant. The effect is still the same and at the end of the day Amazon determines intent.

I could go on for hours discussing the number of theories, some more asinine than others, making the rounds. But I won’t. It’s a waste of energy and those pushing those theories will continue to do so regardless of any comments we make on the matter.

Well, what now?

First, know that despite the fact we don’t believe blast services, promo sites, or even cleaner-cut review services are the targets here, we have made changes and will be making some additional modifications.

Specific to reviews, let it be known now if it wasn’t clear before, we are not a review service. We will not cross into that territory. Yes our deals club members generally convert to reviewer at a 5-10x your normal organic review rate, but this is not remotely due to any insinuation, requirement, gating system, reminders, or anything similar.

And as discussed above, we’re changing up the gameplan on URLs. Not because we think Super URLs are manipulative – which, until Amazon itself says they are, we will maintain they’re kosher – or because we think they don’t work – they do, just not nearly as well as earlier this year and prior – but rather because that is what YOU want. And the results on our new linking styles are too encouraging NOT to open this up to our clients.

Additionally, and this is something we’ve actually been planning for two months, but in light of the fear mongering (and fear-based marketing) taking place which is unfortunately difficult to quell, we’re expediting our plan to enhance our VIP plans. Some of you know this already, but VIPs will no longer just be limited to one day blasts. When we’re ready to roll that out, our VIPs will be the first to know.

Lastly, we will continue to hound Amazon about defining the terms in question. The information we’re getting has provided a general idea for the “spirit” of the terms they’ve put in place.

To us it is increasingly clear they are targeting blackhatters – individuals using blatantly fraudulent techniques to leave fake verified reviews, send through large quantities of fake orders, bribe reviewers, and other assorted non-compliant, potentially illegal activity. To this we say: about time.

However, despite our position, we will not settle on this. The terms are not defined enough yet and we’re going to continue pushing on this until we can get concrete and abundantly clear answers; clear enough such that no interpretation or spin is required to make sense of it.

The landscape is littered with speculation and rumor right now as a result of fear based marketers and opportunists mis-interpreting and reading far too deeply (and selectively) into these terms. Flipping out, spouting off knee-jerk conjecture, and causing mayhem in the community is not how you grow your business.

Every platform changes. You adapt and grow….or you don’t.

That said, we have some consistent information dripping from Amazon that gives us a decent degree of confidence in what we said above. But that may change as we continue to dig deeper.

We’ve had no issues, nor have our customers. We continue our services as I type this. Blasts, Waves, Pulses…all going out as scheduled, in addition to all of our other services.

If anything changes, be it a more precise version of their terms, a clarification from higher ups at Amazon, or an evidence-driven analysis of a situation causing us to take action, we will do what we do best: adapt and innovate.

We are committed to our clients, brand owners, and sellers. And we’re 100% dedicated to continuing to innovate promotional strategies and ways for entrepreneurs to grow their brand – not just on Amazon.

No matter what, we will ensure that innovation continues and that our clients are at the cutting edge of launch strategies.