How Amazon Shopping Ads Are Disguised as Real Results

Roger Stringer • November 28, 2022

3 min read

Geoffrey Fowler, writing for The Washington Post:

Amazon is the first app many of us think about to buy things online. But is it actually a good place to go shopping? When you search for a product on Amazon, you may not realize that most of what you see at first is advertising. Amazon is betraying your trust in its results to make an extra buck.

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Look for the “Sponsored” label, but not always in the same place. Sometimes it’s hidden in the lower-right corner; other times it’s in tiny type above the product name. When the ad is for one of Amazon’s own products, the listing might say just “Featured from our brands.” (Amazon doesn’t consider this an ad.)

Also, be on the lookout for those boxes of ads designed to look like independent information. They come under many headings, including “Brands related to your search,” “Highly rated,” “Trending now” and “Customers frequently viewed.” The company told me it is continually testing new groupings and iterating on titles.

(What about the “Amazon’s choice” label? That’s determined by an Amazon algorithm for a product that has good reviews, is well-priced and is available to ship. The label can’t be purchased, but it can appear on a sponsored listing if the product meets Amazon’s criteria. Amazon says the “Best seller,” “Climate pledge friendly” and “Parent pick” labels also cannot be purchased.)

But this can’t be all on us. Amazon and all the other sites and apps following its lead need some common-sense limits.

Here’s a modest proposal: No more than half of any screen we see at any given time — be it on desktop web or a smartphone — should contain ads.

Perhaps 50 percent sounds like a lot to you? But even that rule would force Amazon to show us at least some of the most-relevant results on the first screen of our device. Amazon wouldn’t comment on this suggestion.

Another idea: Shill results should be much more clearly marked. A label disclosing that a shill listing is “Sponsored” should have the same font, size and contrast as the most prominent text in the ad. Even better: It should have to go on the top-left part of the ad, where our eyes go first. No more burying it in the far-right corner.

Amazon’s Graham said, “Ads in Amazon’s store always include a clear and prominent ‘sponsored’ label, implemented in accordance with FTC (Federal Trade Commission) guidelines.”

But not everyone agrees. Last year, the FTC received a formal petition from the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, complaining that Amazon misleads consumers because of how it labels sponsored results.

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