The Internet is the Wild West.
This was the narrative for many years. Going back close to twenty years, settlers (like me) would spend countless hours trying to convince brands about the pending gold rush. And, yes, it worked out. There’s gold in them thar Hills! Yes. Yes there was (and still is). In those very early days as search engines, websites and the earliest days of eCommerce came online, there was opportunity everywhere. Tons of industries had yet to be populated and dominated online.
It was exciting times… and dangerous times.
For every Bezos, Brin and Thiel, there were countless others who were working in the shadows trying to game the system. And, without rules, laws, ethics and transparency in place, they benefited to the tune of millions (billions?) of dollars. Back then, I was busy building the sales and advertising channel for a meta-search engine in the BG era (Before Google). From that perch, you could see the gaming of the system and fraud and terrible side of human beings who would do anything to do something as petty as getting a notch or two ahead of their competitors in a basic search result.
The cat meets the mouse.
As this new digital land grab was happening, it became a constant battle. Whatever gaming of the system and fraud was being done, required the programmers and strategists to develop countermeasures. Every action and reaction would affect the entire ecosystem. There were always unintended consequences, so while the bad actors were being punished (or not even caught), often the good actors were being punished as well. It was rough going. Not much has changed. You can run down the line of digital inovations since those first websites and early platforms were developed, and the bad actors are always front and center. From Facebook manipulation to programmatic problems and beyond. With that, the lessons of the past and the failures of others act as a buffer for the new players to learn from and get it right (from the onset). Right?
Welcome to the jungle… Amazon’s jungle.
The headline says it all for this Wall Street Journal report: How Sellers Trick Amazon To Boost Sales. It’s a simple scam: somewhere in Bangladesh empoverished individuals just trying to survive, shuffle into a non-descript building and spend countless hours clicking on pre-defined and specific links on Amazon. The business model is simple: Someone is paying them to create a false sense of popularity. Amazon’s algorithm then kicks in and ranks these products higher.
That scam is about as old as the first website.
Smart algorithm? The most brilliant minds in technology and retail? The first company to trigger the trillion dollar business valuation (maybe)? And, yet, they haven’t figured out how to build an algorithm based on anything but what links someone is clicking on, and then automating the process of rank based on that? Even the infamous search algorithm for Google (PageRank) was (partially) created, developed and iterated on because of this very basic predatory tactic. Nearly twenty years later, and this trick still works?
It’s not just click farm tactics.
Services to game Amazon rankings go well beyond the clicking of links. Just graze through the WSJ report to see how pervasive the problem is. Amazon’s defense is, as expected… it’s just a small handful of bad actors that are not really having a significant impact on the users experiece or on overall business plans.
Is this tough to fix?
What if the amount of times a link is clicked has no bearing on the popularity of a product? What is ranking is defined by purchases, multiple purchase, positive reviews, positive reviews that can only be posted by verified accounts (legitimate credit cards? multiple purchases?). Again, not stating anything new here, but shifting how something gets ranked to more pragmatic models instead of simply clicks and searches seems like the obvious fix? Ensuring that people are really who they say that they are seems obvious too? I’m not naive, if a brand locks anything down, there are enough bad actors who will find the loophole. Still, there are some obvious ways to not fall prey to tactics that others have already solved for.
We often say “what’s old is new again.” It’s somewhat tragic that we have to include the scammers in this as well.