Season 1, Episode 125

Reporting Abusive ASIN Merges

ASIN merges, a technique initially used for legitimate catalog management, have evolved into a tactic used to manipulate product listings.

In this episode, Chris & Leah unravel the intricacies of ASIN merges, highlighting the ethical and practical implications for the online marketplace and shed light on the difficulties sellers face in reporting such abuses.

Show Notes

Transcript

[00:00:00] Chris: Hey everybody, welcome back to Seller Performance Solutions. You have a kind of tired Leah McHugh and Chris McCabe looking back out at you if you’re watching us.

[00:00:12] Leah: It’s just every Q4. It’s the evolution of Q4.

[00:00:15] Chris: Happily discussing in mid December some trends we’re seeing, problems in terms of listing abuse, things that sellers might not be diagnosing properly. Might not be reporting the abuse properly, and it looks like there’s lots of…

[00:00:31] Leah: or inadvertently also committing the abuse themselves.

[00:00:34] Chris: Hopefully that’s going to end as of today after listening to this podcast. So bear with us a moment. We’re going to take this apart. Maybe Leah, you can just kind of run through these improper ASIN merges. The purpose is harvesting reviews. Well, there’s zombie listings, maybe we should define terms here.

[00:00:56] Leah: Oh, so they’re not always zombie listings. But I mean, that is a. version of it. So for those who aren’t familiar, a zombie listing is a listing on Amazon that hasn’t been sold by anyone in a while. And a form of abuse is either hijacking that existing listing so it already has reviews and it already has a fairly old sales rank. So I don’t really think the sales ranks really contributes much at that point, but it has a nice cache of reviews. And so one thing that abusers do is update the detail page to represent an entirely different product, and now that product looks like it has tons of reviews. The type of abuse that we’re going to be talking about more today is when somebody takes an existing listing and merges it with another listing to essentially achieve the same outcome, but it’s just a different version. So merging the two ASINs together to harvest the old reviews, and old sales ranks. So sometimes it’s done with zombie listings. Sometimes it’s done with actually active listings.

[00:01:58] Chris: Variations, right?

[00:02:00] Leah: Well, variations are different from a merge. You don’t merge.

[00:02:03] Chris: They’re merging different listings of their own products. It’s not that they’re acquiring another product that has nothing to do with their product, their detail page at that point.

[00:02:13] Leah: Yeah, and so we also see it when there’s an issue with an ASIN, sellers will try to create a new duplicate ASIN and then merge that with the old one that they’re trying to correct. Again to keep the existing reviews and keep the existing rank if for whatever reason Amazon is not letting them change something on their listing.

And, you know, while I’ve seen in the past sellers doing that to correct catalog problems without issue. Now there’s a lot more scrutiny of it because of negative press around review hijacking, particularly because the FTC recently sued a supplement manufacturer for doing a similar review merging where they were actually using a variation family to make their new products look like they had more reviews rather than merging it into the same detail page.

[00:03:07] Chris: Review manipulation, review abuse, the FTC has been on this for a long time.

[00:03:11] Leah: Right! And because the FTC has been on it, they’ve been giving Amazon a hard time about it, which means Amazon will be giving you a hard time about it.

[00:03:18] Chris: Great. Awesome synopsis, by the way. I never could have said that at this moment in time, so I’m so glad.

[00:03:24] Leah: Sounds like you’re being facetious, but I don’t think you are.

[00:03:27] Chris: I’m being completely honest. It’s good after all these years that you can’t tell when I’m being facetious and when I’m not after eight years.

So a little bit of background as well. We’ve, or at least I have, maybe you haven’t been to some events lately where this is promoted as a seller hack. I’m using air quotes.

[00:03:47] Leah: Yes.

[00:03:47] Chris: Whatever, New York, New Jersey thing that I went to. This was promoted as a good Q4 seller hack. I’m sure there are other events that are promoting this stuff, other services promoting this stuff.

[00:04:00] Leah: And also seller support or account health, telling people, oh, well this ASIN can’t be reinstated, so just make a duplicate ASIN.

[00:04:06] Chris: Yeah.

[00:04:07] Leah: Also, I mean, it wouldn’t even work if your listing is blocked and you make a new asin. You can’t merge an ASIN with a blocked ASIN. So even if that is your plan, it’s not going to work. You still would have to get the first one reinstated, but then if you merged it with a duplicate one, you’re now violating two policies.

[00:04:22] Chris: Yes. And

[00:04:25] Leah: I have this conversation a lot with sellers.

[00:04:28] Chris: There’s a lot we could say about that. I was mostly going to focus today on the tendency for sellers who identify this, and we’ve heard from many hundreds at this point. Some of them want to hire us for abuse reporting. Some of them, we just tell them what they can try on their own. But they’re just opening seller support cases, or calling catalog, or calling account health or doing all these things, which may or may not result in a quick action and a quick solution that is also quickly undone by the perpetrator. They go back and do it again. Because Amazon’s been allowing people to go back and do it again without further punishment.

[00:05:08] Leah: But I think this is where you and I differ, because if I’m reporting somebody for abuse and they re-offend while I’m reporting them, if we keep reporting them, it increases the likelihood that the entire account will be taken down rather than just the listing split. So I actually think it’s a good thing when they re-offend, because you can just keep reporting them until their account gets suspended.

[00:05:25] Chris: No, it’s a good thing. The bad thing is I would say 75 percent of the people we talk to, maybe more, are just going back and reporting again using basic seller support tools. They’re not escalating it. Okay, I’ll back up for a second. Escalation is the way to go. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing a million times hoping for a different result. Do not keep doing these seller support reports expecting there to be a magical, you know, they’ve reoffended a thousand times. Why aren’t they being blocked? It’s going to be up to you. Unfortunately, Amazon’s not taking responsibility for the fact that this happens over and over and over, because if it happens twice, if they’re a reoffender, Amazon has all the authority in the world to just block that seller. They can open a ticket if it’s a support.

If it’s a ignorant account health rep, if it’s a lower level support rep and they don’t understand what seller performance does, they could flag it. They could open up a ticket. They could do something. And once that gets to, you know, my former team seller performance, that’s a blockable offense.

[00:06:33] Leah: Yeah. But I also think it’s not just a matter of people not reporting it to the right place. I think a lot of people aren’t really laying it out for Amazon. They’re just saying like, Hey, they’re abusing reviews. Fix it. Like you need to lay it out. Like you need to look at the reviews and be like, these reviews are clearly for a different product. This has clearly been merged with this other ASIN, and this is an abuse of Amazon’s policies and also a violation of FTC regulations. Like you need to do their job for them essentially for them to take action.

[00:07:03] Chris: Yes, I agree It’s a common mistake to think that you can direct their attention to a whole host of violations and expect them to run with it from there. They should, they never do. Almost never do. So definitely Advice A is to lay it out, but B understand you’re not going to keep opening cases, complaining to account health, listening to somebody at account health say, Oh, I’ve submitted an escalation for you. Don’t expect that to work.

[00:07:29] Leah: Does account health even, I’ve never used account health for abuse reporting.

[00:07:32] Chris: I’ve heard that they escalate. They like to use this amorphous escalation reference. Sometimes it means something.

[00:07:38] Leah: Yeah, they say that about everything. If they just need to send it to somebody else, it’s an escalation.

[00:07:44] Chris: Well, they started this thing, I don’t know, last summer where they say somebody will get back to you. You’ll get a phone call from a higher level person than I am. I’ve escalated this to senior leadership when it was within account health. Sometimes that does happen. It’s inconsistent. And I would also say it’s infrequent.

So when you can’t rely on them, or support, or other teams, that’s when emails from your primary make all the difference in the world.

[00:08:11] Leah: Oh, I actually have something to tell you that I haven’t told you before.

[00:08:15] Chris: This is the best place to have unvetted, unscreened content.

[00:08:19] Leah: Because we don’t, you know, edit later.

I have seen on a few accounts now the promised escalation buttons. It only took two years, I think, since Amazon promised an escalation button.

[00:08:35] Chris: Oh, you’re talking about the much ballyhooed announcement at last year, 2022

Accelerate

[00:08:41] Leah: yeah, I’ve now seen it in a couple of accounts. It only took two years to materialize on a couple of accounts.

[00:08:48] Chris: 15 months. Let’s be fair.

[00:08:49] Leah: I’m sorry. 15 months.

[00:08:50] Chris: It only took 15 months.

[00:08:51] Leah: And still not a good number of accounts. Like I’ve seen it a couple of times.

[00:08:55] Chris: Yeah. Actually, anyone hearing this who was at Accelerate 2022? I was not there. Can tell me, tell us if the promise made at Accelerate was that they would have it in Q4 last year, the button. Or in early 2023.

[00:09:09] Leah: I’m pretty sure CNBC covered that announcement. So it’s probably in the press.

[00:09:13] Chris: Yes. Dear listener, we will try to follow up on that. But if you already know the answer, feel free to message us. Send a letter into our mailbag, right? Just like David Letterman used to, for those who remember him.

[00:09:27] Leah: I think our listeners are all younger than you think they are.

[00:09:30] Chris: David Letterman’s still with us, so you know. Comedian, late night talk show, 25, 30 years.

[00:09:37] Leah: He interviewed Billie Eilish lately, for the younger listeners.

[00:09:41] Chris: Yes, yes, and others. Back to the ASIN merges, I know it’s frustrating. I know lots of people have reported this. We’ve actually Over the last year or two, we’ve seen a lot of sellers getting better at how they report abuse and three, four years ago, nobody was reporting it. So that’s an improvement.

[00:09:59] Leah: Which I just think we should take credit for because people take credit in our space for stuff all the time that they didn’t do so. Yeah, good job. Us

[00:10:05] Chris: Kind of the only people out there that are doing real abuse reporting. We will take credit for that. But in all fairness, sellers have gotten better educated and more hip on how to do it. I already said 75 percent are just doing seller support tickets. I think most people who have tried it and see that the seller you’re reporting just goes back and does it over and over and over again.

The improvement here, the suggestion here, the fix here is that you have to escalate it meaningfully. And you have to lead with, this is a re-offender.

[00:10:41] Leah: Right

[00:10:41] Chris: We’ve reported them a couple times. They’ve already gone back and in bad faith, done it over and over and over again, which means they have no intention of following policy violation. Sorry. Following policy. They’re continuing to commit the violation. Why are they selling at all?

[00:11:01] Leah: Right. It’s similar to what we were saying before, where you have to lay out the abuse. You have to lay out the repetitive nature of the abuse as well. You basically have to make it so if somebody later reviews that email, it would look bad to the investigator if they had done nothing about it.

[00:11:17] Chris: Yes. Or the manager. Maybe you’ve gotten it to the manager.

[00:11:19] Leah: You need it to be so strong that somebody ignoring it would look bad if that was reviewed later.

[00:11:27] Chris: Yes, and we can talk in another podcast another day about why has Amazon retreated from blocking re-offenders Into just light slap on the wrist, which of course encourages more and more abuse when they do that.

You start blocking people for it, then you get their attention. Back when I was working at Amazon, we got to the point, I think very quickly in the policy enforcement process where we realized that policy warnings didn’t really do anything. Unless they were scared by one warning that they might lose their whole account, maybe they’d change their behavior. And so you started taking things away like ASINs or accounts. No one changed anything because they thought it was basically just a bot, or they thought it was fake, or they thought it was harmless.

[00:12:12] Leah: Or they now think they can just check the check boxes and everything’s fine.

[00:12:17] Chris: Well, just for anyone who says why does Amazon suspend me instead of giving me a heads up?

A lot of people tell us that, and then we find a policy violation in their performance notifications. They were told, but they didn’t care. They didn’t take it seriously.

[00:12:30] Leah: Well, and for those listening who are considering ignoring this stuff and committing this abuse anyway. I mean, it’s not just Amazon like we said. It is FTC, and the company that was recently sued by the FTC had to pay a 600, 000 fine. So, if the ire of Amazon doesn’t dissuade you from doing this, perhaps a $600, 000 fine would.

[00:12:52] Chris: Or if you don’t find a $600, 000 fine to be too harmful to your business.

[00:12:57] Leah: Then have at it, I guess. I don’t know.

[00:12:59] Chris: You’re still rolling the dice. Well that means you’re making millions and millions on Amazon.

[00:13:03] Leah: Which also means it’ll hurt a lot more if that gets shut off, you know.

[00:13:06] Chris: It’s rolling the dice with your entire Amazon business, which presumably you need if you’re making millions per month or per year.

So, make sure you understand that abuse prevention teams exist. Make sure you understand that support may not be delegating these appropriately. Make sure you’re following different management, senior management, executives on LinkedIn, their posts. Sometimes you can get a tweet out to their attention.

[00:13:33] Leah: They also love posting about how great they are at finding and stopping abuse. So that’s a perfect time to mention the abuse.

[00:13:42] Chris: They constantly talk about their increased headcount for abuse prevention, how much money they spend, which part of that must be salaries, for employees on headcount for abuse prevention.

But this abuse is rampant. Re-offenders are constant. And they’re treating the symptom and not the disease. They’re kind of taking credit for fighting abuse, but they’re not following the problem all the way to the source. Which means that they’re taking credit for something that lacks a lot of meaning.

The meaning is elimination of the abuse or greatly reducing it. Instead, what’s happening is the offenders are re-offending Because they feel bulletproof. And they feel bulletproof because I think not enough people are reporting it number one. So don’t don’t be discouraged and do it once and run away. That’s what Amazon is kind of hoping you do because they don’t want to hear it.

And that’s what the abusers want you to do. You have to stick with it. Persevere. But also be ready to complain, and be ready to be aggressive, right?

[00:14:47] Leah: So I have a theory actually on some of this with Amazon. So we already know that they’re like intentionally vague in their communication. But I actually think based on their recent improvements of support, and account health, and pretty much any of these processes, I think they’re intentionally making it more difficult to try to get more people to give up on contacting them about things. Because even to the point that the hold music, when you call Amazon now is just like an 8 bar part of a song that’s just played on repeat for the hour that you’re on hold. I think they’re just like, we’re just gonna drive you nuts until you give up. And I think part of the reason all of these processes are actually getting worse, not better, is because they’re just trying to reduce the number of contacts rather than solving the issues. Sorry, Amazon PR, if you’re listening, but this is my theory.

[00:15:39] Chris: Yeah, well, it could be a new person listening, so.

[00:15:44] Leah: Even in terms of like the help menu, they’ve made the help menu more difficult to navigate for sellers. Sellers don’t even know how to request a callback from support anymore. Like, I think they are intentionally making all of these processes worse and more of a pain to deal with. So people just give up and don’t contact them about it.

[00:16:01] Chris: I think I’ve already decided this is one of my favorite episodes that we’ve done. So we need to do these when we’re really tired more often is the answer. When we look tired and sound tired. I know I sound tired. You don’t necessarily. I agree.

The whole music thankfully I haven’t heard lately. But yeah, I mean, you can see. You can see a couple of trends, and this may be useful for next month, you know, 2024, too. In terms of putting things in writing, they seem reluctant to put a lot of their decisions and responses in writing.

They’re doing more phone calls.

[00:16:39] Leah: There’s a lot more phone calls, yeah. Which doesn’t really help because you have no path of getting back in touch with the person that called you.

[00:16:45] Chris: Well that, and nothing’s documented.

Right.

So people can change the story later. But it’s interesting because like when I was working there and in the years since, they were trying to get away from phone calls because they’re so time consuming, it’s hard to get people off the phone. Maybe in the age of the account health dashboard and account health reps, they’ve decided, you know what, the way things are now, we have to kind of commit to having a certain amount of phone time with sellers, but we’re going to just throw quantity at the problem and not necessarily quality of phone time.

[00:17:18] Leah: Yeah, I agree.

[00:17:20] Chris: So that’s fodder for yet another episode. Yeah, in terms of Amazon PR listening in, I don’t know if it’s the same person that used to listen to these episodes. If you’re new, welcome. We hope to make 2024 cheery and wonderful for you.

[00:17:37] Leah: if you’re an intern, sorry, you have to listen to podcasts.

[00:17:41] Chris: You’re paying your dues for the mothership. But anyone listening to this, who’s familiar with this ASIN merge problem, it’s bad for buyers. It’s a bad buyer experience to have misinformation on the site, to have detailed pages be misleading, to have products be mislisted and misleading. It’s bad for sellers. It’s bad for Amazon who has to deal with the blowback from the FTC. And from the media and from others who see it. It’s obvious also just in terms of like, easy to understand. Wonderfully, it’s one of the things that we don’t have to spend eons explaining to people.

[00:18:12] Leah: Right. Well, and because of that, it’s also a very popular news story with the press.

[00:18:16] Chris: And it’s a popular seller hack, again, with the air quotes.

[00:18:20] Leah: Because it’s easy to do, even though you’re not supposed to.

[00:18:22] Chris: Yeah. Sarcastically, my favorite two words to see together or hear together are seller hack. Some distant future day, maybe those two words won’t go together.

[00:18:31] Leah: My two favorite words are gray hat.

[00:18:34] Chris: Gray hat. Thankfully we don’t hear that so much anymore.

All right, everybody.

Thanks for listening. If you see examples of this, if you’re frustrated that you’ve been reporting it, which a lot of you Have thank God and you’re not getting anywhere. There are better ways to do it and We can cover some of those tips in a future episode, but we can also walk you through any emergency abuse reporting because we understand that Amazon’s falling behind on these, or collapsing under the weight of all the abuse reports, or just fundamentally not addressing the problem at the source.

So, thanks again. Have a great holiday Thanks, Leah, and I will see you again soon.

[00:19:08] Leah: Thanks, Chris

Hosts & Guests

Leah McHugh

Chris McCabe

 

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