Coverage Continues of the Amazon’s Storefront Sliding Into an Pay-to-Play Scheme of Dubious Products

Jason Del Rey, Recode:

The sponsor-ification of the Amazon shopping experience is just the latest twist. If you’re looking closely enough, a quick search on Amazon for, say, “iPhone screen protector” or “youth soccer socks” will only turn up paid product listings carrying a “Sponsored” label at the top of the results before scrolling.


In recent years, Amazon has found new ways to toe the line on how clearly it labels its ads. In one case, it tucked a smaller, lighter “sponsored label” underneath a bigger, bolder section label of “Highly Rated.” Amazon previously had a section for organic results called “Top Rated” but launched the “Highly Rated” widget as a section for sponsored listings only. Graham, the Amazon spokesperson, said the company has since released a second type of Highly Rated section that includes both organic and sponsored results.

Along the way, Amazon has essentially given up on effectively surfacing the best products to customers in an organic fashion, and has outsourced that key function to advertisers.

The sponsor listings run deeper and sketchier than you might think. Take a close look at a search for cloth napkins, and you will see:

  • a sponsored banner at the top from Cotton Clinic, with two listings,

  • sponsored products filling the first four positions of the search results grid,

  • the “Highly Rated” sponsored section just a little further down the page,

  • a section which involves some kind of co-branding deal where Amazon links to a Daily Mail article about the “best cloth napkins” and the Mail gets a commission from purchases,

  • another four sponsored listings mixed into the organic-looking results grid,

  • another four sponsored listings at the end of the organic-looking results grid,

  • and then a sponsored video banner just above the page controls for bamboo-based paper towels.

That sure is a lot of ads for one page of about sixty total results — about one-quarter of everything shown. All this comes on top of accusations of self-preferencing, copycat products, the often low quality of the products it labels “Amazon’s Choice”, and the fly-by-night brands that frequently pollute search results. Shopping on Amazon means navigating a labyrinth of crap, paid listings, and paid listings for crap.

Del Rey:

The Amazon spokesperson said that advertising on Amazon only works well if the company makes ads useful for customers, and that a variety of factors determine when and where ads are placed throughout the shopping experience.

I get what is being said here, but it feels like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If increasing amounts of the homepage are ads and many of those ads reflect actual products that people may be shopping for, then they likely “work” by some metric Amazon is using. For a start, Amazon seems to go out of its way to make the “sponsored” label as close to invisible, so many people probably do not know they are clicking on an ad. Del Rey’s reporting reveals many sellers are having to increase prices to pay for ads so they remain high in search results, too. How well they actually work for sellers and customers is hard to say given how high-quality organic listings are squeezed between advertising and drop-shipped junk.

I agree that labelling paid spots is better than supermarkets selling shelf space and not acknowledging it.