The lesson is that if you're doing something in violation of a partner's TOS and start to negatively effect their business, the partner is well within their rights to cut off access. Whether other businesses have or haven't been slapped down is only a secondary question.
If they did have permission from Amazon to violate the TOS, I hope they had a contract to do so with protections/compensation for early termination.
If not, the situation is not unlike how off label drug usage can be okay until the FDA tells you to stop. Once they change their minds, that's that.
The Amazon TOS says don't store and display our old prices
Generally speaking, graduate-level textbooks (which release new editions at a far slower pace) had the largest and most predictable margin. That said, I hated that fact, since I think textbooks are also the biggest racket in the education universe, and its one of the other reasons that I stopped.
Amazon collected their fees in both directions, so I always assumed that if they realized what I was doing, they had little incentive to care.
edit: This is the section that Amazon must be referring to
"You may store other Product Advertising Content that does not consist of images for caching purposes for up to 24 hours, but if you do so you must immediately thereafter refresh and re-display the Product Advertising Content"
>Maybe there's another reason altogether.
That's what I'm thinking as well.
Whether other businesses have or haven't been slapped down is only a secondary question.
If you are 100% reliant on another company you're entire existence depends on that relationship.
I can't imagine a massive Associates Program user like, say, Gizmodo, doesn't have some kind of internal connection.
The problem here only really exists in these silly other parasitical web-only businesses. Yes, if you track Amazon's prices and Amazon makes that harder then you'll be on trouble. So probably best to set up 20 or so companies/services in your spare time and not take any of them too seriously.
But Amazon can. They also pay a few months in arrears, so one day you may wake up to a form email that says essentially, "adios, and I'm keeping the money". In fairness, I believe all affiliate programs are like that.
My point is that most other companies are like that, and the difference is just the extent to which these parasitical "internet businesses" are coupled to their host.
They're not `keeping the money`, they're just not paying you stuff that's not covered by the contract, TOS etc.
It's not `without warning` by the same token; unless the warning they were expecting was to hear about other companies who play fast and loose with the rules getting caught first.
Amazon pays ~2 months after Affiliate fees are earned, so at any given time you may have 2 months of fees waiting to be paid. If today they decide that they're done with their affiliate relationship with you -- for good reason or for no reason -- they can (and do) close your account with no explanation, AND they keep those 2 months of fees you already earned legitimately with no recourse except your suing them (good luck with that).
It's a bit like being a commissioned salesperson, getting fired, and the company keeps all your pending commissions. Totally illegal in that context, but the Affiliate program is not an employer in that way. It still sucks just as much.
A lot of companies warn you if they think you're in violation of their TOS: internet providers, game companies, cell phone companies, on and on. I don't think it's unreasonable to use a 'strikes' system or provide an avenue for appeal.
The CFAA generally applies to any computer access, as the Commerce Clause has been interpreted as applying to completely intra-state transactions (ignoring the fact that most computer access crosses state lines, which would make it a federal issue anyway), and thus, effectively all computers attached to the internet are "protected computers". Even if you're able to prevail in the argument that the CFAA is not applicable, there are similarly-worded state statutes, and as mentioned, other issues may federal matters, like alleged copyright and trademark infringement (which is usually alleged in such cases).
The CFAA is somewhat grey so if you have a few hundred k or more to flush on your lawyers, go ahead, it's possible that you may win. For most people, it's not relevant, because they can't afford to go head-to-head against a major global corporate entity like Amazon. One of the main goals of such a company is to make the lawsuit as costly as possible for the opposing party, since they have infinity money and they know that their opponent likely doesn't.
If you're interested, there have been a handful of cases already litigated on the CFAA. The scrapers usually get smoked hard. Look up Ticketmaster v. RMG Technologies, Craigslist v. 3Taps, Register.com v. Verio, and Facebook v. Power Ventures to get started.
It's never healthy to be so dependent on one provider.
The same is true with Amazon now. Once they started selling essentially everything at often the lowest prices, I switched to buying from them almost exclusively. Then Prime came and things came to my home within 2 days guaranteed. Now almost everything I buy comes from them. Mostly I do not bother to comparison shop. But sometimes Amazon actually has grossly inflated prices on things. I believe this is where a lot of their margin comes from. I am not going to waste my time going to 10 different sites to shop around, but with price comparisons like camelcamelcamel I can tell that the item went up 50%. Amazon is likely to lose business more often than not on price comparison sites because many people would just go to Amazon and buy in most cases, but if the price comparison site shows a bad price they will lose the business.
So I've never been locked into Amazon and always been free to shop around. And I can absolutely confirm that Amazon is no longer the "default" winner on price. Sometimes they are, but often not. I don't even have to spend a lot of time shopping around to find this. The same deals are everywhere now.
Oh my god, the horror! You might be mistaken for a filthy peasant!
For a single person, yeah it likley doesn't make sense unless you happen to use Prime Videos or something.
It cancels out the $99/year fairly quickly and then some. Also unlimited photo storage is a huge plus for me.
Against the TOS? Most likely.
I have noticed that many books on Amazon UK (outside of the popular categories or bestseller lists) often have little or no discount.*
My recollection is purely anecdotal, but this is a change from when discounts were common across titles in all categories. Having said that, many marketplace sellers offer titles at much steeper discounts than Amazon (even with the additional shipping costs). Of course, Amazon still benefits from those listings.
A few years ago, Amazon aquired bookdepository.co.uk, their biggest online rival in the UK market. They also own Abebooks that specialises in used books. Their domination of online book sales in the UK seems (almost) complete.
So with fewer discounts on books (at least in the UK), it seems logical that Amazon would want to discourage price comparison. And yet the irony is that Amazon dominates online book buying to such a degree that there are few online rivals left to compare prices with. The only major online rivals I can think of in the UK now is wordery.co.uk, or whsmith.co.uk (both of which are often cheaper than Amazon outside the bestseller lists).
*curious to know if anyone else has noticed a drop in price discounts on books on Amazon (from any of their sites)
PriceZombie's failure was in not expecting Amazon to always have the best price. Not all of the online retailers they track have affiliate programs so if a few of them dropped out because they were losing business it would not be a big loss, but with 90%+ of all purchases coming from Amazon, losing them as an affiliate was a fatal blow.
But that is to the PZ site. Behind PZ is a massive, custom coded data retrieval and searchable storage system that contains three years worth of product and price data from almost every major online retailer - both the technology and data is far more valuable than the PZ website.
I used to do that, but I've started comparison shopping at local retail stores more recently. I've found that for many of the items I was buying that are available locally, Amazon was offering the same price or higher, plus a shipping delay (and the non-trivial hassle I have to go through to pick up some packages).
Plus, retails stores tend to group similar products together and allow you to get an intuitive sense of a products physical qualities, so I think they often provide a better experience. On Amazon, it can be surprisingly hard to answer the "how big is this, really" question.
Now, if I think I can buy an item locally, I try to do that first.
It's kinda sad really. The last city I lived in still had computer stores. The one I moved to doesn't...at all. There are some recycled PC stores, but the only new parts store is a Frys way out of the city. Fuck Frys too.
I was once in a room with Dave McClure and a ~50ish companies he had funded. He announced that he was taking a tour of partnership teams at two members of AppAmaGooBookSoft and asked for who wanted to come with. A handful of hands were raised.
Dave McClure got frothing mad, and not his normal frothing character mad, but I think actually angry.
"LISTEN UP. 80% of you are building on these platforms. If you do not have a direct line to God at their HQs you ARE NOT TREATING THIS LIKE A BUSINESS. You will %(#)%#0 fail. If you are working with one of these companies, and you are not on that bus, you are dead to me."
I don't think I'd phrase it like that, but the core message is exactly correct. The standard platform deal is, indeed, in the event of an issue you can write to an inbox that no one reads. You do not want that deal.
You should, as early as practical, identify an actual human inside the mothership and convince them to like you. You should then lateral from that actual human to other actual humans so that you do not lose your beachhead if your actual human is re-assigned. If you do not do this, when you inevitably have a problem, you will be reduced to taking it to the HN front page and hoping an actual human takes pity on you. Pity is a much less likely outcome than convincing an actual human than you are scads better than their median semi-anonymous participant in the partnership program, which is pretty easy, because their median participant is terrible and all processes are designed to treat them as such.
I am aware that this some people will perceive this as unfair because getting better-than-publicly-available access to one's business partners seems like you're at a position of advantage vis-a-vis the people who can only send mails to /dev/null. Is this an advantage? Yes. If you believe this is an unfair advantage, I would strongly counsel you to negotiate honestly and in good faith with your counterparties at your largest business partner and source of existential risk, and not worry so much about other putative businesses which are not sophisticated enough to negotiate honestly and in good with faith their core suppliers.
This is so valuable. I was intrigued by who wrote this and no wonder it is Patrick. (I highly recommend this article by him: http://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/10/28/dont-call-yourself-a-pro...).
My two cents: Talk to human. Develop social skills they matter more than what you think.
My heart goes out to PriceZombie, a tool I really liked using. It makes me wonder, are contracts just passé in today's web/app economy? Do founders not care about having the rug pulled out from underneath their business at any time?
I of course understand if this is a side project, not a full time job, and can't be given 100% focus. But I feel like I woke up from a bad dream: everywhere I look, it's the same App Store model: Apple, GooglePlay, Amazon, Steam...
I've since returned to working for companies that rely on first line support, and it's much harder to get the support you need, so I totally agree with this point.
This is why 90% of Silicon Valley Healthcare startups are ephemeral. They can't sell to Hospitals and they won't pay attention to the "dinosaurs" that try to tell them otherwise. There are some industries that you can't "disrupt" unless you're going to play by it's rules.
Building relationships is critical and so is maintaining them. They provide real value and if you are building on someone else's platform you better trust they won't pull the rug out from under you (or at least have a backup plan). It's totally okay to rely on a company's platform as long as you understand the risks and mitigate them. Getting a bug in someone's ear at the company is one way to reduce the risk that something will go awry.
It's amazing how companies can flourish or wither depending on whether the people on those networks end up growing in status and exercising more influence, or marginalized and quitting.
I spent 2 years generating over $1mil a year in sales through the Amazon affiliate program - to be dropped without warning or contact. No amount of follow up and attempts to contact my, previously very accessible, account rep resulted in anything. Not even an explanation on why my account was closed, outside of being told that I could take legal action (in the state of Washington) against Amazon to collect on the nearly $40k in yet-to-be-paid earnings.
it's entirely possible Amazon did this math
It wouldn't be a big deal if this was an isolated incident but it's not.
But people continue to sell on Amazon because that is where the customers are.
 Reserve means an item is unable to be bought, either because it's in reserve for a customer order that hasn't shipped or its being transferred to another warehouse.
Here on HN a few months ago I remember person X saying "I have a successful business in that domain and I can help you. My email is in my profile." and the OP in that thread responding "OK, maybe I'll email you when I can" and being taken to task (correctly, IMHO) by another poster for not immediately jumping on what was really a great opportunity offered to him by a complete stranger.
For those of us who are trying to start businesses, it's very helpful to be occasionally dopeslapped on the side of the head by someone saying "stop being an engineer, this is business. TALK TO PEOPLE!"
Well I'll just assume it made sense in context.
This presumes humans will retain abilities to manage such decisions, or can manage them at scale in the future. If a company relies on an API for revenue, the best strategy is to have a backup for that API and then a backup for the backup API. A hope-and-a-prayer email address may or may not help retain an existing business relationship, which frankly all depends on the circumstances. Sometimes even a president can't get a company to do something if it is against policy or contrary to revenue.
Assuming connections to people are sufficient to head off changes in business models is a fallacious argument steeped in the idea that VC was a good idea for your company. The VC lead model is the cause of these type of problems, not people who are expected to simultaneously work 20 hour days and still have a life - which is where real connections are formed and retained.
I would have told Dave to go fuck himself.
source: I worked for a company that had / was part of my job to talk to a dedicated adwords account manager. Even google has such a thing. They can ok stuff for you that virtually nobody else gets and, in the event it's later judged noncompliant with policy, forwarding that email chain makes things ok. It also ended up being part of my job to take him out drinking in sf.
Also, your api & backup api is dumb. There is no alternative to facebook. There is no serious alternative to adwords. There is no alternative to google search. For many things, there is virtually no other retailer on the internet that matters besides amazon. That's reality.
So, multiple price engines come and go. Why? Because consumers won't pay for them, and so they rely on kickbacks from merchants. Same for Travel sites/aggregators, and for review sites: You either get folks to pay for them (of which Angie's List was the only kind of success) or you get vendors to pay you (Yelp, any affiliate aggregator (Creditcards.com, etc.), price engines).
I guess I wonder: I love CamelCamelCamel, I loved PriceZombie, I loved PriceRunner and Jango and all the rest... but they keep going away. Google killed google shopping comparisons, as did the other portals. We can probably all think of ones we used that are all gone now.
What kind of service would one have to create that grabs prices but can charge consumers so it's not depending on affiliate vig? And given that many merchants are creating terms of service to block displaying of their prices (we see this also in the travel industry), will one of the earliest dreams of the internet, that of a flat marketplace where I can evaluate all players and their pricing and pick the best store for me, still fail to come to life?
It feels like online shopping has become a big mall, where I have to go to as many sites as I can find til I get tired and just buy the thing at the most recent site (or just trust that Amazon is the cheapest). I hope we can avoid this fate.
(Update: fixed typos)
>What kind of service would one have to create that grabs prices but can charge consumers so it's not depending on affiliate vig?
I've got a handful of ideas about this and have been considering a startup along these lines. I think that you need to take control of the actual purchase, so then it's just "Oh, I paid less than I expected, some may have gone to the middleman but I still win" instead of "I paid money to X for the purchase and to Y for finding it for me" and feel somehow losing out for not finding it yourself. If anyone wants to discuss this I added an email to my profile.
This is kind of like what Jet was doing when they first launched, although they've stopped it since, apparently because stores didn't like it.
The Google shopping that exists today is not the same service that was originally launched. It used to function more like a standard search, but limited to all online stores. So long as there wasn't a robots.txt, Google was index the site and include the product in their shopping results. So basically like standard search, but with logic to determine if a site represented a store.
Then Google modified shopping so that it was opt-in for the retailers, meaning a large number of stores were no longer included. To be included in Google shopping now a retailer must have a Google merchant/adwords account. It's more of a curated search now.
Nothing wrong with it now, but it used to be great for finding hard-to-find items or items that were mispriced by less sophisticated retailers.
But then I'm always amazed at how many employees and offices Twitter has.
Unfortunately this is a reality of basing, or largely basing, a whole service off of a third party.
In business, it is less of an issue because business doesn't need to be fair to the same standard of law. There are still certain laws and protect groups and such, but the bar is still much lower than in law. The complaint of unfairness can be valid, but also pointless.
So, it's more like a cop pulling you over even though you weren't speeding.
The bottom line is that Amazon can deem it acceptable to allow behavior one day, and change it's mind the next. If you systematically rely on your partner's humor, you're doing something wrong.
Amazon might be dicks, but not to the extent that PriceZombie is foolish.
(I get the sense we're saying the same thing, though :) )
I agree you're better off trying a different tack with the ticket troll, I'm just saying it's not wrong.
It's risky to rely on one customer for the majority of your revenue.
90% of PriceZombie's revenue was dependent on affiliate revenue, and thus Amazon. Similarly, virtually all of TutorSpree's revenue was dependent on SEO, and thus on Google, and when Google changed their algorithm, they saw a similar fate.
It surprised me how little fightback there was to this change. So, anyway, never rely on platforms like that, always assume it's a temporary arrangement (especially if the platform is run by a major player).
Think about all the successful companies out there that DO depend on third parties:
- Buffer (Twitter has a bad day? Cut their API access off!)
- Candy Crush (Apple hates them? Remove their apps!)
- RetailMeNot (Google thinks they're spam! Delist them!)
- DuckDuckGo (Bing hates them? Cut off their API access)
- Heroku (Amazon has a bad day? Cut off their AWS Access)
- MailPlane (Google doesn't want Gmail apps?! Cut them off!)
This is pretty standard for Amazon marketplace seller services. They take a 16%+ cut of all of your sales and have absolutely nobody to help you when your account is banned or disabled by one of their auto bots.
This happened to a client of mine a few years back. Near 100% feedback, complying with every rule, and one day they get the ban hammer (for a claim that was later withdrawn by the original person that filed it).
Amazon withheld $50,000 for over 3 months while they were 'investigating'. After 3 emails where Amazon responded with canned responses, they said the matter was 'closed' and all future emails would not be answered.
Do NOT do business with Amazon. You will end up sorry and probably without a business. As as an associate or marketplace seller, they own all of your clients and you are responsibly for anything bad that happens. When you get kicked, they have all of your data, your clients, and your money for 90 days.
On top of this, they compete with their own marketplace sellers (unlike Ebay) and use all of your sales information to undercut you. I witnessed it many times with the above client.
This should be against the law. I think the only reason they haven't been sued out of existence is because their so big.
This doesn't really relate to this story as Price Zombie did utilize many different sites, but it does show just how big the giants are (like Facebook/Amazon) that even if you try to support lots of different sources, one of them can make or break you.
And I hear it's not cheap for them.
They get away with it too, because a price comparison website is not feasible without having amazon as one of the shops.
I can't disclose details, but Amazon apparently has no issues with big CSEs (Idealo.de, billiger.de) but obviously they don't like sites that focus on deal "sniping" (like PriceZombie and "deal" sites) as much, since that cuts into their margins (people buy mostly temporarily low-margin offers through such sites and affiliate fees are too expensive there).
If you don't own the relationship with your primary source of revenue, your business is built on a rocky foundation, and if the weather is fickle enough, you can be washed away overnight.
Having been an affiliate, managed an affiliate program, and worked with an OPM to manage the program, I can say that stuff like this happens all the time in the industry, and that's why the #1 rule for affiliates is "diversify diversify diversify."
Rather, I think it's that a business model that is not complimentary to the third party is the problem. E.g. Amazon doesn't want historical price tracking for as it could lead to folks discovering price manipulations and a decrease in margins. So, that's the issue--the business was not a compliment. Let's imagine a startup that was generating new sales from a long tail market segment too small for Amazon to target directly, then that's a good business model as it compliments Amazon and leads to new sales they wouldn't otherwise see.
TLDR if you rely on a partner, make sure your business helps their business.
The specific section on pricing in the api doc (https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/gp/advertising/api/deta...) seems to indicate historical pricing is allowed if you display the date with it:
"(o) You will include a date/time stamp adjacent to your display of pricing or availability information on your application if you obtain Product Advertising Content from a Data Feed, or if you call the Product Advertising API or refresh the Product Advertising Content displayed on your application less frequently than hourly. However, during the same day on which you requested and refreshed the pricing and availability information displayed on your application, you may omit the date portion of the stamp. Examples of acceptable messaging include:
Amazon.com Price: $32.77 (as of 01/07/2008 14:11 PST - Details)
Amazon.com Price: $32.77 (as of 14:11 PST - More info)
Additionally, you must either include the following disclaimer adjacent to the pricing or availability information or provide it via a hyperlink, popup box, scripted popup, or other similar method: "Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on [relevant Amazon Site(s), as applicable] at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product." In the above examples, "Details" and "More info" would provide a method for the end user to read the disclaimer."
I'm thinking it's probably a violation of this:
"(n) You will not store or cache Product Advertising Content consisting of an image, but you may store a link to Product Advertising Content consisting of an image for up to 24 hours. You may store other Product Advertising Content that does not consist of images for caching purposes for up to 24 hours, but if you do so you must immediately thereafter refresh and re-display the Product Advertising Content by making a call to the Product Advertising API or retrieving a new Data Feed and refreshing the Product Advertising Content on your application immediately thereafter."
I would love to see numbers from this operation, like we saw after Everpix. I would love to understand the scale, if it really would cost so much to host it?
So perhaps the actual take away is they didn't really violate the ToS as it is written, but they got kicked out and should have known it would happen. They may have been targeted because they show competitors pricing. Either way, it's sad to lose the service, but hard to chase those customers, because the customer won't pay. They are trying to sell the IP and maybe the company, and apparently there's some sturdy tech with broad applications!
What's so tricky is the dispute isn't about API access for the latest pricing, but rather their affiliate revenue. That can be canceled for any reason at any time, so that they still get the API and could find other revenue streams is a key point. They are not "entitled" to Amazon affiliate revenue, so then the question is -- where's the story?
CamelCamelCamel just compares the current Amazon price to historical Amazon prices.
One site makes it much easier to encourage you to buy on another site, one site makes it much easier to optimize your purchase while still remaining with Amazon.
Looks like being Amazon only may be what is keeping them alive. I enjoy CamelCamelCamel a lot, it's fun to put in a low-ball price target and then months later get an email that it has been met.
If you're regurgitating in a manner that is beneficial for both parties and the customer then I'd say you've created something extremely valuable. Just ask Google.
In this case Amazon doesn't like past prices being stored and shown. Ok, I get it that doing so exposes sellers who price high during "rush" seasons and low during "off" seasons, or the difference in price quoted to a Dallas IP address versus one from San Francisco, but shouldn't those sorts of shenanigans be exposed?
It's more likely Amazon just doesn't see the value. Why would they want to pay a company to drive traffic to Amazon, only when Amazon's prices are lower? Otherwise, they actively drive traffic to their competitors? Amazon is not in dire need of traffic, and with their algorithmic pricing, information is an advantage.
Perhaps there is a business case that can be made. But, OTOH, it doesn't strike me as irrational that Amazon would rather not.
They should suddenly start tracking thousands of affliates and you could earn some money from it :) ( i suppose)
Eg. Something like https://sendy.co/ , i believe they earn plenty of money also :p
I will pay you $x a year to keep your service functional. Go figure out what x is, given the number of active users you have , and what it costs to keep the service open.
Also, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am a service provider, I might be able to help you cut down your cost of operating.
I am fairly certain amazon hates that with a passion and is in fact why you dont see that feature on CCC.
Also, Its my understanding that all of these price comparison sites get a severely discounted affiliate rate from amazon- Something like 1%
So PriceZombie just can't compete. Makes me kind of wonder if they were just the "top" website doing this, and so they suffered from too much success.
In a hosted service that's easy; if you're selling something people download you'll have to ensure timely updates.
Saying fail with code is an uppercase FAIL.
Also outside of extreme cases, a silly product name should not be a big problem.
Although, if ever there were a company closure about which one couldn't be too sure...
The existing body of law is very hostile to scrapers. Server access is treated like access to land. The "owner" can kick you off whenever they want.
Yeah, that's really going to help your situation.
1) You built your product on top of someone else's service. That's always a rocky road. It is common to read about other companies in your shoes.
2) In the time you were operating you couldn't make a single contact at Amazon in case stuff happens?
2. They had many contacts, some of them quite high. PZ is a very ethical and methodical company. They dotted their i's and crossed their t's. They had an open dialog with Amazon where they were repeatedly told, in writing and on the phone, that they were in full compliance and there was no problem. The problem with Amazon is inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement of their own rules.
The developers are in discussions now with companies that want to purchase the technology - including my own, though I don't think we can afford them. This is no garage set up by comp sci students. The developers have impressive credentials and they have created a very impressive system that has wide application to other uses.
Not technically for the reasons you stated. However, it is evident that PriceZombie was financially built on top of Amazon's Affiliate program. It's hard to argue against that when Amazon contributed 90% of revenue
What PZ did was show users who shop at other stores, that Amazon was cheaper, and funnel users to Amazon. Sometimes Amazon wasn't cheaper, but I wonder if this is all about to change.
Sorry, but not much sympathy from me.
1) You knowingly violated the terms of service. Therefore you are denied service now. Nothing to complain about. Honestly, if the API of my website would be intentionally abused in a way that I explicitly exclude in my TOS, I would be seriously pissed. I would probably think about suing you. Not only denying you further service.
2) You whine, bitch and complain because others did not get the same treatment as you. There are also many murders and robbers who are not in prison. If it would not be allowed to put one criminal into prison unless we put them all into prison, there would be no law and order at all.
3) You encourage the problem. By shutting down just because Amazon kicked you out. Why not address the problem that 90% of your revenue came from one single retailer? Why not talk to the other retailers and the users and see if there is a way to work it out? Do the difficult thing: CREATE! Don't beg!
Sorry, if this sounds harsh. I welcome and applaude every tech entrepreneur. But please stand up and fight for the right thing. For a better world. Not just for a bit of profit by bending the rules.
Also, if you want a dumb crime analogy, imagine a situation where robbers get locked up... but only if they voted for a particular party. Uneven enforcement based on whim is a bad thing. Especially when someone is trying extremely hard to follow the rules.