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Algorithmic merchandising will erode trust in Amazon (newco.co)
99 points by brisance 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments





Amazon has become very unpleasant to me. Their search feels more and more like a tool for manipulation instead of searching for what I want. For example I am searching for something and see 20 items. Then I click "sort by price" and suddenly only 5 items are shown. What has happened to the rest?

It's the same with Google searches. It used to be when I put something into quotes they would search exactly for that. Now they are often adding other results that don't even have that phrase. Seems they ae trying to tell me that although I searched for something they know that I really wanted something else.

I am starting to feel all these ML tools are mainly used for dis-empowering and manipulating people instead of empowering them.


I've noticed the same, especially in Google, but also in media like the "smart TV" version of apps like Netflix and YouTube, and more (like the Amazon example).

The Web used to be a place where you "go to stuff." The going to stuff required knowledge and, well, effort. That limited the web.

Now the Web is a place where stuff "comes to you." Sort of like commercials "came to you" on broadcast TV every 12 or whatever minutes.

The marketing people and the Googlers would say, "That's a great achievement, because now we can predict what you're most likely to enjoy [ or buy ] and make it easier."

The cynics say, whoa, this erodes trust and privacy, and perhaps even the human psyche which becomes this vessel filled in by data provided by ML-using corporations.

I'm with the cynics.


There is good reason to be cynical considering that the real motivation is to sell ads and not to provide a good search experience.

Eventually Google search will just index e-commerce stores and affiliate blogs, and you'll still be required to watch a video ad in a modal to proceed.


Results like these are not always malice, as other commenters pointed out search by price is not well figured out yet.

There are some issues with relevance ranking for price where junk rises to the top when you sort by price (https://medium.com/@dtunkelang/why-is-it-so-hard-to-sort-by-...) and Amazon may just be cutting off lower relevancy items when you sort by price as a heuristic.


Why would they show me one list of things when I search at first and then show less when I sort by price? That doesn't make sense and sorting is not that difficult. In ebay sorting does exactly what I would expect.

Did you read the article? They're trying to filter out lower relevance items, so that when you search "coffee maker" and sort by price, you don't get a 2.95 coffee filter instead.

But when I search for coffee maker without sort they show coffee filters. Just sort that list by price and let me figure out how to deal with coffee filters. In my opinion a sort should not change the content of the list.

And if they can figure out which ones are not coffee makers, why not show the list without coffee filters to start with?

Because I do not trust them? I've seen them get it wrong -- and once you know that "sort by price" may not, in fact, give you the lowest price, it becomes completely useless.

I would not mind if the filtering was optional; but it is not, so this is one more reason to avoid Amazon.


Product search and discovery is a hard problem, but not the hard problem they've chosen to make it in to.

It's a fiddle.


For some reason, "sort by price" is broken in most major online stores. Either it produces less results, or it returns results that are not actually sorted by price (!).

In eBay and in Walmart it works fine. Amazon is definitely the worst from what I have seen. And with Amazon I am pretty confident that this is no accident but exactly as planned.

Could be that they take into account shipping and therefore may seem broken?

Amazon has some search issues so I made a web tool for this it is a Advanced Amazon Search Tool and wrote an article how to find good products https://medium.com/@ceyhunkazel/amazon-search-hack-eliminate... and here hackernews discussion about it https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12382228

> Seems they ae trying to tell me that although I searched for something they know that I really wanted something else.

Consider: maybe you know the keyword that should be in the document you want to find... but the author of the document you want to find, didn't use that keyword. Instead, they used a synonym for it, because they were unaware of the idiomatic keyword to use.

Example: medical journals. Eventually, everyone agrees on what the term for something is. But the very first few papers on that thing, might not call it that, because they were inventing it.

Do you want to fail to find those first (and most important) few papers on the subject? Or do you want Google to do the text-parsing equivalent of "snap to grid", ensuring that documents that say the right thing the "wrong" way still show up?

As far as I can tell, as far as the output goes, correcting your language and correcting the document's language are basically indistinguishable. Google could just be thinking of what it's doing as the latter, and yet it ends up having the same effect as the former.


This is fine and nice by default, but there should be a way to disable it. Sometimes you are really searching for a specific word, and really don't want any other substitution.

I see it a lot Google searching for electronics terms, where combining common and unusual term sometimes causes unusual term to be ignored. The quotes used to help, but they no longer do.


Except that is exactly how PageRank worked in the beginning. Heavily linked pages were deemed more popular/useful while those at the edges of the network were less so.

As for your last point, metadata is all about addressing these issues. The context has to remain canonical, otherwise God knows what sort of legal issues would arise.


It seems to me there is a trend towards always correcting user input. This may often work but somehow I am looking for something very specific and I don't want a synonym.

Amazon needs to improve the way it ranks products. I think it is unfortunate that, once a company gets a good grasp on market share, they blatantly disregard the user experience.

Examples: Pinterest/ Quora subscription gate


I have been searching for large SSD sales the past few weeks and use numerous - operands to negate this crap. Ironically, when I include -seagate the G ads at the top are exclusively SG hybrid options. Typucal result of predictive analysis, IMO.

I remember being at Amazon in ‘98-99 when we referred to it as predictive ordering.

This was in reference to the concept of providing just in time delivery of commodity household consumables with the intent of customers voluntarily committing to indefinite duration deliveries for basic household needs, becoming more accurate over time with bigger comparative data sets, and able to proactively predict household consumable requirements.

Toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, laundry detergent, etc.

If I recall correctly, Amazon only had between 1 and 5 million customers at the time. Closer to the former than the latter.

It never went anywhere that I’m aware of during my time and tangential involvement with it.

I really don’t like the idea of behavioural psychology and economics being mashed up with AI and machine learning to maximise profit targeting me.

It’s bad enough having to engage with and overcome aggressive human salespeople adept at deflecting objections.

I don’t like being rude to people in the game of kabuki sales theatre.

But I really don’t like the idea of a T1000 Sales Terminator bot that is 5 steps ahead of my objections and preying on my specific personality vulnerabilities.

I’ve already got approx 100 Kindle book deals sitting unread.


Reading your second last sentence made something click for me: potential customers in the market are being exploited in more than one meaning of the word.

From https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/exploit

verb [with object] Pronunciation /ɪkˈsplɔɪt//ɛkˈsplɔɪt/

1. Make full use of and derive benefit from (a resource) ‘500 companies sprang up to exploit this new technology’

2. Make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand. ‘the company was exploiting a legal loophole’

2.1 Benefit unfairly from the work of (someone), typically by overworking or underpaying them. ‘these workers are at particular risk of being exploited in the workplace’

noun Pronunciation /ˈɛksplɔɪt/

1. A bold or daring feat. ‘despite a series of colourful exploits, his agents obtained little intelligence of value’

2. A software tool designed to take advantage of a flaw in a computer system, typically for malicious purposes such as installing malware. ‘if someone you don't know tweets you a link, it's either spam, an exploit, or probably both’


Seems it's also time for many to wake up to the reality that Amazon, et al, aren't in the business because they love you but to sell you stuff at minimal corporate cost and thereby maximize stockholder equity. If visiting the Amazon site to purchase specific items or just data mine for some project ideas then enter with the mindset that attempts will be made to manipulate you. If presented with superfluous recommendations interwoven into your searches and 'wanna buy?' prompts, a simple practical solution is NO.

It's easy to save a Kindle book for later by downloading a sample. I never buy a Kindle book without reading to the end of the sample first. This beats any savings you would get from deals.

I am the same.

I always check out the preview/sample first.

Then I buy them.

Then it sits in my reading queue.

I purchase books at 10x the rate I can realistically read them.

Now I have a physical library(virtually my entire home) and a virtual.

Someday I’m going to learn guitar as well as read my entire library.


At least when it's an actual robot you can destroy or vandalize it.

With Amazon, even an advanced ad blocker is not a guarantee.


I too have run into issues with AMZN they started out being great then slowly but surely they started doing tiny things that have caused me to remove their bookmarks and unbsubscribe to the daily emails that were drawing me back in. The last straw was when I ordered a tri-wing tipped screw driver to repair a WII console, the seller was from China and it took 3 weeks longer for the package to arrive than the six week estimated delivery time, when I opened the package it was a regular Philips head driver. I tried to post a review about the poor service and incorrect item and was blocked from doing so until I went through the AMZN mediation process, which is totally unacceptable,I should be able to let other people know about my opinion and experience with a seller otherwise what is the point of even showing customer reviews?

> so until I went through the AMZN mediation process

I had a similar experience recently. Amazon bounced my review for “tone.” I went back and removed the harshest words (“garbage”), softened the criticisms, and resubmitted. It’s been weeks and it’s still not up.

At this point, not even fakespot redeems Amazon. What use is filtering out fake third party reviews if amazon is complicit in inflating the reviews?


Also, Fakespot is a bit of a slog to use. Manually copying the url for multiple products can take quite a while. I would be interested in a browser add on or similar that modified the Amazon search results with Fakespot's data.

wow that's pretty alarming to think I'm not seeing all the customer reviews.

Same thing here - recently (and reluctantly) ordered some fridge repair parts from Amazon after I couldn't find them anywhere else and instead of new, was shipped 'factory-recertified' parts, fulfilled by Amazon.

Tried to log reviews but the review was rejected because it wasn't specific enough in their opinion. I racked my brain for 2 seconds trying to add specificity to a fridge part review but my 2nd attempt was rejected as well.

Had to fix the fridge so return wasn't an option though I will order new spares from somewhere else now in anticipation of early failure of these inadvertent refurbs.

I have had an Amazon account since 2000 and I find myself using it less and less. It is just an encumbrance now generally, which is sad given how wonderful it actually used to be.


I nearly clicked away because the authors sheer paranoia made me lose faith in their point, so I'll paste the punchline here:

"But why not do the math for me? A quick calculation shows that the top bottle comes out to about 30 cents an ounce – two cents less than the bottom bottle. Why not show that fact?

This, folks, this is algorithmic merchandising at its finest.

Amazon knows exactly how many clicks it’s going to take for me to reach shopping fatigue. Not “on average for all shoppers,” or even “on average for each shopper who’s ever considered a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.” Amazon knows all of that, of course, but it also knows exactly how long it takes ME to get fatigued, to enter what I like to call “fuck it” mode. As in, “fuck it, I’m tired of this bullshit, I want to get back to the rest of my life. I’m going to buy one of these bottles.”

And because there’s no per-ounce breakdown of the 32-ounce bottle, and because that makes me suspicious of it, and because hell, who ever needs 32 ounces of hydrogen peroxide anyway, well, I’m just going to buy the $5 one.

Ca-ching! Amazon just made a nearly seven percent markup on my purchase. It took five clicks, 15 seconds, and a vast architecture of data and algorithmic mastery to make that profit."


I didn't find anything the author wrote about to be all that scary or bothersome. First, I think the author is a bit overly paranoid as to what ML actually is accomplishing here, but second, all stores play games with product placement and how they show prices. My local grocery store carries two brands of milk, one costing between $3.70 and $4.50 per gallon (depending on the day) always placed at eye level and the other costing a max of $2.15 always placed on the bottom shelf. Both are regular whole milk, the lower priced one often with the better sellby date. But they put the more expensive one that will go bad faster at eye level. The thing is, this is done by all stores on all products. Amazon is no different.

That's why in the EU we have the Price indication directive [0]. Someone got fed up and entered the "fuck it mode", as in "fuck it, they should all be required ny law to disclose the per-unit price."

[0] https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/law-topic/consumers/consumer-c...


Could there be a market for Amazon search engines that work for the buyer, rather than for Amazon?

Google product search could be that but I see a lot of weird behavior there too.

Definitely, I'd gladly use one.

I have some worse news for the author - they overpaid by nearly 17¢ per oz, not 2¢.

The top is a two pack of 32oz bottles for a total of 64oz, coming in at just over 15¢ per oz.

This does nothing, of course, to discount the author's claims; if anything it makes it worse. Why isn't the quantity and per-object measure displayed clearly? Why do we have to rely on often subjective readings of item titles to figure out what they really are?


i deal with product data all day long, tens of millions of SKUSs.

in the case of two bottles you are buying one SKU that contains two somethings, that each also contain 32 of something.

in the case of one bottle you are buying one SKU that contains 16 somethings.

nesting is important and meta data is a pain to parse when its not standardized in any way.


Is there any evidence this is true? I just did the same search and got the same results -- I doubt we have the same fatigue. I think the results are a mix of incomplete metadata, product confusion within amazon, and various premiums for various delivery time horizons.

You want it now: 10 bucks,.

you want it bundled as an addon: 5 bucks.

you can wait and have it bundled with other pantry items: 2 bucks.

you have prime fresh: 2 bucks.

His argument is unsubstantiated paranoia. In fact, the "you want it now" category will _always_ fetch a premium, that's just common logistical sense.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by other things.


I feel like this guy was up late and on edge and just wanted to rant about something, some pretty obvious things were missed in his analysis of Amazons practices. For instance he appears to have totally missed the fact that the $9 bottle actually was two 32oz bottles, so it was 64oz for $9. His distrust just cost him a ton of money.

Considering the author also admits to accidentally subscribing to things in the last. I would say they have a reading and paying attention to detail problem. :x


"A ton of money". It cost him 4 bucks of peroxide he'll never use.

add in the time wasted to rant about his own misunderstanding of basic reading comprehension.

This is silly. For one, the premise is wrong - Amazon almost certainly makes more money selling the $9 item than the $5 one.

The oz showing is most likely a fluke because one product has incomplete metadata (with hundreds of millions of listings, many have incomplete data).


> most likely a fluke

I'd agree, probably not helped by the fact that the $9 item is a 2-pack.

Never ascribe to malice that which is can be explained by stupidity.

Stupidity might be a bit harsh here though.


FWIW I've seen this kind of thing at the local grocery store too. The name brand price tag reads "39¢/oz" and the generic right next to it reads "$3.79 per each". I can't be certain that it's malicious but it happens often enough to make me wonder.

If a hangnail is that bad, the local supermarket or pharmacy seems a more sensible source for the remedy than Amazon, no?

Right? I’m reading this going “wtf, go to the local drug store and grab a dollar bottle. Lazy twit.”

But point is relatively valid. These days of “custom pricing” due to metrics and real shady ways of displaying products/information is going to hit a breaking point. When, I’m not smart enough to forecast. I’m giving it another USA election or two from gut feeling. But the EU and USA are going to stick their nose into this at some point. Especially with another social media fiasco with an election or two. The big tech companies are building their own gallows and tying their own noose.

And it all started with “we track you to make your experience better”... scary part, my phone suggested each word to that after track.


You need to read up on the price-fixing by amazon. google "1200 dollar book".

then look up some of the academic research on it.


I got confused when the author said that a $1.29 bottle of 16oz 3% H2O2 was cheap. That is literally the price at every brick and mortar store that sells it. Walgreens: $1.29; CVS: $1.29; Kroger pharmacy: $1.29; Publix pharmacy: $1.29; Wal-Mart pharmacy: $1.29; Target pharmacy: $1.29 .

Hell, do a web search on "hydrogen peroxide" +"$1.29".

Blain's Farm and Fleet: $1.29; IGA: $1.29; Shop Rite: $1.29 . If you're a contestant on The Price is Right, and see a 16oz bottle of peroxide, you bid $1.29, even if the previous contestant bid $1.28 .

It's the rassafrassin' commodity price, dude. And it's a staple household item.

You never go shopping on Amazon for something like that. Pick it up with your groceries.


I don't think this is Amazon trying to trick anyone. Even though it's the same brand, it's two different sellers. The sellers make the listings, not Amazon.

The reason one shows the price breakdown in ounces and the other doesn't was because it wasn't set up in the listing to show that.

The shipping time is different because each listing has their stock in different warehouses.

My biggest gripe with Amazon is the third-party sellers all selling the same item they're importing from a Chinese company but rebranding it (poorly). As an example search for gaming headsets and you start to notice that the headsets being sold under different brand names look exactly the same. If you look even closer at the images you will see they don't even remove the original brand name from the headsets themselves.

To me the biggest erode in trust when I search for something and every result is the same item but rebranded and they're all at different prices with their own collection of reviews.

I've bought many items on Amazon trying to find the superior version to find out they're the exact same thing but rebranded.


I have been a prime member for quite some time, but now I end up doing a google search for any type of household good that you find could be prime pantry. In many cases I can find a cheaper option with almost as good pricing.

If you have young kids using diapers, amazon has been one of the most expensive places. I tend to go to the big box places like costco to get better deals.


Does the guy who wrote this realize the more expensive listing is for a pack of 2 bottles? I didn’t see him mention that anywhere. It pretty much renders the second half of his argument useless.

Also, the lack of a per ounce pricing could be more of a programming thing vs some conspiracy. Maybe amazon doesnt do that when there are multiple items.


That combined with the hysterical writing style (what, he can't go to Duane Reade for a bottle if he really does have an infection?) really undermines what he's saying. If you go to Wal Mart or Duane Reade you will get Equate (the Walmart house brand) or the Walgreens brand respectively.

Go to an independent pharmacy (of which there are fewer and fewer) and you will probably get 1-2 choices maximum for hydrogen peroxide which is so low margin that there aren't many companies that want to invest in branding for such a commodity product.

This is one of the worst examples if you are complaining about Amazon search results. One of the more common complaints you'll hear is about generic headphones. You will get pages of crap unless you restrict the search to certain models and brands. With Hydrogen Peroxide it looks like ultimately he got many different choices (more choices than he would have at any brick and mortar store in America) at an awesome price.

There are so many better categories to complain about if he wanted to make a good complaint post.


That very first screenshot shows the sorting set to "featured". "featured" results literally means "tell me what to buy".

Set the sorting to "lowest price", filter by prime shipping, scroll down until you see decent reviews, and move on with your life.


I'm not sure how much of this is "algorithmic merchandising" vs how much of it is that Amazon's product database is cluttered and teeming with duplicates and inconsistent data entry.

Also, couldn't he have just, you know, run to the drugstore?


Does anyone else find Amazon Fresh put them off from purchasing? I go on Amazon, see £2 for a product, then find out it's Amazon's stupid subscription service and then I literally can't buy that product from Amazon because.... all the ones I can actually buy are demonstrably overpriced!

" The most significant difference, at least in terms of the information provided to me by Amazon, is the price – the top bottle is nearly twice as expensive as the bottom one." Its twice the quantity as well...



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