The ultimate goal of a third-party e-commerce marketplace is to match customers with the products they want and need. There are a complex series of algorithms working behind the scenes to make this happen.
When sellers do things to manipulate marketplace algorithms, it interrupts the marketplace’s ability to maximize sales and satisfy customers. As such, it is common practice for marketplaces to outline specific prohibited activities in their Terms of Service (ToS) documentation to try to keep everything fair and honest.
Break a marketplace’s rules and you risk getting suspended or banned from the platform – something many unfortunate e-commerce businesses have found out the hard way. Don’t give in to the temptation.
Violating Marketplace Terms of Service (ToS) is Risky Business
Outlawing a practice is one thing, but without enforcement, it holds little weight. Many of the manipulative e-commerce tactics outlined in this article are quite commonplace. Today’s e-commerce environment is more competitive than ever, and some sellers are willing to play fast and loose with the rules in order to gain even the slightest edge.
The fact of the matter is that the sheer size of the e-commerce industry makes it nearly impossible to suss out all the bad actors. This leads some merchants to gamble that they can work around the ToS to compete. However, the risks associated with noncompliance are real. Losing access to third-party marketplace customers – even temporarily – can make a deep cut into your profitability and hinder your ability to scale.
In May of 2021, Amazon carried out a sweeping ban of a series of brands who violated their ToS – specifically for manipulating reviews. It wasn’t just small up-and-comers trying to build their credibility; big, high-ranking consumer electronics brands Aukey and Mpower were included in the ban wave. The move gained headlines as Amazon wiped out some of the largest international private-label sellers on their marketplace.
Earlier this year, Amazon India carried out a similar suspension wave for over 2,000 sellers they deemed to be carrying out “deceptive, fraudulent, or illegal activity.” In addition to losing the ability to continue selling on the site, sellers lost access to their pending disbursements and were unable to sell off their FBA inventory while Amazon sorted out their violations.
Walmart, eBay, and other third-party marketplaces have also carried out similar stings to clear out ToS violators. In the end, the goal of these regulations and enforcement efforts is to create a fairer playing field for merchants and a more positive overall experience for shoppers.
The lesson is simple: when selling on a third-party marketplace, you need to abide by the marketplace’s rules.
Some of the most prohibited marketing tactics to avoid include:
1. Bribing Customers for Positive Reviews and Feedback
Customer feedback and product ratings are two of the most important sources of information customers use when making purchasing decisions online. The majority of online shoppers report using product reviews to help inform them about the products they buy. As such, it should be no surprise that marketplaces like Amazon and Walmart would want to protect the integrity of these metrics. In 2019, Amazon spent over $500 million and employed more than 8,000 people to target fraud and misinformation on its marketplace.
There are a number of ways unscrupulous sellers have tried to manipulate the way customers rate their products and brands.
Two of the most common incentivised review schemes are:
- Thank you gifts – Sellers include instructions for customers to receive free gifts in exchange for positive reviews. These gifts can include things like discount codes, vouchers for additional products, or even Amazon gift cards. To claim these “gifts,” customers are often asked to take a screenshot of their review and order number to verify that it has been posted on the marketplace.
These tactics are clearly against the rules, but customers receiving free bonuses are unlikely to file formal complaints.
- Soliciting reviews from free products – Many marketplaces do allow sellers to offer free products to customers for review purposes. It can be a great way to increase the visibility of a new product or brand. However, marketplaces usually flag reviews of free products and make sure they are identified as such so that future customers have fair warning that the reviewers did not pay for the merchandise that they are commenting on.
Sellers who circumvent these processes make it impossible for shoppers to know that a review may be from a customer who did not have to put up their own money to pay for the product that they are praising.
Amazon’s latest ban wave is a very public display of how seriously they take product reviews and feedback. There are certainly sellers that will continue to use these types of tactics, but it isn’t worth the risk. The consequences of losing access to millions of customers can be devastating to both your brand’s integrity and bottom line.
2. Manipulating Your Sales Rank with Illegitimate Sales
Your sales numbers on Amazon and most e-commerce marketplaces are not a forward-facing metric, but they influence your search results rank. The more a product sells, the higher in the search engine results pages (SERPS) it climbs.
Some merchants have attempted to game this system by making purchases and shipping products to unsuspecting recipients. The orders are received by an actual address and, thus, appear to be fulfilled, legitimate purchases. The recipients are usually unaware of how or why they have received the free products, but typically either accept them (the packages were addressed to them, after all) or discard them.
Sellers usually double-down on this type of scam by posting their own reviews for the “fulfilled” orders.
In any event, these orders produce deceptive metrics that violate the ToS of nearly every e-commerce marketplace.
3. Paying for Traffic
Another way marketplaces determine where products rank in customer searches is based on how much activity a listing generates. This has led sellers to employ deceptive practices like pay-for-click services and automated web bots to try and boost their product visibility.
This is a common practice used to boost website search engine rankings. Thus, it should be little surprise that similar tactics have emerged on e-commerce marketplaces. However, just like major search engines are constantly adjusting their algorithms to try and suss out unfair or suspect activity, major marketplaces are doing the same.
There are still those using these illicit strategies to try and boost listing visibility, but they are becoming less viable as marketplaces get better at identifying fake listing traffic. Successful or not, get caught paying for listing views and your account will most certainly be suspended.
4. Direct Customer Contact
Amazon’s Seller code of conduct clearly states:
“You may not send any unsolicited or inappropriate messages. All communications to customers must be through Buyer-Seller Messaging and be necessary for fulfilling the order or providing customer services. Marketing communications are prohibited.”
Simply put, Amazon requires all communication you have with your customers to be handled through Amazon’s servers. This creates a complete paper trail of every interaction between buyers and sellers. Should an issue arise or an A-Z complaint be filed, this should theoretically make it quicker and easier to resolve disputes.
This control over communication also reaffirms the fact that Amazon (or other marketplaces with similar communications rules) is in charge.
As much as a marketplace wants to protect the integrity of the online shopping experience, there are also ulterior motives. If sellers are able to open direct, back-channel conversations with Amazon customers, they could potentially poach those customers for future business outside of the marketplace – leaving the marketplace without their cut.
In the end, merchants selling on sites like Amazon need to be comfortable with the fact that marketplace customers belong to the marketplace, not the marketplace sellers. To remain in compliance with the ToS, every communication needs to remain in plain view and above-board. Any attempt to circumvent this rule could result in getting suspended or banned from Amazon’s platform.
5. Participating in Complex E-Commerce Review Schemes
All of the above marketing tactics are used to try to boost sales while also circumventing marketplace policies. In some cases, self-proclaimed “e-commerce marketing companies” offer sales-boosting packages that are just some combination of these illegal tactics.
In one of the latest Amazon fraudulent review schemes, a network of over 200,000 individuals shared addresses, contact information, and payment addresses in order to complete fake orders and generate fake positive feedback. Customers would make Amazon purchases from participating sellers and then have their costs heavily discounted or completely reimbursed once positive reviews were verified. In some cases, the participating customers were able to keep the reviewed product and receive a cash bonus on top of their reimbursed costs.
What made this scheme both possible and so hard to detect was off-marketplace communication between sellers and customers. Third-party channels like WhatsApp and PayPal meant that the conversations brokering the arrangements and the reimbursement payments to customers were all done outside of Amazon’s view.
In the end, the scheme was brought to light and a lot of accounts were immediately removed from Amazon’s marketplace.
This is not a new concept. Pay-for-review companies pop up all of the time on social media platforms like Facebook and gig-economy sites like UpWork and Fiverr. The thing to know is that if they are this easy to find, Amazon can and will find them eventually, too.
Establishing Your Own First-Party Sales Channel Can Give You an Edge Over Marketplace Sellers
The fact that marketplaces like Amazon and eBay take listing integrity seriously should provide some comfort for honest sellers. That said, sometimes the same ToS that are designed to protect merchants and customers can interfere with legitimate efforts to build a brand and promote your business.
This is one reason why operating a first-party sales website is such a critical component of an omnichannel e-commerce strategy.
For one thing, there is no ban on how you opt to build customer loyalty through your own sales channel. You are allowed to establish direct consumer contact, offer marketing promotions, and cultivate a brand relationship in ways that you choose.
While you can’t divert an Amazon customer to your own storefront, including a web address in your product documentation can help increase the odds that repeat customers will seek you out directly.
On your own website storefront, you are free to solicit reviews and testimonials for your products. What’s more, you can share them as you see fit – feature them on your website, share them on social media, and include them across your product marketing efforts.
As long as you are abiding by consumer protection regulations like CCPA and GDPR and staying within FTC and IRS guidelines, you are free to run your e-commerce business as you wish.
The Sellercloud omnichannel e-commerce growth platform is perfectly suited to help you develop and scale your e-commerce brand across both third-party marketplaces and first-party channels. Our integrations with Amazon, Walmart, and dozens of other channels are designed to help you remain compliant with each marketplace’s ToS, while also giving you the ability to manage every aspect of your orders from a single, convenient interface.
Our integrations with storefronts, shopping carts, 3PL providers, shipping partners, and more help you optimize your order fulfillment and customer relations workflows across both first- and third-party channels.
For more on how Sellercloud can help you build your e-commerce brand the right way, contact us directly for a free demo.