Amazon is the first app many of us think about to buy things online. But is it actually a good place to go shopping?

When you search for a product on Amazon, you may not realize that most of what you see at first is advertising. Amazon is betraying your trust in its results to make an extra buck.

Let me show you.

We’ll search Amazon for “cat beds.”

There’s an ad for a brand called Bodiseint at the top. Underneath are three results that paid their way to the top of the “cat beds” listing. They’re not even very relevant: On the left is a product featuring a photo of dog – yes, a dog – for one of Amazon’s own brands. On the right is a luxury cat condo that costs $389.

Scrolling to the second screen, we finally start to see non-ads. These are the first products that were actually chosen because they’ve got the best combination of price and quality. But the real results don’t last long.

Scroll to the next screen, and it’s all ads again. There’s a set of listings labeled “Highly rated,” but don’t be fooled: These aren’t the highest-rated cat beds on Amazon. They’re just ones that paid for that label.

Scroll again, and the next screen has even more ads. Three, under the heading “Top rated from our brands,” are all for Amazon’s own products. (Wait, why is there another dog photo?)

Advertising

Keep on scrolling, and the ads keep coming — even if they’re repeats.

On these first five screens, more than 50 percent of the space was dedicated to ads and Amazon touting its own products.

This isn’t just a cat problem: The first page of Amazon results includes an average of about nine sponsored listings, according to a study of 70 search terms conducted in 2020 and 2021 by data firm Profitero. That was twice as many ads as Walmart displayed, and four times as many as Target.

Amazon might feel unbeatable for service, fast shipping and easy returns. But as a place to find products, it’s becoming a tacky strip mall filled with neon signs pointing you in all the wrong directions.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.

One of the great promises of the internet is that we can get access to more information and make better choices. Amazon has pioneered a kind of online advertising business that feeds us sponsored information that can cloud our choices. We the users want honest online shopping experiences and some common-sense limits on ads that are designed to deceive.

Advertising

I call it the “shill results” business. Even when they contain a tiny disclaimer label — as do Amazon’s — these kinds of ads can be misleading because they fill up spaces people have every reason to expect to contain trustworthy, independent information.

What’s worse, many other apps and online marketplaces are following Amazon’s lead. Shill results now crowd Apple and Google’s smartphone app stores — search for an app used for couple’s therapy, and you’ll get an ad for a dating app. (Seriously.) Food-delivery apps shill eggnog and whipped cream when you’re just looking for milk.

Amazon has turned shill results into its next big thing. After selling $31 billion in ads last year, Amazon became the third-largest online ad company in the United States, trailing only Google and Facebook. Some brands and sellers love Amazon ads because they show up right at the moment you’re making a purchase — though others tell me ads have become an extra Amazon tax they have to pass on to customers.

Amazon insists they’re actually a good thing for us. “We are dedicated to providing customers with a world-class shopping experience, including working hard every day to ensure the ads they see are useful, informative, and help make shopping a little bit easier,” said spokesman Patrick Graham.

But in my experience, Amazon’s ads are often not useful, not informative and can make shopping a little bit harder. If you are searching for a cat bed, you have an expectation that Amazon will show you the cat beds that are most useful for you. Not $389 cat beds. Not the pet bed Amazon makes the most money from. Not a weird knockoff.

Advertising

Let me be clear: Advertising isn’t necessarily bad. When it’s done well, ads can inform us about new products and help new businesses get a foot in the door. It pays the bills for much of the internet.

“Right now, consumers are tolerating ads pretty well overall on Amazon, despite the number of them,” said Andrew Lipsman, a principal analyst at market research firm Insider Intelligence. But he warns there could be a tipping point: “There is a very clear tension between advertising and customer experience.”

Amazon told me an internal study found 89 percent of U.S. customers are pleased with results pages. I would like to invite them to run the survey again after showing customers their results with all my orange highlights on the ads.

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The Amazon we experience today is pretty much the opposite of how Amazon used to work.

Even as recently as 2015, Amazon’s results pages were filled with actual results, ranked by relevancy to your search. I found an archive of pages and marked one up compared with the same search today.

Sponsored

What happened? Back in the 2000s, when we started learning to buy all kinds of things online, Amazon was investing heavily in a new kind of shopping science: personalization and recommendations.

Amazon’s mission was to marry up everything it knew about its products with everything it knew about you to help you make the best choices. “The store radically changes based on customer interests, showing programming titles to a software engineer and baby toys to a new mother,” Amazon researchers wrote in an academic paper published in 2003.

This is probably how most of us imagine Amazon still works. But today advertisers are driving the experience.

Amazon’s focus has shifted from “trying to find ways to delight consumers with great recommendations, personalization and discovery to building better advertising technology,” says industry analyst Juozas Kaziukenas of research firm Marketplace Pulse, who has written about how everything on Amazon is becoming an ad.

Amazon also now uses search results to push its own in-house products. An investigation from The Markup exposed how Amazon results list its own brand and exclusive products ahead of others with higher ratings.

Sure, Google and Facebook are chock full of ads, too. But on Amazon, we’re supposed to be the customers, not the eyeballs for sale. We’re paying Amazon to buy a product, not to mention probably also paying for a membership in its Prime two-day-shipping product.

Advertising

The reason they get away with it is that busy shoppers can’t easily detect how they’re now promoting the products that are best for Amazon’s bottom line. “Consumers can either ignore ads or assume that the advertised product is good enough,” said Kaziukenas. “Part of the reason why those ads on Amazon and Google work so well is because it’s near impossible for them to perfectly determine the best search results.”

Amazon says it still requires ads to be relevant. “We know that advertiser and customer interests are inherently aligned,” said Graham, the spokesman. “Advertising only works if we make it useful for Amazon customers, and when we create great customer experiences, we deliver better outcomes for brands.”

But are Amazon’s ads really always relevant? In some cases, I would argue they’re actually deceptive.

First, Amazon lets advertisers do what’s called brand “conquesting.” Off-brands can pay to advertise under a major brand’s name. When I search for a KitchenAid mixer, my first screen of results is brands called Kuppet and Kuccu.

It does this even though we, its supposed customers, take time to type out the name of a brand.

Amazon’s Graham said, “This practice is good for customers — it drives discovery and presents them with more choices.”

Advertising

Second, Amazon search pages can contain blocks of information that aren’t nearly as independent as they might sound. With headings such as “Highly rated,” they sound like helpful call-outs of the best products — but they don’t actually contain the highest-rated products Amazon sells. They are just products that are paid to be there and don’t have terrible customer reviews.

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So how can we the users take back control?

First, we can change our own behavior. I’m under no illusion that we’re all going to stop shopping on Amazon; with its monopoly power, it’s getting hard to go elsewhere. But now that I’m aware Amazon is playing games, I start my shopping on Google and trusted reviews sites, and then head over to Amazon only once I’ve identified what I want.

We can also learn the subtle ways Amazon hides what’s really an ad, so you can make your own imaginary orange highlights.

Look for the “Sponsored” label, but not always in the same place. Sometimes it’s hidden in the lower-right corner; other times it’s in tiny type above the product name. When the ad is for one of Amazon’s own products, the listing might say just “Featured from our brands.” (Amazon doesn’t consider this an ad.)

Also, be on the lookout for those boxes of ads designed to look like independent information. They come under many headings, including “Brands related to your search,” “Highly rated,” “Trending now” and “Customers frequently viewed.” The company told me it is continually testing new groupings and iterating on titles.

(What about the “Amazon’s choice” label? That’s determined by an Amazon algorithm for a product that has good reviews, is well-priced and is available to ship. The label can’t be purchased, but it can appear on a sponsored listing if the product meets Amazon’s criteria. Amazon says the “Best seller,” “Climate pledge friendly” and “Parent pick” labels also cannot be purchased.)

Advertising

But this can’t be all on us. Amazon and all the other sites and apps following its lead need some common-sense limits.

Here’s a modest proposal: No more than half of any screen we see at any given time — be it on desktop web or a smartphone — should contain ads.

Perhaps 50 percent sounds like a lot to you? But even that rule would force Amazon to show us at least some of the most-relevant results on the first screen of our device.

Amazon wouldn’t comment on this suggestion.

Another idea: Shill results should be much more clearly marked. A label disclosing that a shill listing is “Sponsored” should have the same font, size and contrast as the most prominent text in the ad. Even better: It should have to go on the top-left part of the ad, where our eyes go first. No more burying it in the far-right corner.

Amazon’s Graham said, “Ads in Amazon’s store always include a clear and prominent ‘sponsored’ label, implemented in accordance with FTC [Federal Trade Commission] guidelines.”

But not everyone agrees. Last year, the FTC received a formal petition from the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, complaining that Amazon misleads consumers because of how it labels sponsored results.

What’s more, the FTC’s guidelines on all of this haven’t been updated since rapper Macklemore was at the top of the charts. In 2013 the FTC sent a letter to Google and others about what counts as acceptable ad labeling for search engines, and then it posted an enforcement policy in 2015. Back then it had no way to anticipate all the ways Amazon would try to stretch the reality of what is and isn’t an ad when we’re shopping online.