You’ve worked your butt off to improve your products’ ranks on Amazon’s search results page, and you’ve made great progress. But then a new competitor, seemingly overnight, takes over your hard-won space before you have a chance to react. Sound familiar? If so, you’ve likely been the target of a competitor’s Amazon black hat tactics that interfere with your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
Aside from being just plain mean, these black hat Amazon tactics are against Amazon’s Terms of Service (ToS), and could get the competitor permanently suspended from the marketplace.
One of the best defenses you have against your competitors that use Amazon’s black hat SEO tactics on Amazon is to know what those Amazon black hat tactics are.
What Are Amazon Black Hat SEO Tactics?
Black hat Amazon SEO tactics are unethical practices that pay no attention to Amazon’s ToS in an attempt to game its search algorithm to rank higher in search results.
The most prevalent tactics include:
- Buying or incentivizing reviews
- Using fake reviews to mislead buyers
- Manipulating and hijacking reviews
- Click farming
Notice how prevalent reviews are in that list? There are reasons for that.
The Importance of Amazon Reviews
At the core of Amazon’s platform is the review system where customers share their opinions, both favorable and unfavorable, about products they have purchased on the site.
Do you read Amazon product reviews when looking to make a purchase? Most people do. And here’s why reviews matter:
- Customer reviews affect purchase decisions. Ninety-seven percent of consumers say the reviews they read influence their choice to buy.
- A product with just a single review is 65% more likely to be bought than one with no reviews, according to Matt Moog, CEO of Power Reviews[JH1].
- And as Alice Kim, an Amazon seller of cosmetics, puts it, “It’s a virtuous cycle —the more reviews, the more buys. The more buys, the more reviews. The more buys, the higher your rank in search and the more sales you get.”
Let’s look at this in monetary terms.
In the first three months of 2021, Amazon sales in North America equaled $64.366 billion. If 97% of consumers do indeed read those reviews before making a purchase, those reviews influence more than $622 billion in sales. In Great Britain, reviews potentially influence more than $32 billion in online spending a year.
Clearly, reviews translate into sales. But they also do more.
Reviews help consumers learn about specific products, and they also influence products’ rankings. A positive product review improves the ranking and a negative one decreases it. And, Amazon’s latest algorithm (A10) puts seller authority as one very important metric, as measured in great part by positive reviews.
This is all wonderful. But because of the importance of reviews, Amazon black hat SEO experts use underhanded methods to manipulate them. And, when fake or manipulated reviews enter the marketplace, ethical sellers are harmed, customers are misled, and buyers are tricked into purchasing products they might not have otherwise.
And sadly, there are plenty of Amazon black hat SEO tactics used to create these fake reviews.
However, before we go into detail about those tactics, let’s take a look at how this nefarious Amazon black hat SEO business came about.
History of Amazon Black Hat SEO Techniques
We did a Google search for “black hat SEO” and set the time parameters from January 1, 1990, to December 31, 1994. We didn’t find any appropriate results. However, in 1995 and 1996 the phrase “black hat SEO” started to pop up. In 1998, 1999, and 2000 there were a few more instances appearing.
Then, in the mid-2000s, the phrase “Amazon black hat SEO” blossomed and search results were plentiful.
This makes sense. It coincides with the increasing popularity of the internet and of Google itself.
As Google became more ubiquitous, Amazon black hat SEO tactics became more prevalent as some people tried anything to get their web pages to rank better in the search results. As Amazon grew larger and became a household name, it was inevitable that the Amazon black hat SEO pros would make their way into that platform.
Today, Amazon black hat tactics are becoming ever more frequent.
So now, let’s look at some of the most prevalent Amazon black hat SEO tactics in detail so you can be on the lookout for them.
Amazon Black Hat Tactics in Detail
Amazon prohibits “any attempt to manipulate reviews, including by directly or indirectly contributing false, misleading or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited.”
Even so, these false, misleading, and inauthentic content pieces are rampant on the site. How do they come about?
Black Hat SEO Tactic 1: Buying or Incentivizing Reviews
Amazon black hat sellers often try to buy or incentivize positive reviews to improve their ranking. They do this by offering reviewers: a partial or full refund, rebates for 100% of the purchase price, extended warranties, or future discounts.
While Amazon banned incentivized reviews in 2016, there are still entire websites dedicated to helping sellers generate fake reviews. There are hundreds of “review groups” on Facebook and others on WeChat where unethical sellers can find reviewers.
Let’s look at an example of how one company tried to incentivize a review.
- A gentleman ordered a pair of cheap headphones and a Bluetooth adapter on Amazon from a company he was familiar with. A few months later, he received an email from the company inviting him to join their VIP program to help test new products and receive a full refund for the purchase price.
- He joined and immediately was told that the refund–either to PayPal or as an Amazon gift card–had a few rules. He’d have to buy the new product on Amazon and then leave a review. Once done, the refund would be his.
- He ordered the new product and received an email message, which in part, said, “We’re looking forward to your test. After testing the product, please share your ***** honest review with 3 pictures.” [Notice the inclusion of the five stars.]
- The man left an honest three-star review.
- There was then a flurry of emails exchanged. The company commented on the three-star rating and asked if he could change it to five stars. The man said he couldn’t unless it was redesigned. The company responded with, “How about give it 4 stars? We[JH2] only can refund for the 4/5 stars. Have a nice day.”
Buying or incentivizing reviews may be an effective strategy to quickly improve your product ranking on Amazon. There’s a huge downside though. You can get caught and have your account suspended or worse.
Keep in mind that Amazon spends millions to protect its sellers. In fact, in 2020 it spent $700 million to wage war against fraudsters. That war is aided by Amazon’s “powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators” who analyze more than 10 million review submissions weekly, working to eliminate fake reviews before they make it to your pages.
Amazon Black Hat SEO Tactic 2: Using Fake Reviews to Mislead Buyers
Another Amazon black hat technique is to bury a competitor with negative reviews. These shady sellers can go to the same Facebook or WeChat groups and find people willing to be paid to write negative reviews.
For instance, an Amazon seller who was doing reasonably well had about 60 mostly positive reviews, and she was earning roughly $4,000 a month. Then a few negative reviews came in.
The seller wasn’t too worried. “But when more and more started coming in, I noticed that sales just dropped off a cliff,” she said. “Anything below [an average of] 4.5 and you’re kind of done.” The seller believed the flood of negative comments were fake.
Stressed out, and not sure how to fix anything, she abandoned her business.
Of course, Amazon black hat SEO pros can also boost a listing with positive reviews as well by using the same Facebook or WeChat groups.
Take a look at these possible fake positive reviews. And notice their lack of detail and effusive language which are two signs of a fake review.:
These fake reviews hurt the sellers who play by the rules. But, they also place the Amazon black hat SEO folks in an unpleasant relationship with Amazon, who takes “the integrity of [its] reviews platform very seriously.”
If Amazon determines that a seller has tried to buy reviews, manipulated them, or violated company guidelines in any way, it can take drastic action. It can:
- Suspend or terminate your privileges on the site
- Delete reviews
- Delist products
- Withhold payments
- Take legal action with results that produced monetary judgments greater than what those sellers made.
Amazon Black Hat SEO Tactic 3: Using Variations Incorrectly
Variations are arrays of products that are related to each other by color or size. They’re also referred to as parent-child relationships at Amazon. Correct variations are, for example, a group of t-shirts made by the same manufacturer that differ in color and size.
Merging of Similar Products — Variations
One reason for the merging of variations of a product is that it can result in a merging of all the reviews of each individual product, thus boosting the overall review count.
Example of Parent-Child Relations
Courtesy Amazon Seller Central 404
Let’s take pillowcases as an example. You sell standard, queen, and king-sized pillowcases on individual pages. But you could merge them into a parent-child relationship where you create a parent AISN (which is the umbrella and not a sellable product) and three child AISNs– one for the regular-size cases, one for the queen size and a third for the king size.
So, if you had 11 reviews on the standard pillowcases page, 12 for the queen size, and 14 for the king size, your new listing could now have 37 reviews on one page.
Amazon black hat SEO Use of Merging Variations
The Amazon black hat SEO experts have pounced on this legitimate tactic to try to game the system to inflate their sales.
How? Black hatters will create a parent-child relationship among very dissimilar products. They’ll try to:
- Change the parent page so it won’t match the child pages
- Add non-valid variations in the child pages, including newer models or versions of a product, combined with an outdated product
The result is to combine all the reviews thus providing an inaccurate review of the product a consumer views.
Another Amazon Black Hat SEO Version of Merging: Hijacking
If an unethical seller isn’t thrilled with his review count, there’s a remedy. He can hijack another seller’s reviews.
Here’s an example.
A couple of reporters from The Wall Street Journal searched for a blackhead remover mask and found more than 1,000 choices. A top-ranked result, also labeled “Amazon’s Choice,” had hundreds of reviews and an average of 4.3 stars.
But lo and behold. “Only the first four reviews were related to the mask—the hundreds of others mostly evaluated a battery charger,” they wrote.
What likely happened according to the journalists is that the merchant “co-opted an old listing with positive reviews and changed the product’s image and description to fool Amazon’s algorithms.”
Another example comes from Consumer Reports where the author discovered a similar anomaly. The listing was for a pair of headphone adapters, had thousands of reviews and was just a bit shy of 4.5 stars.
However, just like The Wall Street reporters, the reviews were a surprise to the author.. Some reviews were for the adapters. But others were for thermoses, leaf blowers, even a motherboard.
This is called Amazon-listing hijacking or ASIN hijacking.
It occurs when another seller sells her product on your listing page. The easiest way for an unscrupulous seller to do this is to find a zombie page–one that was once a popular product with good reviews that’s been abandoned because of new updates or new versions or a seller that’s forgotten about it. Almost always the Amazon black hat hijacker will sell the product at a lower price, which takes the buy box from you. This means you can’t make any sales.
Worse? Quite often the product is counterfeit or doesn’t work, so angry customers will leave negative feedback that shows up on your listing.
Examples of hijacking abound, including:
- Flimsy car seats that don’t have the required safety seals
- Cosmetics that cause faces to swell
- Charging devices that don’t work
- Lithium batteries that catch fire
- Pet food that sickens dogs
How to Spot Fake Reviews
- Scrutinize the negative and positive reviews. Are they generic where each type mentions the same thing without adding anything personal? Do they reference the company’s name over and over or reuse keywords unnecessarily? Could be a fake.
- See if there are very short one- and five-star reviews. If they’re all on the same day or within a short time frame, they could be fake.
- Make sure the reviews are for the product being advertised.
- Pay attention to the language of the review. Sometimes, fake reviews are short and less emotional than real reviews. They might even sound like an advertisement or say bad things about competitors.
- Watch out for extreme reviews where exclamation points abound or the number of positive words rival those of girl fans of boy bands. “So cool,” “over the moon,” “best thing in my life” etc. can indicate fake reviews.
- Similarly, take note of negative reviews. Something like “I guess you’ll like this product if you’re an [idiot/redneck/sociopath /or other derogatory words]” with no explanation could indicate a fake review.
- Be cautious about unknown brands. See if they’ve sold on other sites that have reviews. Check out reviews of the seller/company’s name.
- Make sure the reviews are reviews for the product being sold.
Amazon Black Hat SEO Tactic 4: Click Farming
Imagine a room filled with hundreds of computers. Now imagine the same number of low-paid workers sitting at those computers. Then, imagine that they are all doing the same thing: opening Amazon and clicking on sponsored products.
The goal? Deplete the competitors’ advertising budgets in hopes of keeping the ads from running, or forcing the advertiser to pause that keyword, which in turn hurts your ranking on that keyword, and thus giving the unscrupulous player a better edge.
Check your click through rate and your sales ratio. If your click-through rate keeps increasing, but your sales don’t, you’ve likely become a victim of click farming or click bots.
As more sellers spend money on AMS ads, click fraud from competitors increases as well.
Another way to click farms can manipulate a review is by clicking on the button that says “this was helpful.”
“The ‘most helpful’ reviews can be essentially curated by the brand by paying people to click the ‘helpful’ button on reviews the brand wants at the top,” says Tommy Noonan, founder of Review Meta.
Or, if you’re working the opposite side, Fakespot CEO Saoud Khalifah notes, “You can upvote the most harmful 1-star review, get it on the first page, and now you’ve discouraged the person from buying the product.
Amazon Black Hat Tactic 5: Filing False Statement
Truly bad actors will stop at nothing if they think they stand to gain. For instance, they can file false intellectual property claims or report poor-quality products. Or they can file safety concerns about a product or allege compliance issues. Some even resort to false copyright infringement claims.
If enough users report an issue with a product or listing, the listing will be suspended. To reinstate a listing, at a minimum, you will need to speak to Amazon Seller Support. In extreme cases, Amazon Sellers may be required to submit a written Plan of Action to reinstate the listing.
Let’s look at one compliance issue.
False Pesticides Claims
The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Amazon to stop selling about 100 products it says are pesticides. This has Amazon on edge and it’s turned up its scrutiny of other products.
This has created an increase in the number of false claims about products that contain pesticides filed by unethical sellers. In fact, pesticide reports have become so common that Amazon Seller Support has acknowledged the issue on the official Amazon Seller Support forums.
If you want to list a pesticide, you’ll need to participate in a special training program and pass it with at least an 80% score.
If your product is reported for pesticides or one of Amazon’s bots finds you’ve used banned pesticide language, you’ll also need to take that training course before you can edit your listing to get it into compliance
However, pesticides are not the only category where false claims can come into play. Laser products, some jewelry, and laser equipment are just a few of dozens of categories that have special requirements for listing. This puts a burden on you to know the rules. It also creates more categories where the bad guys can file false claims.
Now, let’s look at false copyright infringement claims.
False Copyright Infringement Claims
Copyright refers to the legal right of the owner of intellectual property. Amazon takes copyright very seriously and thus will delist a product or request additional information if someone claims copyright infringement.
And it can happen quickly. Amazon typically takes 12 to 24 hours to respond to these claims.
As a legitimate seller, this problem of a false claim against you can take much time and effort to straighten out, and usually at least 10 days before your product is relisted. Of course, during those days, you’re losing money.
How to Protect Yourself Against Amazon Black Hat SEO Tactics
First, make sure you know the rules so you don’t inadvertently use them yourself.
It’s essential for you to know what Amazon’s rules are so you don’t inadvertently break them and find yourself spending weeks with Amazon Support Services to get yourself back into good graces. That’s especially true because Amazon constantly changes its terms of service, fulfillment requirements and even language which means that you as a seller could break a rule and lose your account. (To learn about more changes, please see 5 Must-Know Changes.
Sadly, there are not very many ways you can be proactive against Amazon black hat SEO tactics. However, there are a few steps you can take.
Amazon Brand Registry
Join Amazon’s Brand Registry to protect your brand. It allows you to better manage your product listings and use advanced, guided search tools to discover and report potential violations. It also makes it easier to report those violations. In addition, the Brand Registry uses automated protections to proactively delete infringing or inaccurate content.
Automated protections powered by Amazon’s machine learning, scan its stores and remove suspected counterfeits. It scans over 5 billion daily listing update attempts in its search for counterfeits.
Be Vigilant and Consistent
Keep an eye on your product as well as your competitors to note any marked changes that might require action on your part. Also, with every purchase of your product, encourage your customers to leave honest reviews (don’t use the word “positive” since that’s against the ToS).
Report Amazon Black Hat SEO Instances to Amazon
Immediately report sellers who use Amazon black hat SEO tactics to promote an unfair marketplace. You can file a report with Amazon by clicking on “Report incorrect product information” on a product’s listing page or by emailing Amazon Community Help.
Make sure to include proof of the violation–such as screenshots, video recordings, and any other evidence you have.
Unfortunately, Amazon receives thousands of complaints every day, so it understandably takes them some time to investigate your specific complaint and take action.
But you needn’t wait in vain. A great way to defend against Amazon black hat SEO tactics and other unfair competitive advantages your competitors are using against you is a solid offense – and that’s where the team of Amazon Experts at Lab 916 comes in. We’re here to help you and move the process along in a more timely manner, including rank your listings higher.
Lab 916 Can Help Safeguard You From Blackhat SEO Tactics
The Lab 916 team of Amazon experts knows exactly how to deal with competitors who use Amazon black hat SEO and other unethical practices. As a result, we’ve been able to successfully help hundreds of brands launch and grow their Amazon business successfully — no matter how fierce their competition.
We started in 2011 as Amazon merchants and soon learned just how time-consuming and complex a process it can be. We learned the hard way. But from our experience as merchants, we learned all the ins and outs — and how to handle them. And five years later, we became sought-after consultants to Amazon sellers.
Our vision — then and now — is to help independent retail businesses thrive on Amazon’s global marketplace by working with them and unveiling how Amazon works. Please email us or call us at (916) 382-2523 to start boosting your success.
[Schedule A Free 30 Minute Consultation]
About The Author
Vince Vu is the co-founder of Lab 916, an eCommerce marketing agency that specializes in helping brands launch and grow their Amazon business. Vince is recognized globally for successfully assisting hundreds of companies streamline operations, manage logistics, and deliver ROI on advertising to achieve sustainable growth on Amazon.
As a 2021 Top-Rated Amazon Expert on Upwork, Vince hears firsthand the plethora of ever-changing challenges Amazon sellers face in the complex marketplace on a daily basis. He uses these insights to guide Lab 916’s product development to meet its clients’ needs better and to develop high-value content full of his past experiences, wisdom, and data for sellers and buyers on the Amazon platform.