If you’ve ever tried to search Amazon for anything, you’re aware that the website has long been an utterly confusing muddle. For years, trying to rank products by anything other than relevance resulted in a complete mishmash of non-results being inserted into your pages. Attempting to search for a TV and ranking by price might produce results for TV stands and dinner trays — products completely unrelated to your original search query, in other words.
Last year, Amazon changed its search behavior without communicating the change to end-users. Instead of simply ranking items by “Relevance,” it began to rank them with an eye towards which items would make Amazon the most profit. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, Amazon made this change against the advice of multiple employees assigned to work on the project. The changes were made as part of a struggle between the A9 team that works on Amazon’s algorithms and the marketing executives in charge of the retail side of the business. As the WSJ notes, the reason this is such a potential problem is that Amazon resells its own goods, not just those manufactured by others — and most people buy from the first page of search results.
The question of which products customers are seeing first, therefore, is of critical importance to any question of whether those customers are being well-served. Amazon’s algorithm development team were concerned that these changes violated their pledge to do what was best for the customer. “This was definitely not a popular project,” one employee told the WSJ. “The search engine should look for relevant items, not for more profitable items.”
Amazon’s response to the WSJ was to refute that any changes had been made. “We have not changed the criteria we use to rank search results to include profitability,” company spokesperson Angie Newman said in a statement. Amazon refused to answer questions about why its A9 employees believed the change had been significant, or what the response from company lawyers had been (an early version of the algorithm that added profit as a direct calculation was allegedly nixed for being too similar to behavior that might upset antitrust regulators).
The WSJ reports that Amazon’s A9 algorithm team has been under pressure from the retail side of the business to improve sales results by surfacing Amazon’s own products more readily than those of competitors. Amazon sells more than 10,000 of its own products, but it also makes sales recommendations that are completely unclear. Its “Amazon’s Choice” program has come under heavy fire of late for being completely obtuse and recommending products that shouldn’t have been sold to anyone.
These algorithm changes started happening after a change to Amazon’s internal structure left the A9 algorithm team, which had been an independent unit, reporting directly to the retail side of the business. After the Wall Street Journal inquired about these changes, Amazon took down the A9 website that had stood for ~15 years. That website previously contained statements like “One of A9’s tenets is that relevance is in the eye of the customer and we strive to get the best results for our users.”
Disallowed from factoring profits directly, the retail side of the business ordered the A9 team to find business metrics that could include such calculations indirectly, designing the algorithm to promote factors that correlate to profitability without precisely capturing it. The A9 engineers spent months working up a model that would capture this data and help the team recommend products that would boost profits. From the WSJ:
Amazon’s A9 team has since added new variables that have resulted in search results that scored higher on the profitability metric during testing, said a person involved in the effort, who declined to say what those new variables were. New variables would also have to improve Amazon’s other metrics, such as unit sales.
A review committee that approves all additions to the algorithm has sent engineers back if their proposed variable produces search results with a lower score on the profitability metric, this person said. “You are making an incentive system for engineers to build features that directly or indirectly improve profitability,” the person said. “And that’s not a good thing.”
Amazon has made visible changes to its search engine already. After ranking results based on “Relevance,” for years, the site has removed that option altogether and now ranks products based on “Featured.” No information is provided on what, exactly, “Featured” means. The shift, however, isn’t particularly subtle. If you promise people that sales results are relevant, they’re going to assume “Relevant to me.” Simply making results “Featured” means they could be featured for any reason.
We can’t speak to the exact changes Amazon may have made, but the site behaves strangely in any number of ways. In some cases, Amazon presents its own brands at the top of the page, as shown above. In others, it moves where it shows its branding.
While I cannot show you a before-and-after, you have my word on this. The first time I ran a search for “silverware,” the HOBO Silverware and associated row of products were the first results. The Amazon’s Choice recommendation you currently see at the top was the second result. I moved on to searching for other products, only to return to this page and find that the rankings had shifted. I was unable to restore the original page for screenshotting.
But if you search for various types of products, you’ll find that Amazon’s own brands are presented inconsistently. Sometimes they are the top option, sometimes they are presented lower on the page. Sometimes the top option is “Amazon’s Choice,” or “Amazon Basics” or “Amazon Essentials,” and sometimes it is not. In some cases, if you do not take particular care to check, you might not realize that all of the product options you are being shown are for products Amazon manufacturers.
Amazon’s behavior has been increasingly under a microscope of late, as various practices of it and other tech companies have met gimlet eyes in Congress and from the larger public. Amazon and Apple both wield tremendous power to influence what customers buy simply by how they rank merchants and which results are shown on the front page. Like Amazon, Apple stands accused of manipulating search rankings to favor its own products (the NYT has an interactive graphic showing how Apple will seed results for up to 14 of its own software apps, many completely unrelated to your original search query, before displaying results for third-party applications). Multiple Apple executives have acknowledged that the company gamed its own rankings in this way, though the behavior has supposedly decreased since the experiment was done.