Just like Google alters its search algorithms to subdue certain (read conservative, pro-President Trump) news and highlight other (anti-Trump) media outlets, now we learn that Amazon, the e-tailer giant, is altering its product search results so that products that make the company more money are featured first — even if it’s not the best deal for the consumer.
For a Democrat, Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos is turning out to be the very kind of corporate executive members of his party love to hate.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, according to insiders who worked on the project and who objected to changing the algorithms, corporate execs in charge dismissed concerns and dissent from engineers and lawyers to make the changes:
Late last year, these people said, Amazon optimized the secret algorithm that ranks listings so that instead of showing customers mainly the most-relevant and best-selling listings when they search—as it had for more than a decade—the site also gives a boost to items that are more profitable for the company.
The changes were not, of course, publicized, the WSJ said, quoting the insiders. But they followed a multi-year “battle” between execs who operate Amazon’s retail businesses in Seattle as well as the e-tailer’s search team, dubbed A9, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
It was clear from the reporting that people involved in the project didn’t think much of it, didn’t think it was ethical, and opposed it on general principles. But that didn’t matter.
It should be noted that even small tweaks to the Amazon search function can be devastating to smaller retailers trying to remain afloat. They can even make or break a product, the WSJ reported. (Related: Amazon Echo is the ultimate spy device that records everything you say.)
“The site’s search bar is the most common way for U.S. shoppers to find items online, and most purchases stem from the first page of search results, according to marketing analytics firm Jumpshot,” the paper said.
What’s also notable about the algorithm changes is that news of them come as U.S. and European officials and regulatory bodies are examining Amazon’s “duel role — as marketplace operator and seller of its own branded products,” the paper reported.
By adjusting the algorithm, shoppers are more likely to be shunted towards Amazon’s own products and thus generate more profit for the company at the expense of other products by other companies that may be more to a consumer’s liking or even more affordable.
Lawyers with Amazon tossed aside the first proposal for how to add profit directly into a new algorithm, noting that such a change could pose significant anti-trust issues for Amazon.
The search team’s viewpoint was that slanting the algorithm would mean a violation of the company’s principle of doing what is best for the customer, according to the people who worked on the project, the WSJ reported.
“This was definitely not a popular project. The search engine should look for relevant items, not for more profitable items,” one of them told the paper.
Officials with Amazon would not say why the A9 search team thought the algorithm change to emphasize profitability would be a significant one — or much anything else about the project, the WSJ noted.
“Antitrust regulators for decades have focused on whether companies use market power to squeeze out competition,” the WSJ reported. “Now, some lawmakers are calling for Washington to rethink antitrust law to account for big technology companies’ clout.”
It’d be about time.