The Amazon Effect   //   March 29, 2024

A hijacked Amazon product page highlights a major third-party seller pain point

Amazon shoppers were likely just looking for an affordable stand mixer. Instead, they found a product listing, from the company Ailessom, entitled: “3-IN-1 The Seller is a Motherfucker”.

The listing was soon shared online, specifically in the corners of e-commerce LinkedIn. Numerous social media posts mocked the link in question, yet it still took over 12 hours for Amazon to ultimately take it down. As of this writing, the product — and its vulgar description — is still indexed in Google.

The tenor of the backlash from the Amazon community wasn’t shock or dismay — it was resignation. Indeed, as sellers describe it, the ability for a listing to get hijacked is very easy, commonplace and has become its own cottage industry of malevolent back-end e-commerce services.

“I know this has been a problem for a decade,” said Lesley Hensell, the co-founder of Riverbed Consulting.

She too posted about the stand mixer last weekend, asking Amazon, “When are you gonna finally get around to taking away the all-powerful Vendor-side editing access from the bad guys?”

There is no way to know for certain what happened. Modern Retail reached out to Amazon, asking for clarification about how this happened and whether or not it is doing anything to fix this problem. “We are investigating these claims and will take additional action as warranted,” wrote a spokesperson in an email statement.

The brand, Ailessom, appears to be a third-party seller. It has an Amazon store, meaning it has enlisted the platform’s Brand Registry. The brand seems to sell two types of products: stand mixers and movie projectors. It doesn’t have an active DTC site (though the domain has been parked), but does sell on other marketplaces like Walmart, Wayfair and even Shein.

This issue all boils down to the fact that any merchant can purport to sell any item — and if that merchant is held in high enough regard by Amazon, they could end up making changes to a product of which they aren’t even the brand owner.

In Hensell’s estimation, one of three things likely happened that led to the updated product title. It could have been a disgruntled employee with access to the listing. That being said, updating a product listing with vulgarities from the third-party seller side will likely set off internal Amazon alarms before it gets published. Similarly, another third-party merchant who has a much larger contribution score — a system by which Amazon deems who has authority on product ownership — may have also been allowed to update another brand’s listing if they claim to sell the same product.

The most likely answer that sources are pointing to, however, is that the listing was updated via Vendor Central, the platform Amazon provides to its first-party brands it sells via a wholesale partnership. These companies are given more control over what they can upload to the marketplace — and are even able to make changes to other listings if they claim they are now selling another brand’s product.

According to Hensell, this type of product takeover has been a problem for years — namely, the rise of black hat listings hackers who have access to Vendor Central. These individuals, she said, buy dormant first-party Amazon accounts — meaning they no longer sell products on Amazon’s marketplace but still have the keys to the back-end platform — and offer services to sabotage competitors.

Hensell’s clients, for example, have received messages from unknown accounts asking for ransom to the tune of five bitcoins either promising to fix a damaged listing or offering to stop current attacks from happening. “I’ve seen the text messages myself,” she said.

It points to a bigger problem within the Amazon ecosystem. Sellers have long complained about the apparent loophole within Vendor Central, where those with access can more easily alter others’ listings. What’s more, getting something fixed via the authorized avenues takes time. Sources tell Amazon it can take weeks to change one word to a product title, even if the company is on Brand Registry. And, proposed changes often get denied for opaque reasons.

While the stand mixer involves the most front-facing part of a product’s listing, most of these attacks happen beyond the shoppers’ eyes. Usually, if someone is trying to sabotage another Amazon post, they’ll change the related keywords. “Sometimes they’ll put in adult keywords or they’ll put in things like ‘pesticides’ or ‘FDA-approved,” said Jon Elder, CEO and founder at Black Label Advisor. That is, words that Amazon’s algorithms would flag instantly to get a product taken down.

“It’s super frustrating,” Elder said. “Amazon has yet to provide any type of resolution for this type of issue — and it has been going on for 15 years.”

It doesn’t seem like Amazon is making any big changes to the privileges vendors have. One e-commerce head at a large brand noted a recent change where product pages can now contain images from multiple other Vendor Central merchants. Previously, Vendor Central only allowed one other “selling partner” to add to another product page.

According to Hensell, it shows that Amazon is still not listening to the pleas from third-party sellers. “I would much rather Amazon invest their time making this problem stop than figuring out how to propagate more images to the site,” she said.