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Perspective | How Amazon shopping ads are disguised as real results

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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.”

Here are the results. Next we’ll put an orange highlight on all of the ads. Believe it or not, that’s pretty much everything you see.

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.

Here’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 this screen has even more ads.

These three, under the heading “Top rated from our brands,” are all for Amazon’s own products. (Wait, why is there another dog photo?)

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.

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.

We The Users

How technology fails us — and ideas to make it better. Read more.

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 — including this news website.

“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.

How everything on Amazon became an ad

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Putting users ahead of advertisers

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. I annotated this rogue’s gallery with some of its most common formats.

LEFT: Search results are no longer ordered by relevance or what Amazon thinks the “best” product is. When the placement is paid, it should have a “Sponsored” label like this. (Amazon/Washington Post illustration) RIGHT: Amazon places its own-brand products in search results and labels them not as “Sponsored” but rather “From our brands.” (Amazon/Washington Post illustration)

LEFT: The “Highly rated” category in Amazon listings does not mean highest rated. It can be filled with ads, so look for the “Sponsored” label in smaller type underneath. (Amazon/Washington Post illustration) RIGHT: Ads for specific brands often sit on top of Amazon results, and they could be for a competitor to the brand you searched for. Look for the “Sponsored” label in the lower right. (Amazon/Washington Post illustration)

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.)

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.

About this story

Editing by Laura Stevens, Karly Domb Sadof and Julie Vitkovskaya. Copy editing by Carey Biron. Design editing by Junne Alcantara. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Design and development by Emma Kumer.

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Crypto exchange Kraken cuts 1,100 jobs • TechCrunch

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Crypto exchange Kraken today announced it’s letting go of 1,100 staffers. The announcement came from a company blog post and follows similar news from DoorDash that it was also cutting staff.

News that Kraken is cutting staff — and therefore costs — is not a surprise, given a generally gloomy macroeconomic climate and even worse climes in crypto-land. Prior to the Kraken news, we’ve seen several high-profile implosions in and amongst web3 companies, and layoffs from other exchanges including the American crypto giant Coinbase earlier in the year.

Per Kraken, the 1,100 affected employees represent around 30% of its staff, making them stiffer most cuts that we’ve seen from tech companies this year, reductions that tended to land in the 10% to 20% range.

The exchange explained why it made the cuts, writing that “significantly lower trading volumes and fewer client sign-ups” this year led it to reduce its hiring pace and avoid “large marketing commitments.” However, continuing “negative influences on the financial markets” according to Kraken made the cuts necessary despite its attempts to cut other expenses before laying off staff.

DoorDash cited “macro” impacts that led to it make cuts, striking a related tenor concerning the market it is confronting today.

Layoffs have become commonplace in the technology market this year. From startups to tech giants, many tech companies have looked to trim their costs in response to slower than anticipated growth, or the need to reduce unprofitability as investor sentiment has evolved; last year’s growth at all costs mantra has run head-first into market expectations for cleaner P&L statements this year.

After a slight slowdown, tech layoffs have picked back up. The crypto market has see a sharper contraction this year than the technology market more generally, making the Kraken cuts not a surprise, even if they constitute a greater portion of the company’s overall workforce than we have seen amongst other companies.

Coinbase and Kraken are not alone in reducing their personnel costs. OpenSea, another company that saw its valuation soar during the 2021-era startup and crypto boom was forced to cut its headcount as well.

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Adtech antitrust class damages claim filed against Google in UK — seeking up to $16.3BN • TechCrunch

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Litigation against Google and its parent entity Alphabet being brought in the UK on behalf of thousands of digital publishers — seeking up to £13.6 billion (~$16.3BN) in damages on their behalf for alleged anti-competitive behavior related to Google’s adtech practices — has been filed with the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT).

“The claim alleges that Google abused its dominant position in the market for online advertising, earning super-profits for itself at the expense of the tens of thousands of publishers of websites and mobile apps in the UK,” runs a press release accompanying news of today’s filing at the CAT.

The competition class-action style suit, which includes a parallel European Economic Area (EEA) claim in the Netherlands, was announced earlier this fall. That EEA-wide multi-billion Euro claim is expected to be filed in early 2023, per Geradin Partners, one of the law firms involved in the legal action.

City litigation firm Humphries Kerstetter is also acting on the claim — which is being funded by litigation funder, Harbour.

While Claudio Pollack, a former director of the UK’s media and comms regulator, Ofcom, is named as heading the claim — as the representative for the class of businesses allegedly damaged by Google’s actions.

The lawsuit will argue that Google has abused its dominance of adtech infrastructure to dictate terms, control pricing and deploy self preferencing that has damaged thousands of businesses that have had little choice but to use its tools if they wish to generate revenue from advertising.

The suit is being brought on behalf of around 130,000 businesses publishing around 1.75M websites and apps in the UK which the litigation claims have been harmed by Google’s anti-competitive practices.

Economic analysis produced to support the claim suggests Google’s practices may have reduced advertising revenues by up to 40% for some companies.

£13.6BN is an estimate of the total loss to those 130k businesses since January 1, 2014 to date.

The claimants can point to enforcement last year by France’s competition watchdog — which found Google had abused a dominant position for ad servers for website publishers and mobile apps and fining it up to €220 million for a variety of self-preferencing abuses and also extracting a series of interoperability commitments.

Google’s adtech stack — and certain other ad-related practices  — remain under investigation by both EU and U.K. competition authorities.

But European web and app publishers evidently aren’t waiting around for further regulatory smackdowns — not least as they’re hoping to force Google to fork over major damages for what the class action style suits alleges are “serious” anti-competitive practices.

In a statement on the suit, Pollack said: “The marketplace for online advertising is sophisticated, technical and highly automated. Advertising is sold in a fraction of a second in a process which is designed to match the product being advertised with the profile of an individual visiting a website. Third party platforms operate on both sides of the marketplace matching supply with demand and — in an ideal world — ensuring the market operates efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, it is now well established that this market has developed in a way that is primarily serving Google.”

In another statement, Damien Geradin, founding partner of the eponymous law firm, added: “While the value of the claim we are bringing is substantial, we believe the matter is about much more than money. For years Google has been denying companies in the UK and Europe and beyond, including the local press and the publishers of community focused websites, the chance to earn a proper income by way of advertising.

“As well as bringing Google to account the parties who have lost out need proper compensation, something a CAT claim can achieve at no cost to those parties.”

Google was contacted for a response to the development. The company previously dubbed the litigation “speculative and opportunistic”.

In a further statement emailed to TechCrunch today it said:

Google works constructively with publishers across Europe — our advertising tools, and those of our many adtech competitors, help millions of websites and apps fund their content, and enable businesses of all sizes to effectively reach new customers. These services adapt and evolve in partnership with those same publishers.

While Google is keen to dismiss the legal challenge as baseless, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has expressed major concerns about dysfunction in the digital ad market — following a deep dive investigation it kicked off in 2019.

Its final report, published in July 2020, concluded that the market power of Google and Facebook was so great a new regulatory approach (and dedicated oversight body) was needed to address what it summarized as “wide ranging and self reinforcing” concerns.

However the UK government has so far failed to bring forward the necessary legislation to enable that reboot — which may be another factor driving antitrust class action litigation.

In the meanwhile, a planned adtech stack migration by Google away from third party cookie-based tracking (aka its Privacy Sandbox proposal) remains under close regulatory supervision by the CMA — which stepped in following fresh objections by publishers concerned the move would further entrench the adtech giant’s market dominance.

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Amazon Kindle Scribe review: Better for reading than writing

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I don’t remember anything unless I write it down. Some of you might know the feeling.

That’s why gadgets like the new Kindle Scribe are so interesting: Beyond serving up books, it doubles as a digital journal. With an included stylus, you can scribble notes in that new novel, mark up documents that need work and, yes, jot down reminders throughout the day.

But Amazon is a little late to the party. In the years since it last developed a big-screen Kindle, companies like reMarkable and Onyx have dabbled in digital notebooks — and some of them have gotten so good that Amazon’s work can sometimes feel a little lacking by comparison.

I’ve spent the last few weeks testing the Kindle Scribe and trying it out against some of its most interesting competition. Here’s what you should know.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but at the Help Desk, we reviews all products and services with the same critical eye.)

At $339 (or more, if you opt for a nicer pen and add a case), the Scribe is Amazon’s biggest, most expensive Kindle in years. In testing it alongside rival devices like the $299 reMarkable 2 and the $599 Onyx Boox Tab Ultra, it didn’t take long to discover that the Scribe isn’t equally good for reading and writing.

The Scribe has perhaps the most polished software of the three, and thanks to barely there weight and great screen lighting, it’s the one that I’d most like to power through a novel on. But if you’re interested in doing some serious writing on a device like this, you may want to consider something like the reMarkable instead.

I’m not saying taking notes or crossing items off a to-do list was at all unpleasant. Writing on the Scribe with the included stylus screen felt smooth and satisfying, and it comes with a handful of notebook templates for people who need to jump between wide-ruled, grid and even sheet music “paper.”

What really gets me is that the Scribe’s writing features feel a little basic compared with some of its rivals.

There’s no way to, for example, select a bunch of text you’ve written and move it around. If you realized you’ve put some notes in the wrong spot, oh, well — you’ll just have to erase and rewrite it. (iPads, the reMarkable and Onyx’s digital notebooks can handle this just fine.) Also missing is any kind of handwriting recognition, which means there’s no way to search for specific things you’ve written or convert your writing into text to make it more legible.

Occasional writers might not notice these features are absent. Ditto for folks who mainly want a Scribe for books — this is definitely still a reading-first device. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said the Scribe was “inspired” by the people who have been highlighting and leaving notes in their Kindle books for years. Fine, but when you consider the last time Amazon debuted a new big-screen Kindle reader was more than a decade ago, I’m a little surprised it didn’t flesh out its writing tools a little more.

Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you.

People who want to see more. The Scribe has a 10.2-inch display, the largest Amazon has ever squeezed into a Kindle. That means you can now view more of a book at a glance, or — if your eyes aren’t what they used to be — really crank up the font size.

People who hate charging gadgets. Gadgets with e-paper displays have a reputation for long battery life, and so far, the Scribe is no exception. Unless you’re reading 24/7, expect it to last a few weeks on a single charge.

People who write notes in book margins. As a digital notebook, the Scribe is basic at best. But scribbling observations in books you’re reading — plus exporting and reviewing them later — works well enough.

People who work with complex documents. You can import and write on top of Word documents and PDFs, but Amazon says you can’t mark up files that include large tables. And if you work with lots of long PDF papers, you may see the Scribe hesitate when you try to swipe into a new page. (It doesn’t always happen, but it can really slow you down if you’re looking for something specific.)

Folks who keep files in the cloud. The Scribe can’t connect to services like Dropbox or Google Drive, which means getting to work on the documents you have stored there takes some work. And if you want to get things you’ve written off the Scribe, you have two options: email them to yourself, or view (but not save) them in the Kindle app on your phone or tablet.

Those who like to read in the tub. Many of Amazon’s other recent Kindles can survive the occasional spill or splash. Not so for the company’s most expensive Kindle — you may want to think twice before packing it for a beach day.

What the marketing doesn’t mention

Other devices can make reading a little easier. iPads and Android tablets can run Amazon’s Kindle app, which includes one helpful feature that the Scribe lacks: a two-column view when you hold your gadget horizontally. It feels ever-so-slightly more like reading an actual book, and its absence here will be a real bummer for some.

You can just drag and drop files onto the Scribe. Using Amazon’s Send to Kindle website to send files to the Scribe is easy enough, and it hasn’t taken more than a couple of minutes to arrive. But if you’re somewhere you can’t get online — or if you don’t want Amazon as a middle man — you can transfer files with the included USB cable.

You can fill it with books you didn’t buy from Amazon. Okay, fine, the Scribe’s product page does technically mention this. But it’s worth repeating that you can move digital books in the EPUB format you didn’t buy from Amazon onto the Scribe. So far, the books I’ve tested this with look the way they’re supposed to, but your mileage may vary.

The FBI closed the book on Z-Library, and readers and authors clashed

What are the alternatives?

If the Scribe is an e-book reader first, digital notebook second, the reMarkable 2 is the exact opposite. You can’t buy books on one, though loading it up with files to read is trivial. And the lack of any built-in lighting means reading in bed may require turning on a lamp.

What really shines, though, is how it approaches writing and organization. The features I mentioned the Scribe lacking — like moving around snippets of writing and handwriting-to-text conversion — work wonderfully here. The reMarkable also includes more options to customize your pen strokes, plus support for cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox for easier access to your files.

The catch: The reMarkable doesn’t come with a free stylus — that’ll cost you at least an extra $79. The full package costs more than the Scribe, but people eager to be productive may get more out of reMarkable’s features.

Meanwhile, the $599 Onyx Boox Tab Ultra is the most ambitious digital notebook I’ve ever seen. It has a processor fast enough to play HD video, a camera for scanning documents, and runs on a custom version of Android. That means you can install Amazon’s Kindle app — or the Kobo Store, or Libby — and read books from almost anywhere.

The catch: The software is, quite frankly, a mess. You don’t need to poke around for long before running into confusing menu options, and app crashes aren’t uncommon.

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