Executives at Amazon have come under scrutiny for search results that appear to favor Amazon’s own products and more profitable products over those the customer is actually looking for. Dana Mattioli reports in The Wall Street Journal that retail managers fought for years with the company’s algorithm team to give Amazon’s favored products special treatment. She writes:
Customers often believe that search algorithms are neutral and objective, and that results from their queries are the most relevant listings.
Executives from Amazon’s retail divisions have frequently pressured the engineers at A9 to surface their products higher in search results, people familiar with the discussions said. Amazon’s retail teams not only oversee its own branded products but also its wholesale vendors and vast marketplace of third-party sellers.
Amazon’s private-label team in particular had for several years asked A9 to juice sales of Amazon’s in-house products, some of these people said. The company sells over 10,000 products under its own brands, according to research firm Marketplace Pulse, ranging from everyday goods such as AmazonBasics batteries and Presto paper towels, to clothing such as Lark & Ro dresses.
Amazon’s private-label business, at about 1% of retail sales, would represent less than $2 billion in 2018. Investment firm SunTrust Robinson Humphrey estimates the private-label business will post $31 billion in sales by 2022, more than Macy’s Inc. ’s annual revenue last year.
The private-label executives argued Amazon should promote its own items in search results, these people said. They pointed to grocery-store chains and drugstores that showcase their private-label products alongside national brands and promote them in-store.
A9 executives pushed back and said such a change would conflict with Chief Executive Jeff Bezos’ “customer obsession” mantra, these people said. The first of Amazon’s longstanding list of 14 leadership principles requires managers to focus on earning and keeping customer trust above all. Amazon often repeats a line from that principle: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards.”
One former Amazon search executive said: “We fought tooth and nail with those guys, because of course they wanted preferential treatment in search.”
For years, A9 had operated independently from the retail operations, reporting to its own CEO. But the search team, in Silicon Valley about a two-hour flight from Seattle, now reports to retail chief Doug Herrington and his boss Jeff Wilke —effectively leaving search to answer to retail.
After the Journal’s inquiries, Amazon took down its A9 website, which had stood for about a decade and a half. The site included the statement: “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.”
Mr. Herrington’s retail team lobbied for the adjustment to Amazon’s search algorithm that led to emphasizing profitability, some of the people familiar with the discussions said.
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