E125: The Sound of Panic – Why You Should NEVER, EVER Violate Amazon Terms of Service

This episode is dedicated to Bobby, our beloved German Shepherd who passed away last week. He had been with us for 12 years and if you have a pet you know how difficult this is. He gave us companionship, protection, and joy from the day we adopted him to the day he passed away.
To Bobby, this is for you buddy.

Amazon sellers' forums and groups were alive with the sound of panic last week.

On February 26th, Amazon sent emails to hundreds and maybe even thousands of sellers containing the following:


We are contacting you because you appear to have violated the policies of “Misuse of ratings, feedback, or reviews”, “Misuse of sales rank”, “Misuse of Search and Browse” on our site… If this conduct continues, you will not be eligible to sell on Amazon.com.

It's needless to say that when you rely on Amazon for 50%+ of your revenue, you need to follow their rules, or face serious consequences–the most serious being getting suspended and losing 50%+ of your revenue. As basic as that sounds, it's very surprising to see so many sellers try to game Amazon's system for a bump in ranking and sales, praying to never get caught.

While we see some posts claiming that the email is just due to a glitch on Amazon's side (since it seems to have been sent en masse), it was still enough to give those playing with fire a pretty good scare. Forums exploded with people not knowing what to do, fearing they could lose their accounts at any moment.

This is a situation I go out of my way to avoid. Lessons with Google's SEO have made me realize that I am dependent on these big platforms to succeed, and that it's a no-brainer that I have to follow their policy. We have recently adopted a successful product launch process that will get us on Amazon's good side and cater to what they ultimately want: truly good products and service that customers will enjoy.

Thankfully, we did not get the email. I hope you didn't, too.

Resources mentioned:

2018 Amazon Product Launch Strategy
How I Develop and Launch Dozens of New Products a Year
Amazon Policy Change for Reviews
How to Get Amazon Product Reviews in 2018
Amazon Horror Stories from Real Sellers
Million Dollar Sellers Group

Thanks for listening! Until the next episode, happy selling.

Full Audio Transcript

Mike: This is Mike, and welcome episode number 125 of the EcomCrew Podcast. You can go to EcomCrew.com/125 to get to the show notes for this episode. And today I'm going to be talking about some emails that went out to Amazon sellers for breaking terms of service. It’s something that is always on people's minds, in the forefront of your mind. If you sell on Amazon, this is definitely an episode you're going to want to listen to.

It’s something that's – it’s just gut wrenching getting an email from Amazon saying that your account has been suspended, or that you may be suspended. And I'm going to get into a deep dive on that on the other side of this break. Real quickly, I do want to mention that this episode is dedicated to Bobby, wondering who that is? Stay tuned to the very end for a special dedication.

On October 24th, 2016, I received the following email from Amazon. We recently updated our policies to prohibit incentivized reviews, including those posted in exchange for a free or discounted copy of the product. You're receiving this email because products you sell have received incentivized reviews in the past. If you attempt to acquire incentivized reviews going forward, your Amazon privileges will be suspended or terminated.

That was the day that I decided to completely change my mindset on Amazon. And I've done a couple of podcasts about this, including our 2018 Amazon launch strategy. All of these different podcasts we'll link in the show notes. Again, you can go to the show notes by going to EcomCrew.com/125 for this episode. But it was really just a big wake up call for me, and I needed to completely change my frame of mind. Again, I've talked about this on previous episodes, but I want to reiterate a couple of things that have happened to me in the past mostly with Google.

I mean, this was a similar thing that I had to deal with, with Google. Doing SEO on Google is one of these games that's — you're pushing up against the line, but trying not to get over it and getting smacked down with it. With SEO, you're trying to gain links, but you don't want to gain links in a black hat way. You're not even supposed to really try to get links, or ask someone for a link by their terms of service. Certainly paying for links is out of the question and a bunch of other dirty tactics.

But the problem is, in the Google space, if you aren't doing these things or doing the flavor of the day, or whatever it might be, it's very hard to achieve and keep the number one ranking because cheers can win, at least in the short term. And I found myself doing things that I thought were just good business or I was being the overachiever that I try to be. And I was going to tackle this problem by buying links, or whatever it might be because it worked. You buy a link or two and you'd see it work. It was Kind of like I think probably much like a heroin addict. You take it once or twice; you think you're not going to do it again.

Next thing you know, you're doing it every week, then you're doing it once a day or multiple times a day, whatever that might be. And it's very much the same with Google and Amazon. Both of them together have very similar properties to that, and that it works and feels great until it doesn't. And then, the result is that you're basically dead when it doesn't work. And I've had this happen multiple times in my Google SEO career. You would have thought that I would have been smart enough to learn after the first time it happened, or after the second time that it happened.

But it actually took probably happening three times before I really learned my lesson, and that there's a better way to go about it. You can write really great content, and people will respond to that and it takes more time. But when you do it the right way, the white hat way, you're building a long-term business that is very defensible versus doing the black hat thing that isn't. And this is the approach that we've taken, quite frankly with EcomCrew, we never ask for links. I don't have to ask for links.

We write amazing content on tons of podcasts, and you're on a podcast, you get a link. I go speak at lots of shows. When you speak at shows, they typically link to you. People link naturally to our content because we are working very hard to provide content that people legitimately find valuable. And so we don't have to spend a bunch of time begging people for links or trying to buy links, or gaming the system because the content is legitimately good.

So that's the same philosophy that I took with Amazon. And moving forward again, if you listen to the 2018 launch strategy, you'll know the entire process that we went through for that. And there's a couple of other episodes as well. So now I want to read you another email that went out on February 26. And it says, hello, we are contacting you because you appear to have violated the policies of misuse of ratings, feedback or reviews, misuse of sales rank, misuse of search, and browse on our site.

Prohibited behaviors on Amazon include but are not limited to hiring third parties to try to improve ASIN ranking or reviews, sending packages to address these where the recipient does not order or expect them, soliciting or accepting false or fraudulent orders, placing orders for your own products, compensating buyers for purchasing your products, including claim codes. If this conduct continues, you will not be eligible to sell on Amazon.com. To learn more about this policy, we encourage you to review the misuse of sales rank, misuse of search and browse, and misuse of sales rank sections in the prohibited sellers’ activities and actions page in Seller Central.

I'm very proud that I did not get this e-mail. I'm a member of the Million Dollar Sellers Facebook group. We'll put a link to that in the show notes as well. I highly encourage people to join that if you're doing over a million dollars in revenue on Amazon. And it looks like dozens if not hundreds of people in that group got this email. And there's other Facebook groups out there and other groups, and there was a lot of cross pollination of people talking about this issue. Like literally hundreds of people or even thousands of people getting this email, and even more people actually getting suspended. I guess it probably was on a varying degree of how egregious things you were doing were to whether you got your account suspended or not.

And again, like for me, I'm like just so happy that I didn't get this email. And I feel like the last, almost two years of hard work and not doing this stuff has paid off in a way that today is the kind of day that I can say that we went the right direction. And it's been just such a — I mean, not that I'm not in a high stress environment to begin with, but I feel like my stress is a little bit lower or significantly lower than it would be if I was playing this game of hiring third parties to improve your ASIN. It's very easy to do. There's lots of these services out there.

And in the Million Dollar Seller Group, people were gloating about how you use a launch service and your product magically ranked really, really high like within a couple of days. And everyone knows how to game the system on Amazon. And it's very easy to fall into that trap because you can see short term results that are very significant, and can move the needle very, very quickly. Sending packages to addressees where the recipient doesn't order or expect them. This is a very Chinese seller type of thing to do, and very dirty obviously. And soliciting or accepting false or fraudulent orders, placing orders for your own products.

I mean, all these are things that I just haven't done at all ever or even thought about. But this compensating buyers for purchasing your products, including claim codes is another thing that I'm proud that we have stayed away from for the vast majority of things that we've done to this point. We do not use any type of coupon codes at all, like period under story. And when we do, it's for very specialized reasons to try to reinvigorate an old listing or something. But we don't do ever anything more than 45% because we want to make sure that it's not tripping something or Amazon Algorithm.

I think that because of my IT background, I really get how easy it is for big data to just completely screw you at a moment's notice. I don't want to be in a situation where somebody can write one query, and be able to identify all these fraudulent activities, and be caught up in this in a very easy way.

I mean, for instance, you can write a query that basically says, show me a seller who gets x percentage of their sales up from coupon codes, or show me a seller that's getting reviews at a higher than standard rate that also uses coupon codes, or whatever type of query you want to use. It's very easy to stamp it out and find these people. And if you're using review groups, are there other things like that or these private Facebook groups that are doing reviews, it's very easy to create a footprint of people that are buying and leaving a higher rate than reviews and you can link that to people.

It's very much the same as a way that Google does things from an inbound link perspective. They're looking at a web of sales and you can overlay things, and very quickly somebody can be outside the standard deviation of the norm, and trigger some type of bad activity on your account.

And I just want to completely stay away from that. I do not want to risk our multi-million dollar Amazon business, hopefully our eight figure ecommerce business this year. That's our goal is to get to that this year on something stupid like this. And now that we've put all the front loaded effort into building our list and building a community and working on our products, it should just become easier from here because now we have that list and that core group to launch our products to. And I don't need to worry about the flavor of the month of the way to cheat Amazon to get higher rankings.

I talked about this before and again, I'm in this Million Dollar Seller Group. I think it's an amazing community and there's a lot of really good things in there. But the thing that just makes me kind of do a face palm is that every time Amazon does something to correct the nefarious activities that are happening, people are just looking for a way to do something different to correct that.

And when the review thing came out, it was the same thing. And for the last 18 months since that happened, there's been a lot of chatter of like, how can we push the envelope and do things that are against terms of service we won't get caught for. And now it's catching up. And the same type of comments are happening now where it's just like, oh, well, is this way of cheating going to be okay, and how did you cheat? Let's like try to figure out exactly what someone was doing, what the consistent issue was. And I just don't want to worry about that. I think that that's ridiculous. I get a lot of value out of the community for white hat things that I want to be doing. And certainly don't need to be doing any of those black hat things to potentially ruin our business.

There's so many other really black hat nasty things that are happening out there. We did an episode on things that Chinese sellers or just third party sellers are doing too, in a competitive way to leave bad reviews or are filed force IP claims. And those are things I still have to worry about it. There's nothing I can do about those types of things, but this is something I can control.

I think that in business you create your own luck. And I don't think that it was lucky that I didn't get this email and that thousands of other people did. And I don't think that it's lucky that I didn't get my account closed like evidently thousands of other sellers did. It seems like, especially Chinese sellers, they were really caught up in this, and it seems like they did it — the timing was very strategic and they did it over Chinese New Year to really send the point when people weren't even in their offices to deal with it

Again, I'm just happy that I didn't get caught up in this. Our long-term focus is to legitimately create brands. Amazon is just one of our sales channels that we want to do this with. We don't want to completely rely on Amazon for everything we do, even though they are still our largest channel right now. But, over time I hope that we get business from other channels to equal just as much as we do on Amazon. And we look at this as a brand building exercise in how we can create something that might even eventually be on retail shelves even though we've had episodes on why I might not want to be on retail shelves, at least in big box stores. But that's at least a part of something that we can look forward to potentially to continue to build our brand and our reach.

So that's it for this episode, everybody. I hope this gives you something to think about. The obvious moral of the story is to do the right thing in life and in business. You do not need to cheat to win. Winners never cheat. Cheaters never win. Long-term, man, I tell you, this is going to come down on people, that were in my mind Amazon has to do something about this and I think they will continue to do something about this. And I think that I'm happy again that we've taken the high road.

So, again, if you're interested in the Million Dollar Sellers Group I mentioned, you can go to EcomCrew.com/mds for Million Dollar Sellers. It’s a private Facebook group just for million dollar – you get to verify your revenue. If you're doing a million dollars on Amazon, it's a great group of people. It’s run by my friend Ian and a couple of other guys. And I think that if you're doing a million dollars in business, you should definitely be part of these types of communities like the Million Dollar Sellers Group, like Ecommerce Fuel to talk about a lot.

So go to EcomCre.com/mds to sign up there if you're interested in that, and see all the chatter that's going on about this particular issue, and also about a lot of other things that are more white hat. So, with that, I’m going to sign off for this episode. Until the next one, we'll talk to you then.

And that's a wrap. You can go to EcomCrew.com/125 to get to the show notes for this episode. And off the top of this episode, I mentioned that this episode is dedicated to Bobby. You're probably wondering who that is. That was actually our German Shepherd who just passed this last week. And for anyone who's had a dog in their lives, you know how difficult that can be. This was a rescue dog that we got on January first 2006, a long, long time ago.

He was between one and two years old when we got him, which means that he passed at somewhere around 13 years old, which is just unheard of for a German shepherd. And you're probably also wondering, what does this have to do with e-commerce? Absolutely nothing. I've done 125 of these episodes, giving back to the community and this is for me. And one thing I do want to mention, please rescue. If you're looking to getting a dog, we gave a dog a life for 12 years. Getting a dog from a breeder is literally the same thing as killing another dog.

And I'm very happy that we were able to give a dog a home for as long as we did. And it was my wife’s and my pride and joy. We don't have kids yet and he was basically like our kid and went everywhere with us. 35 states, we counted them up the other day, three countries, and a lot of memories, a lot of really happy photographs we've been looking and videos that just make us smile. And we're blessed to have had him for as long as we did. So, Bobby, this is for you buddy. And until the next episode, guys, happy selling, and we'll talk to you then.

Michael Jackness

Michael started his first business when he was 18 and is a serial entrepreneur. He got his start in the online world way back in 2004 as an affiliate marketer. From there he grew as an SEO expert and has transitioned into ecommerce, running several sites that bring in a total of 7-figures of revenue each year.
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