Who wins when Amazon pulls brands from its store?

A RavPower wireless charging pad.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

If you’re looking to buy a new USB cable, wireless charger, or that fast-charging USB power brick that didn’t come with your new $1,000 phone (but definitely should have), there’s a typical process many people go through. You open Amazon’s site in a new tab or the app on your phone, type in the thing you’re looking for, scan some review scores, and click Buy It Now.

Except now, some of the very best chargers, cables, and wireless pads have disappeared — products that reviewers like us independently recommended and that you could buy at more attractive prices than other brands.

Today, a search for USB-C or wireless chargers on Amazon will still turn up products from Anker, Apple, and AmazonBasics, as well as many obscure brands with alphabet-soup-style names. But you won’t find options from a bunch of popular brands that were there just a few months ago. Numerous brand lines have been wiped from Amazon’s storefront, leaving fewer, sometimes less-desirable options for consumers looking for these products.

It’s a weird situation to be in, given that Amazon has been referred to as “the everything store” for years. (Journalist Brad Stone titled his first book about the company exactly that.) And with Amazon’s dominance in the e-commerce world and status as the default shopping location for many, bolstered by its Prime service that guarantees fast delivery and has over 200 million subscribers, it means that the average person buying these things has fewer options than they did just a few months ago.

An Aukey USB battery pack. These brands often included things like USB cables with batteries when other brands wouldn’t.

Earlier this week, Amazon pulled Choetech’s products from its store. That followed the removal of Aukey and Mpow in May and RavPower, Vava, and TaoTronics in June, and likely others that we’re just not aware of. Amazon confirmed that it removed most of these companies’ listings, but it declined to elaborate why. Logical reasoning points to a response to reports that these brands were violating Amazon’s rules by providing incentives for positive reviews. If you’ve ever bought something on Amazon, you’ve probably seen the little cards inserted in the box offering gift cards or refunds if you post a review of the product. (If you have, my colleague Sean Hollister is collecting pictures of them for another story; you can send them to him at sean@theverge.com.)

Gaming the Amazon review system is certainly a problem, and it’s not an activity that I’m condoning. Many shoppers rely on the review scores of products when deciding whether or not to buy something. For smaller, commodity products like cables and chargers, the Amazon review rating is often the only judge of quality you might have before putting your money down.

Most people would assume that companies engaging in shady activities to promote their products are doing so because the product isn’t any good in the first place. But, in a peculiar twist, that’s not the case with any of the companies I mentioned above. By and large, these companies sold good, competitive products, and put price pressure on other companies making similar devices. RavPower, Aukey, and Choetech make countless versions of the USB chargers, wireless chargers, and cables that are necessary for today’s phones, tablets, and laptops; Vava is known for its line of multiport USB-C hubs; TaoTronics and Mpow sell inexpensive headphones and earbuds that perform surprisingly well for their price. We’ve tested and recommended products from these brands here on The Verge, as have many other publications; I’ve personally purchased numerous products made by them and have had great experiences.

These brands differentiated from the rest in a number of ways, including by offering unique designs and port configurations; packing in useful add-ons like a cable with a charger, or a charging brick powerful enough to make a wireless charger work well; or by selling the same effective thing at a lower price. The reasons we specifically called RavPower’s wireless charging pad and stand the best ones to buy were because it performed well, came with the cable and charging brick you needed to use it — a rarity among the field — and was priced better than the competition. I personally bought Choetech chargers because they came with long, high-quality USB-C cables, which you don’t typically get in the box from Anker. A two-pack of compact RavPower 20W USB-C chargers cost me less than a single, bigger one from Apple and less than the similar option available from Anker.

A multiport hub from Choetech.
Image: Choetech

These brands were also around long enough to have established a reputation for quality — I’m more likely to buy a charger from a brand that I’ve got experience with already than to take a flyer on one I’ve never heard of before. These were far from fly-by-night companies.

Amazon’s removal of these listings is notable because unlike Anker, Belkin, Apple, and other larger brands, you can’t buy products from these companies outside of Amazon or their own websites. They don’t exist in wireless carrier stores or on Best Buy’s or Target’s virtual or in-person shelves. They are, effectively, companies that solely exist because of Amazon’s dominance in the e-commerce world. (The exception here is that you now will find these brands sold by third-party sellers through Walmart, which has turned its website into a marketplace, much like Amazon. But you won’t find them at retail stores.) Some of them, like RavPower, were so reliant on Amazon that they sometimes used the retailer as a fulfillment partner for the listings on their own sites.

With that much of their business dependent on Amazon shoppers, it makes sense then that these outfits will do whatever they can to succeed on the platform, where an increasing number of people are searching for products to buy and bypassing other stores and search engines directly. The companies paying people to post reviews of their products are trying to get more people to see what they have: By getting more positive reviews on their products, these companies will rank higher in Amazon’s search results, which will lead to more sales. A positive star rating on Amazon can make or break the success of a product.

But instead of examining why these companies are attempting to manipulate its system and making adjustments to its platform to discourage this activity, Amazon has taken a heavy-handed whack-a-mole approach to just banning those that get caught breaking its rules.

Amazon doesn’t seem to be interested in changing the incentives on its platform, preferring to just remove sellers it deems to be bad actors. In its June blog post, the company pointed blame at social media companies for not better policing groups that collaborate to game the Amazon reviews system, and boasted that it reported over 1,000 groups in just the first three months of 2021. The company’s position is that this is how it protects shoppers from getting scammed or having a bad experience.

But as long as sellers on Amazon are incentivized and rewarded for high star ratings and positive customer reviews on their products, there are going to be those that use tactics that Amazon doesn’t like, and come off as less than scrupulous to those buying the products. Those companies are more likely going to be smaller outfits that don’t have other retail channels or brand recognition to fall back on — even if their product is good enough to stand on its own. That is the reality of the system that Amazon has built.

An even more cynical take on this is that Amazon is just going to supplant these retailers’ products with more of its own AmazonBasics-branded gear. The company has been caught in the past using data from what’s popular on its store to inform its AmazonBasics product roadmap. Amazon could be in the process of rolling out lower-priced versions of what Anker and Belkin are selling with its name on it, taking the place of the RavPowers and Choetechs that used to be there. I’m not convinced that this is what’s happening here, but in the service of teasing out all possibilities, there it is.

I also don’t have a handy answer for how Amazon could fix this, nor is it really my job to find a solution for one of the richest companies on the planet. Authorities in both the US and the UK have started putting pressure on Amazon to fix its fake review problem, but the tactics the company has taken so far seem to lay all the blame on the sellers bending the rules, not evaluating the flaws inherent in the system itself.

At the end of the day, Amazon’s policies and platform, while ostensibly protecting shoppers from fraud, end up giving consumers less choice than they would otherwise have. Until the company fixes its platform, shoppers are going to be the ones left holding the bag.

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Comments

An even more cynical take on this is that Amazon is just going to supplant these retailers’ products with more of its own AmazonBasics-branded gear.

Ding ding ding, we have a winner. This is straight out of the old-school Microsoft playbook – embrace, extend, extinguish.

This is worse, they literally just banned these guys.

Rules are rules. By knowingly breaking those rules, they gave Amazon every right to take advantage of their mistakes.

The writer is trying to tell us that being a monopoly should limit Amazon from having rules. I don’t see how this part is relevant.

You can’t buy products from these companies outside of Amazon

If Amazon is the only place where they sell their products, those brands should be more careful about not making a mistake. Claiming that Amazon should forget about enforcing its rules against smaller players because it’s a monopoly is no different than telling that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. shouldn’t apply their rules to Trump because he has nowhere else to go.

I am having a hard time understanding why enforcing rules against a rule-breaking politician is a good thing (which I totally agree), but enforcing rules against rule-breaking companies is a bad one. I am well aware that The Verge has joined the crusade against big tech, but we should expect them to be a little more consistent on the message.

Sure, but why do they do it? To get higher placement in Amazon’s searches. Did AmazonBasics do this organically? No they did not and they continue to do it their way which is to put their line at the top of the list in searches:
"hdmi cable"
"bath towels"
"ergotron monitor arm"
"electronic safe"
"AA batteries"

And it isn’t just Amazon Basics. It is at least a few of their brands. "men’s polo shirt" lists Amazon Essentials first. "sofa" and "chandellier" first items are stone & beam.

And all of this is before the sponsored listings that companies pay Amazon to place higher in searches.

They used to put Fire TV items above Apple TV ones until, apparently, Apple chewed them out over it. Now Apple TV shows Apple TV.

I agree that rules should be followed, but when the marketplace is stacking the deck against you already, I don’t know, I kind of understand the motivation of paying for higher placement by means other than paying your competitor for the honor knowing full and well even if you do, they’re going to place their product higher than yours for free.

So of all of the tech companies that should be sweating a breakup, it is Amazon. This is very anti-competitive behavior on their part.

I just did a search for "iPhone charger" on Amazon, and the first non-sponsored result was a five-pack of 6’ Lightning chargers, sold by MBYY, and fulfilled by Amazon. It is the "#1 best seller" in Lightning cables and has 22,482 reviews with a 4.5 star rating as of the time of my search.

I use an app on my iPhone called Fakespot which analyzes reviews on Amazon to see how real they are and give the user an alternative rating to Amazon’s. The app goes through every review and reviewer looking for scam and false reviews. I have used it for years on Amazon, and I encourage everyone to download the app, it’s super easy to use – it shows up in the Share button menu right next to the product image on the Amazon app after you install it:

https://www.fakespot.com/

For this item, the Fakespot rating of the reviews is a "D", and the adjusted star rating is 2.0 stars. I find results like this all the time on Amazon.

Amazon is absolutely full of BS. I have come to believe that Amazon does not care – at all – about the integrity of its review system, or the quality of the product it is selling. I think it’s just another tool for them to use to maximize their revenue and profit. Further, I think the decisions they have made, reflected in this article, support that thesis.

Ask yourself why would they kick great products off Amazon while allowing the kind of crap products I am describing here – remember this is Amazon’s #1 rated seller in this category, there is a happy little "#1 best seller" icon right under the initial product description which is impossible to miss.

And, for the record, I didn’t have to hunt for this – this was literally the first first search I did after reading your comment.

Amazon has created its own version of retail hell. We only buy stuff from Amazon when we have to now. It’s not worth wasting time on anymore.

fulfilled by Amazon just means they are pulling from stock from their DCs and they’re handling the logistics of it all.

https://sell.amazon.com/fulfillment-by-amazon.html

Search for an item Amazon won’t have in stock, such as RTX 3090 GPUs, and then click one that has a price attached in the list. You’ll see that the shipped from is now the same as sold by because fulfillment is being handled by the seller.

Comically, when I search "lightning cable", the first thing I see is… you guessed it, Amazon Basics.

Yes, it’s similar to Apple’s App Store in this regard, as seen on recent coverage. But since they both keep making bucketloads of money, I guess the incentive to fix it is not that big.

The rules are being selectively enforced. ESR is still there as are a host of sellers in other sectors – I’ve experienced this behaviour recently with a sleep mask seller.

"the tactics the company has taken so far seem to lay all the blame on the sellers bending the rules, not evaluating the flaws inherent in the system itself."

The ol’ hate the player, not the game routine.

It’s hard to hate a game rule against review manipulation
¯\(ツ)

I think their point is to ask why brands that have recognizable names not out of a random character generator and usually decent enough quality even feel the need to try gaming reviews. First, something worked out for them where it was worth it to be effectively amazon only until now, but that left them at the mercy of how Amazon ranks products based on reviews. If everything were working the way we assume it should, real people would post enough good reviews to push them to the top naturally, but that’s not what actually happens

Maybe it is because it is literally the biggest global store there ever was, and that makes it hard to stand out. They got big by gaming the system and cheating versus other players whose products are as good and who went by the rules. I really have no clue what this article is bitching about, I bought from these companies too and the rewards they offered for positive review was just shady.
This has nothing to do with Amazon basics, you are right to complain about that but don’t defend cheaters.

If Amazon actually invested more in managing its seller program (like a certain other company with their opaque system in reviewing software in their store) and treated it like a big-boy business instead of a social media platform, maybe this wouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve been so curious about how this all went down, but it’s a real shame at any rate. I’ve gotten a number of products from some of these brands, and it wasn’t unusual for them to have $5 coupons for reviews in the box. I always thought it was surprising that Amazon was cool with it.

I keep wondering what the scenario was: did Amazon decide to care all of a sudden, or was it actually a scenario where these brands got repeated warnings about it?

I’m wondering if this isn’t a direct result of the US and UK pressure on Amazon to fix its fake reviews problem mentioned in the article.

This is the problem that is being glossed over in the article and in these comments. Amazon is under legal and political pressure to stop allowing tactics that are explicitly violate their rules and general fair trade practices. So they are taking actions.

Amazon and "fair trade practices" lol

I mean yeah, that’s why they are under pressure.

You know what they could have done that’s a lot easier? Allow people to tick a checkbox that says "I was given this product in exchange for a review" and perhaps rank those reviews less and/or separate them out. Steam does this already.

Oh wait, then they wouldn’t be removing competition against their AmazonBasics brand…

Huh? Did you ever buy from these brands? They didn’t send you free products, they paid you in discounts for fake five stars. So you want a checkmark for "I just gave 5 stars to get a freebie"? I have another suggestion, next step let’s filter those by default and delete them because nobody would ever want to see them.

Sounds like someone actually hasn’t bought from these brands while pointing that finger at someone else. No, they give you the product in exchange for a review, they never specify how many stars to give or what to say in the review. Amazon is just using this as an excuse to remove well-known brands (Anker is probably on the chopping block next) to push their own crap AmazonBasics brand.

Amazon decided to care likely because people are buying Aukey and other brands over AmazonBasics products.

I mainly look at the negative reviews to get a feel for major or recurring issues. Sometimes the negatives will be mostly user issues, so I don’t worry about those.

Exactly. Almost always, the negative reviews are the ones that really matter and the ones I always look first. They will tell you if the product has common issues, if they deliver what they promise, what can you expect and so on. Then, the positive reviews that go into factual details and less hyperboles and adjectives closely follow.

Except you’re probably not clicking into a product with 3.5 stars, only ones above 4, then reading the negative. So if there’s enough astroturfing, it’s still getting you to click in

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