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Amazon algorithms don't usually get you the best price

Engadget logo Engadget 20/09/2016 Jon Fingas
© Provided by Engadget

Have you noticed that Amazon's searches and recommendations tend to steer you toward its own products and partners, rather than whatever happens to be the best deal? You're not alone. ProPublica has conducted research showing that Amazon's algorithms favor either its own gear or that of companies that pay for its Fulfilled by Amazon program, even when the price is substantially higher. When hunting for 250 commonly purchased products, Amazon-friendly placements beat significantly lower-priced items for the coveted Buy Box placement (the one most shoppers click) "about three-quarters" of the time.

Even when you're looking at a direct price comparison, Amazon reportedly isn't playing fair. It'll omit shipping costs for products from itself and its partners, but not those of other third parties.

When asked, Amazon told ProPublica that its algorithms consider many points beyond price. "Vast selection, world-class service and fast, free delivery" are also important, a spokesperson says. And to a degree, that's true. Many shoppers can attest to third parties on Amazon who lure you in with a low price, only to take forever to ship or give you the runaround when you have a problem. And of course, the initial price isn't necessarily the lowest in practice -- if you order enough items at once or subscribe to Amazon Prime, there may be no point to going with an alternative.

The problem, as you might guess, is that this could be construed as anti-competitive. It punishes those merchants that can't afford to participate in Fulfilled by Amazon, and gives visitors a distorted view of their options. Do you offer more than a cursory glance to all the retailers selling a given item? Probably not. Much as with the EU's case against Google, there's a worry that Amazon is using its dominance to squeeze out the competition. It may improve some aspects of the experience by favoring itself, but it could also be hurting your chances at getting a good discount.


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