Amazon’s search is increasingly featuring sponsored products, Amazon brands, as well as recommended products, instead of organic results. For many searches, there are only two organic results on the whole screen above the fold. Not until scrolling down past various recommended products do organic search results come up.
A typical layout now has a sponsored brand as the first row of results, 3 sponsored products plus 2 organic results as the second row, best rated or Amazon’s Choice in the category as the third row, followed by editorial recommendations by 3rd party websites as the fourth row, and then Amazon brands as the fifth row. It’s only in the sixth row or later do organic results start.
There is a cliché that Amazon has infinite shelf space. Technically it does, as it can support a virtually infinite number of products since each has a zero marginal cost. However, most shoppers will only see a few options before making a purchase decision. Thus the number of products on the infinite shelf is not relevant - shoppers will most of the time only look at the first page of search results. There is an endless number of t-shirts on Amazon, but the top 0.01% outsell the rest combined. Amazon has an infinite number of shelves, instead of one infinite shelf, and each of that shelf is a couple of dozen products long and is defined by the search keyword.
From infinite shelf space comes a problem: how do customers discover products? As well as how do brands launch new products? Which products get shown in search results is, thus, crucial. Amazon relies on a ranking algorithm that heavily weights product reviews and sales velocity. So as Amazon demotes organic search results to the bottom part of the page, unsurprisingly, the importance of sponsored products increases.
Editorial recommendations take product guides written by 3rd party websites and include them among the search results. If a shopper purchases one of a guide’s listed products, the publisher gets an affiliate commission. The program started in 2018. There is value in being one of the recommended products since it provides high visibility in search results and is not impacted by changing sales volume or reviews. However, recommendations are inherently subjective, putting brands not in the list on even more pressure to advertise to be visible in search. Searching for “headphones,” for example, yields four recommendations by Android Central, none of which are otherwise in search results.
Amazon is also providing automated curation by featuring products with the most reviews in the category or Amazon’s Choice products in related searches (for example for “headphones,” it features best products in “wireless headphones,” “bluetooth headphones,” “wireless earbuds,” and “headphones”). Becoming one of the featured products is not a transparent decision by Amazon, and ultimately requires brands trying to reverse engineer the automated selection process.
Since relying on being featured as one of the best sellers - a black-box process - is unreliable, brands are increasingly forced to spend on advertising. Because of that, an increasing number of product page views come from sponsored ads instead of organic results. In September, Amazon updated the sponsored products ads layout to a 3-4-5 layout from the previous 2-4-6 layout. Search results now start with three sponsored product ads instead of two.
Instead of solving the root cause of the discovery problem, Amazon is layering a solution on top - ads and featured products.