Advertisement
Engadget
Why you can trust us

Engadget has been testing and reviewing consumer tech since 2004. Our stories may include affiliate links; if you buy something through a link, we may earn a commission. Read more about how we evaluate products.

Whoops! Amazon served costly ads for products people couldn't actually buy

A seller said he was charged up to $300,000 for ads that couldn't even translate into sales.

Amazon

It can be quite annoying to click through an Amazon ad in your results only to find out that the product you want can't be shipped to your place. Now, imagine you're the small business owner being charged for those ads. (Forget corporations and drop shippers, I know you all hate them.) There you are, thinking you're going to make a killing based on how much ad action you're getting. Except those ads don't translate to sales, because Amazon has been serving them to people who can't even buy your products. That's apparently what happened to at least one seller who told Bloomberg that he was charged between $200,000 and $300,000 for ads served to California residents, where he can't sell his advanced gaming computer items.

The seller stopped shipping to California due to the state's personal computer power consumption regulations, which would require him to get costly lab reports for his products. But Amazon's automated system apparently continued advertising his products there and allegedly denied that there was an issue when he flagged the problem and followed up for several weeks. Since he was being charged thousands, the seller, who employs 80 people in Virginia to assemble custom computers, reportedly made zero profit in November, December and January.

Amazon has acknowledged the issue in a statement sent to Engadget. It told us that it had investigated the matter and found that it only affected "a tiny fraction" of sellers. It also said that it had already apologized to the seller who talked to Bloomberg and that the company is in the process of refunding him $15,000. That's a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands the seller said he'd lost, but Amazon says it only served "a very small portion" of his listings to California residents. "We will similarly contact and refund any affected sellers, and are updating our processes to ensure any such ads are not charged going forward," the spokesperson said.

The company's advertising system generally can't geo-target advertisements like Google ads can, because it focuses on matching buyers to certain brands or products they may be interested in. It also can't ensure that the product it's advertising complies with state regulations and, hence, can be shipped to its residents. As Bloomberg notes, this is far from the first time Amazon faced an issue regarding its advertisements. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company, and one of the regulator's accusations was that it was "deliberately increasing junk ads that worsen search quality." A report that came out after the lawsuit revealed that Amazon can strike deals with other companies to make sure their listings are devoid of junk ads, though, which is why Apple's official product pages might look cleaner and less cluttered compared to its competitors'.