This is a good news / bad news story. The good news is that Amazon is taking concrete steps to stop bad actors who create false children on your listings so they can leverage all your hard work getting honest reviews, or who get rid of your parent listing, so all your children are stranded. Poor orphan children.
The bad news is the chaos, false positives and suspensions. I worked on two cases recently where the core issue turned out to be listing errors. In the first case the seller was taken down for review manipulation (crazy, right?). In the second they weren’t suspended, but they couldn’t create new listings and the violation was duplicate listings. This is a company that creates tens of thousands of legit listings every year, and they aren’t duplicates.
It took me a while to figure it out, but now I get it. In each case the seller had problems with improper variations. Amazon’s policies around variations, bundles and multipacks are confusing enough, but now that Amazon is having to fend off bad actors who deliberately manipulate listings to create advantage for themselves…it’s chaos.
In addition, we’ve been seeing lots of warnings and takedowns for UPC codes that aren’t GS1 and/or where the name on the GS1 database does not match the brand name/owner in the GS1. We knew this was coming and have talked about it for some time, but it is still catching sellers by surprise and wreaking havoc with their listings.
If this were a simple issue, I’d give you links to Amazon’s policies on listings and we’d be done. Cynthia’s shortest blog ever. However, with all these listing violation takedowns lately, I thought we should talk about the nuances.
Enter the Bad Actor…
First, let’s explain where this action is coming from. Amazon is focusing currently on two particular aspects of variation abuse. Bad actors use listing tricks to propel their products to the top and to destroy you while they are at it:
- Add an improper child variation to your very successful product and benefit from your rankings and reviews
- Blow up your parent listing and orphan all your children. On their own, your children listings aren’t nearly as powerful. They lose ranking, reviews, etc. Plus – bonus – it is against TOS and you could be suspended.
Improper Children (gasp!)
An improper child is basically a product that is not exactly the same as the parent ASIN. This could be egregious like a fake or knock-off product or it could be a totally unrelated product, or it could be an improper bundle. One guy created a child that included the main product plus a bonus item. This is not a proper variation. It’s a bundle and should have its own listing.
Simple, right? No. The devil is in the details here. When Amazon says to put like items together, they mean they are the exact same item with one or two variables like size and color or flavor in food. When you look at a t-shirt on Amazon, that’s pretty clear. Same shirt, multiple colors and it comes in small, medium and large.
Here’s some hard cases for you – answers revealed later (no peeking)
- You sell knives with different types/colors of handles – black, white and red and teak, walnut and oak. They are all the same except the blade comes in different lengths, thickness of blade and types of blade (straight-edge and serrated). Can you put these all under one parent?
- You have a sheet set that comes in multiple colors and sizes. The fabric is 100% cotton 250 threads per inch. Can you put the striped sheets on the same variation as the solid color sheets?
- You sell bundles for hatching chickens that includes the lamp, feed and watering system. Is it proper to have other chicken hatching kits on the same listing where you can buy more lamps or bigger feed and watering systems?
- You sell variety packages of mongoose treats. You can buy three, six and 12 boxes and the boxes are a variety of seven flavors. There are the snake flavors, the rodent flavors and the meatlovers flavors. Can you put all the variations under one parent?
- You sell a food bundle of items from multiple brands. It’s something you might send to a kid in college or our troops overseas. One package has Cheeto items (flaming hot, regular, extra crunchy) and another has Doritos products (Ranch, spicy regular, etc.) All other items in the boxes are the same. Is this a variation?
- What if you sell yoga pants that are all made from your proprietary stretch and lift fabric? Do you have one parent listing of yoga pants with your super fabric that includes capris, boot cut, straight leg as variations as well as color and size? Many brands do – very large brands mind you – including Amazon itself.
- You have a listing with a solo item and various multipacks. Is this a proper variation? What if the solo item is a pack of two? What if the item is in apparel? In sporting goods?
- You have a wrap-style skirt for sale in multiple fabrics, patterns and sizes. What is the proper way to set up the variation? The skirt is the exact same style for all.
- You buy Mike & Ike candy by the pallet in collector’s boxes. The company sends you variety packs. Your desired grouping involves multiple Minions boxes. You want to sell in three packs, six packs and 12 packs. There are 9 distinct Minions boxes in all. How do you set it up properly?
- An electronics reseller wants to create bundles with variations, but none of the variations fall under size or color. Can he make bundles? Another electronics reseller wants to offer technology bundled with variations of service/support (1-year, 2-year, etc.) can she do that? An office phone reseller offers a package where the variation is number of handsets.
It’s not always simple.
These sad little listings used to belong to a big family of related products and now they are all alone. While this might be pitiful, is it really against TOS? Yes. You see, Amazon doesn’t recognize that they are legitimate parents. They see them as the result of bad behavior or some kind of listing snafu. They believe that variations SHOULD be under a parent. They don’t want 100 listings for the same product in different colors. It creates a bad buyer experience, generally reduces sales and, sometimes, gives one seller an unfair advantage over others.
One of my clients had deleted the parent listing and created new parents (they thought – they were actually orphans) because they realized that their variations were improper. Each of these children had additional variations underneath each of them (size & color) and each style needed to be its own parent. In short, there were too many variations; it created a lot of confusion for buyers and violated TOS. By breaking out the listing into styles and then variations, it was clearer. However, that’s not what the algorithm saw. It just saw a bunch of orphan products all of a sudden and suspended the client for review manipulation. The exact flavor of review manipulation was “review aggregation.”
According to Amazon, review aggregation is where “a seller creates a variation relationship between products with the aim of manipulating reviews and boosting a product’s star rating via review aggregation.” While they usually mean the process of adding an improper variation to a listing, it also includes the opposite – blowing up a listing to take down another seller’s good reviews and metrics. It’s ironic because my clients were changing their own listings. They are the only sellers, and they were trying to fix a problem.
When I looked at their revised listings, they had done everything correctly. The new listings had proper variations. What did they do wrong, then? 1) They did this without Amazon’s help and 2) While the titles of the children were very similar to the parent, they were not THE SAME. Amazon’s rules say that the titles for ALL parent and children listings MUST be identical. The ONLY difference allowed is the variation. You can say 100% cotton t-shirt on all your parent and children. For the children you are allowed to add “-Red, Medium” at the end and that’s it. If you are cramming features and benefits into your titles, they MUST be the same for all the listings. So maybe the listing is: “100% cotton t-shirt, pre-washed extra-soft no-wrinkle” with -Red, Medium for the child.
T-shirts are easy. What if, however, you have the same style or design t-shirt in different fabrics? What then? One is a polyester blend and one is 100% cotton. Or you have different neck styles? V-neck, Crew neck, Boatneck…you get the idea. Now it’s complicated.
It used to be that you could fix your own listings, but now I’m recommending to our clients who are fixing improper variations that they work with the catalog team. They can create the flat file (or upload file) themselves, but they need to have someone at Amazon look at it with them. Why? Because you need a record that you tried to do this properly and that you were fixing a problem rather than creating improper orphans. With Amazon’s algorithm on the hunt for orphaned children and improper variations, you can get taken down for trying to do the right thing. For clients with strategic account managers, I suggest they work with them, and have the SAM look at the file. This is no guarantee that the algorithm won’t get you, but at least then you can claim “false positive” and have your records back you up.
Pop Quiz Answers
OK. You knew these were all trick questions, right?
- NO. For one thing, you cannot have knives of different lengths as a variation. They are separate products. Serrated and straight-edge are different products. Handle colors are a variation and handle type (walnut, teak, etc.) COULD be a variation under “color,” but the knives must otherwise be identical. So you can’t have “-teak, Red” and you can’t have “-teak, serrated” You can’t have “serrated” with different lengths of blade, but you can have serrated of the same length with different colors or serrated blades with different wood handle types. Just to be clear, while you would use the “color” variation for your wood types and colors, you cannot have color AND wood type in the same variation. Your correct variations would be length of blade, type of blade, color OR handle type. “10” serrated blade knife – teak” “10-inch straight-edge blade knife – Red” would be correct, but you cannot have the color handles on the same listing as the wood handles. Why is that? For one thing the description in the child must be the same as the parent. If you have too many variations, the temptation is to have an extra bullet in the child to explain it. That’s not allowed. Let’s add another variable. This is a Swiss Army Knife with different items and colors – the blade, a bottle opener, a corkscrew, a screwdriver head, etc. Your variations include color of handle and items that fold into the handle. How do you set up the variation? Remember that Amazon wants to create an easy buyer experience and the child must be identical to the parent in the bullets and product description as well. You need to have the same combination of folding stuff for the parent/children and vary by color. You cannot create the listing by color and vary by folding stuff.
- NO. Striped is a pattern. It is an additional variation that cannot be interchanged with color. Think of it this way, if this was a duvet cover with a big flower pattern and different color backgrounds, you would set it up as a standalone listing with the floral pattern and then vary it by size and color. “Linen Duvet Cover, Festive Floral – Blue, Twin.” “100% Cotton Duvet Cover, Striped – Ecru, King”
- NO. The bundle needs to be exactly the same for each variation. If you want a bundle with additional lamps or a bigger watering system, they must be separate listings. Proper variations for this bundle might include color (to match your barn!) and multipacks in case you have a lot of chickens to count before they hatch.
- NO. If you had a package of three of the exact same treats (cobra, momba and rattlesnake flavors) in the exact same sized boxes, you could create multipacks of six, nine and 12. If you had “Mongoose treats – snake flavors” you could variate by the different kinds of snake AND multipacks. If you wanted to add the snake flavors and the rodent flavors you could make that the parent and variate by multipack: “Mongoose Treat 3-Pack plus Rodent Treat 3-Pack – Multiple packs” would be the parent and “Mongoose Treat 3-Pack Plus Rodent Treat 3-Pack – Double” might be the package with two of each 3-Pack. What if you wanted to offer buyers their own mix of Snake Mongoose Treats? Here you might say “Mongoose Treats – Multiple Flavors” and offer a solo box of each kind of treat. Your buyers then pick how many they want of each. You’d have 9 children, one for each flavor. If you wanted to offer a bundle of your best-selling flavors in different size boxes, you could do that as a separate listing: “Mongoose Treats, Rat and Cobra – Multiple sizes” is the parent and “Mongoose Treats, Rat and Cobra – 1 lb box” the variation with 2lb and 5lb boxes as additional options. What if you only have Rat in 1 lb boxes but Cobra comes in 1, 2 and 5-pound boxes? Don’t make my head hurt! “Mongoose Treats, Rat 1-lb Box and Cobra Box – Multiple Sizes.” I could do this all day, but think about the buyer experience, what do they want? Is a 1lb + a 5lb box a good bundle?
- NO. These are bundles. There are too many variables for proper variations. You could offer a snack box where the only variation is the type of Cheetos product (Original, hot, crunchy, etc.) if that makes sense to your buyer or the type of Doritos, but in most cases, these are bundles without variation unless the variation is “occasion.” So, you have a food box and maybe there are separate cards, ribbons, decorations, box, etc., for each special occasion – birthday, get well, homesick, congratulations, anniversary – but the food inside is the same. That makes sense from a buyer’s perspective. You’d say “Snack Boxes for Every Occasion” for the parent and “Snack Boxes for Every Occasion – Birthday” for the child. The only difference might be the designed box itself. What if the boxes had different things inside them for each occasion? Balloons for birthday, for example? In that case, it is a separate listing and not part of a variation.
- IT DEPENDS. Ahhh! Everyone hates this answer. This is tricky because there are literally thousands of combinations of these yoga pants. What makes a good buyer experience? What triggers Amazon that something is wrong? In my client’s case they felt the most compelling selling point of their brand story was the special fabric and the fact that these were yoga pants. They also sell jeans, leggings…you get the point. Color and size are the allowed variables, but they also felt style should be under yoga pants – capri, shorts, boot-cut. This is why they were having duplicate listing issues. Amazon was confused. Any buyer looking at their listing wasn’t confused because the picture is clear, but some of their products looked very similar and appeared the same in the upload file. To resolve this issue, we had them change their color nomenclature to include a unique style number as part of the color. Instead of “black,” the color might be “YPBC1234a-Black.” This keeps them from duplicate listing errors AND it offers the buyer clarity if they are wondering if they already bought those yoga pants or if they want to buy the same pants in a different color. Now the question is….is this compliant? Maybe. In my research, I saw that this is what many major brands on the platform – including some of Amazon’s brands – do in the apparel category. That doesn’t mean it is right or that these brands are protected from the algorithm, but it does eliminate the duplicate listing problem. They are constantly adding new children to these listings and closing old ones that are sold out. Buyer style preferences change so frequently in fashion that this is a necessity. What if the fabric was NOT the same for each yoga pant? Then they would definitely need new parent listings. The product has to be the same, especially in fabric type. You can’t have a cotton on the same listing as a poly blend. Didn’t I just say that “stripe” is a pattern up above and requires its own listing? I did. And do these yoga pants also have different patterns as well as style and color? Yes. I still stand by what I said for sheets/bedding, but apparel is a lot more complicated. I feel OK with the client’s decision here because the issue Amazon had with them was related to what they perceived to be a black hat tactic of creating duplicate listings/children.
- NO. A multipack is NOT a variation unless it is manufacturer created with a unique GS1 UPC code from that manufacturer. From Amazon’s perspective, only the manufacturer can create a multipack (see below for more details). If you want to sell a multipack, you can ask the manufacturer to make one for you and to give you a UPC code. This means that the manufacturer will be packaging this for you. It is NOT a bunch of items in a polybag or shrink-wrapped by you. Quantity is NOT a variation, but a separate package with more items is.
- CREATE PARENTS BY FABRIC. Now you know that size is a correct variation as is color, but fabric is not. The style is the same so that’s not an issue here. Each choice of fabric would be its own parent. What if the wrap skirt came in three different lengths? Length is not a correct variation. Amazon would see them as different products. However, if you wanted to have length be part of a unique color like the yoga pant example, you could. Just be aware that this is a “maybe” answer. If you want to be absolutely sure you are compliant, then you would have parents for each length.
- EACH 3-PACK IS A PARENT. In food, correct variation is flavor and you can do multipacks (same stipulations for unique UPC codes as other categories). These Mike & Ikes are all the same flavor. What’s different about them is the collectible box. Collectors will never even open the box to eat the candy. If the boxes were empty, I’d suggest putting them in a different category than food. The audience is different. However, it’s food so I had to work with flavor. Of the nine variations, I created three packages of three different Minions boxes (parents). In addition, I offered six and 12-packs where I would put two or four of the three-packs together (children). These were the SAME three-packs, just multiples. I would not be able to create these listings today because of the rule about unique UPC codes for multipacks and because I didn’t use GS1 codes for the three-pack. At the time, however, I could, and my listings are grandfathered. They aren’t live because I sold out. I never sold any of the multipacks (live and learn) so I had them returned and broke them down into single three packs and sold them that way. As a side note, multipacks are not always good sellers.
- YES. I threw you off there. Variations in electronics are different than other categories. Just be aware that if you are offering a service component, the buyer still has to receive something physical in the package that explains what they are getting. Email delivery is not good enough. In the case of the phone system, the main product is a PBX with a certain number of handsets (usually 4). Variations can include additional handsets plus the PBX. Why is this the case? Because this is how business buyers buy phone systems. They save money on the handsets by buying in bulk. I would have my client sell this in Amazon’s B2B marketplace rather than consumer. They could offer huge volumes of handsets at reduced prices. What if the handsets were different colors like black, gray and white? First of all, they rarely ever are. But if you had colors, you could offer the variation. “Amazing PBX (blah blah tech specs) Plus Handsets – Multiple Colors” is the parent. “Amazing PBX (blah blah blah tech specs) Plus Handsets – 4, Black” is the child. The choices would be number of handsets and color. What if a buyer wanted an odd number of handsets? They’d buy your bundle and then several separate handsets to get to their desired number.
How well did you do? Are there tricky items in your inventory right now?
People sometimes confuse a multipack with a bundle. They are NOT the same. A multipack is a package with multiples of the same item. Think about boy’s socks and all the special back-to-school multipacks where you can get 10 socks for $25, normally $3 a pair when sold solo. For a multipack you MUST have the manufacturer’s UPC code for the multipack. The items must be contained in one retail/manufacturer’s package and not a bunch of solo items wrapped in shrink wrap or a poly bag. A bundle is different items put together. So maybe the manufacturer offers white socks and black socks individually and you want to create a BUNDLE of white and black socks. You can do that. You still need a unique UPC code for that bundle or a GTIN exemption. What if the manufacturer sells a bag of mixed white and black socks? Then that is its own listing and you have to sell their bundle and not create your own. What if you wanted to bundle different types of socks together – ankle, mid-calf and knee-high – with different colors? You can create that bundle if it is not offered by the manufacturer, but you need a UPC code AND it needs to be clear that this is YOUR bundle and not the manufacturer’s. Clear now? Nope. And that’s just socks!
Variations, multipacks and bundles are confusing. We see a lot of honest mistakes every day. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t judge us by our intentions. We offer audits to our clients either as part of a reinstatement or as clean up after a reinstatement. Now, we are opening the service up to every seller. If you are concerned about the state of your listings or have questions about setting up your listings, contact us for:
- Variable audits – make sure your parent and children are set up correctly. We’ll tell you what we find and help you fix the listings.
- Comprehensive Listing audits – We look at every aspect of your listing from your pictures to your bullets, titles, variations, bundles, etc. for possible compliance problems. Is this a California Prop 64 product? Is your title too long? Are you using the proper white as your picture background? We can help you identify and clean up listing mistakes before Amazon makes you do it the hard way.
- Bundle audits – are your bundles set up properly? Do your variations make sense? Who should the brand be on your bundle? Do you have GS1 UPC codes?
- Reviews audits – are you concerned about fake/bad actor reviewers on your listings? Wondering why Amazon thinks you are manipulating reviews? We look at the reviews and reviewers to help you figure out what is going on.
- Marketing audits – we look at all your marketing programs for compliance issues including review programs, inserts, emails, ManyChat campaigns and more.
Part of what makes listings hard is that the rules are spread out in different places on Amazon. You have the style guide, you have listing rules (general) and you have category rules (specific). When there is conflict, the category rules trump the general rules:
Amazon Listing Style Guide:
Policies for Writing Listings:
Category Style Guide:
 For those of you who are about to point out that all single products with only one size an no variations are considered a child with no parent or “orphans,” by Amazon, I’m specifically talking here about orphans that are created by deleting a parent ASIN vs. orphans that are created that way from the beginning. The trick is getting the relationship fixed. Orphans aren’t bad when done properly.
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- From Wired – Amazon Third Party apps are getting a shakedown over privacy concerns. Read that story HERE.
- “I love Amazon – let’s break it up”. In a new Pivot podcast, Scott Galloway describes Amazon from many angles and really sums up the friction between Amazon and the selling community. In another podcast from the same media group, The Land of The Giants podcast is spending an entire season dissecting Amazon, including in-depth interviews with various Amazon sellers. You can find both podcasts HERE
- The FTC continues its’ inquiry into Amazon. “The FTC is interviewing merchants to determine whether the e-commerce giant is using its market power to hurt competition,” begins this extensive story from Bloomberg. Read the rest HERE
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