Amazon began making changes to its search function late last year to feature own-brand products more prominently in results, despite pushback from engineers and lawyers, a new report alleges.

The report by the Wall Street Journal cited people who worked on the project. They said executives at Amazon’s retail businesses pushed engineers from the A9 search team to boost items that are more profitable for the company rather than most-relevant and best-selling listings, an adjustment Amazon denies.

The findings matter for several reasons. First, according to the analytics firm, Jumpshot, in a September 2018 report based on anonymous consumer actions on mobile and desktop, 54% of product searches now begin on Amazon compared with Google’s 46%. The same report suggested a high ranking in search results on the site “pays massive dividends". Most purchases come from being featured on the first page.  

At around the same time, the Journal writes, the company finally adopted the changes.  

Amazon’s internal lawyers rejected proposals to add a profit consideration to the algorithm, arguing that antitrust regulators might object to such a move. The news comes as the company is under scrutiny by a congressional antitrust probe in the US alongside an EU investigation, where there is concern over a potential conflict of interest between Amazon’s position as a retailer and as a marketplace.

Meanwhile, engineers took the view that boosting private label products based on what was good for the company contradicted Amazon’s much-publicised customer obsession.

“The search engine should look for relevant items, not for more profitable items,” said one person familiar with the project. “This was definitely not a popular project”.

Later in the report, one search executive, noting the retail division’s years-long effort to change the weighting toward profitability, said, “we fought tooth and nail with those guys, because of course they wanted preferential treatment in search.”

In response, Amazon spokesperson Angie Newman told the Journal, “We have not changed the criteria we use to rank search results to include profitability,” arguing that it has considered long-term profitability and does not give it weighting in the search algorithm.

“Amazon designs its shopping and discovery experience to feature the products customers will want, regardless of whether they are our own brands or products offered by our selling partners”, Newman continued.

Soon after the Journal’s story was published and reported in other outlets, the company issued a more forceful denial: “The Wall Street Journal has it wrong”, it told the Verge. “As any store would do, we consider the profitability of the products we list and feature on the site, but it is just one metric and not in any way a key driver of what we show customers.”

Sourced from the Wall Street Journal, Jumpshot, The Verge