How would you even know if it had?
The most common situations we’ve experienced with clients are:
- Sudden drop in sales
- Suddenly important keyword rank drops significantly
- Sudden inability to find product in search at all
- Suddenly no PPC impressions
Any of these sound familiar? If so, chances are some enforcement happened on the back end, and that’s what we assume is a “flag”.
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What we know about flags
“Flag” has always been the Amazon seller word for what we assumed was a penalty to a listing. When suddenly sales drop overnight, or keyword rank tanks, or our listing can’t even be found for some (or all) keywords, action must have been taken against the listing. After the usual troubleshooting, there are few options left, one of the strongest being that this is some sort of punishment or enforcement by the platform.
All of this, of course, is and has been, speculation. After all, there is no way of knowing how Amazon specifically enforces rules on the back end unless you’re an employee (or have specialized knowledge). This, of course, has been the source of many rumors and undoubtedly countless emails to seller support.
But is there any truth to all this speculation?
What could flag your account?
There could be any number of reasons for Amazon to suddenly throttle traffic to a listing. Rumor of such enforcement has been circulating since the days of “launches” and “blasts” with so-called rank manipulation being the first violation people assumed would get a flag.
However, now, as more sophisticated sellers, we see keyword triggers cause many of the problems we assume a flag indicates. We know, for example, that certain verbiage can automatically recategorize a listing into an adult category, thereby winning what we sellers have dubbed an “adult flag.”
There is also listing suppression from using prohibited keywords. We’ve seen this happen with listings using brand names in their search terms.
But there’s got to be a better, more reliable, way to figure these things out….right?
Well, thankfully Signalytics has “specialized knowledge” and is able to dig into the back end code of most listings. With that, we took a deeper look at listing violations, flags, and code tags. Here’s what we found…
What we found out
First, the most common; the adult “flag” which is just moving to an adult related category.
We know this levies restrictions on the seller as far as their ability to run sponsored product ads as well as relevance impact on certain keywords. Basically if your listing is recategorized into an adult related subcategory, you’ll likely see a vast reduction in sales due to ads no longer running and sudden drop in rank for many keywords (that are not considered relevant in adult categories).
Thankfully this appears to be easy to fix. It simply involves removing offending keywords and working with the catalog team to recategorize.
Next, we have something called the Simple Title Rule flag put on listings with a title over the style guide’s recommended maximum character amount. The flag exists, but we have seen no negative impact from it.
Listings with this flag still rank well for competitive keywords and index for most keywords in their detail page. There may, however, be unseen enforcement consequences.
This one is an interesting one; weak contribution (also no_weak_contribution) is a flag we haven’t been able to determine exactly what is caused by. In our experience, however, with the very small sample size of listings we’ve seen it on, the only common denominator we’ve seen is that the listings this appears on tend to have difficulty ranking through aggressive PPC.
This could be a sign of suppression, or an annotation that there is something else wrong that needs to be fixed. Unfortunately, however, we’ve seen ill rank effects even on listings that were doing well in the past.
Whether it is the cause or the effect, this flag typically does not spell out good things for a listing.
The reconciliation tag, which includes a reconciliation_hint#1 and reconiciliation_hint#1.score seems to be applied when a reconciliation has been instituted. This is the strongest argument for some type of enforcement taking place or an outright change being made by Amazon to the listing.
This tag also seems to only appear in listings that have had either a suppression or audit that verifies a policy violation (see below).
Audit and varient_reconciliation_hint#1.suppress
Here you can see that one of the “reconciliations” that Amazon takes is suppression (using something it calls an Offline Reconciliation Engine). Also, revealed through the audit of the listing we see the violation is listed. In this example it is hidden keyword abuse.
Aside from the Offline Reconciliation Engine, there appears to be a “Seller Experience Operational Tools” that enforces suppression as well.
Now here’s where things get interesting.
When an “adult flag” is caught and reconciled, then fixed, all signs of that disappear. So, if anything other than the category changes, for example, there’s a keyword suppression, that keyword enforcement and any attributed tags disappears from the listing once the offending keyword is removed and the category is changed.
We know this because we had a client with a rather risque keyword in their search terms and the listing was suppressed and the category was switched because of that. However, now that the keyword has been removed and the listing is back in the proper category, no signs of an audit or suppression or any other violation tags exist in the code.
Other suppressions and their audit notes do not seem to disappear. When listings that have been flagged due to hidden keyword abuse, for example, and the offending hidden keywords are removed, the audit notes and flags seem to stay, even after all ill effects of suppression are no longer present.
Here’s an example of a listing that was NOT a set of binoculars, yet had the term “binoculars” in the back end search terms. The listing was audited and flagged for hidden keyword abuse. The offending word was removed, and now the listing does NOT index for that keyword (but still indexes for all other words). No apparent problems seem to exist for the listing, yet the audit notes remain.
How does Amazon decide what to flag?
With the suppressions that had an audit, the reasons are buried in the code. Abuse of hidden keywords is very common, but we’ve also seen adult category shifts from keywords in the detail page. Thus, keywords appear to trigger many of these.
Amazon chooses to shift a listing into an adult related category whenever a specific adult related keyword is discovered.
Unfortunately Amazon does not share their master keyword list for all forbidden or restricted keywords, but at least we now have confirmation that they are enforcing actions on them.
Keywords don’t only impact subcategorization, though. They can also cause Amazon to take action based on whether the search and browse experience is being negatively impacted. This is why search term (known as “hidden keywords”) abuse exists.
Basically, any instance where a customer is searching for something and may find listings that are unrelated to that search query, are situations where Amazon takes a deeper look. Keywords, categorizations, images, A+ content, etc. are all elements that can affect that.
What we don’t know yet
As mentioned above, some flags or code tags are removed after the situation is corrected, while others seem to persist without ill effect. What we don’t know is whether the audit and enforcement notes will ever be removed. We also don’t know if their presence accounts for unseen negative effects.
Furthermore, we don’t know if there is a time limit on suppression effects. It seems most likely that once spiders crawl the listing after corrections are made, suppression actions should cease. However, how often the spiders crawl listings is unknown.
Basically, there are still a lot of unknowns about how Amazon handles suppression activities and listing flags.
What can you do to prevent flags?
Just because we don’t know the exact ways that Amazon enforces rules they are absurdly vague about in the first place doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do.
Signalytics is here to help. When Signalytics conducts a listing audit, we start by looking at this code to ensure there aren’t any flags that could be hindering progress. This forms the basis for our optimization and/or ranking efforts.
Steps to take:
- Careful optimization – Since the root of most flag issues with Amazon is keywords, it is important that you choose your detail page keywords wisely. Ensure each one represents a relevant contempt in the mind of your potential customers.
- Careful category choice – Just like the actual words you use in your detail page are important, so is the category you place your product in. The category dictates what keywords Amazon believes are relevant for your product.
- Careful imagery – Keywords aren’t the only thing that Amazon thinks are important about detail pages. Images are also a critical component. For this reason, imagery must also be relevant.
- Listing audits – If you have any concerns about your listing’s performance, or you just want to stay ahead of competitors, you should have your listing audited. An audit from Signalytics would include a look at the code and potential flags, as well as a detailed look at keyword rank and dominance potential, PPC dominance potential, and more.
As usual, avoiding enforcement and problems with Amazon boils down to having a solid foundation. A quality product, with a quality detail page, that serves customers what they are looking for on the platform, will usually win.