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Here's why Amazon's 'Best Seller' badges aren't always what they seem

Those little badges aren't as useful as you might think.

What does an Amazon Best Seller badge mean? It's not always clear Credit: Amazon

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If you're like us, shopping on Amazon is just a part of your daily routine. But even if you're a seasoned Amazon shopper, the sheer volume of products can be overwhelming.

Fortunately, one easy way to track down the best stuff is to look out for helpful badges like "Amazon's Choice." These badges help certain products stand out from the crowd—especially in search results. The problem? They are frequently employed by merchants in shady ways, boosting products that may not be worth your time.

The worst offender is definitely the "Best Seller" badge. You'll see it on lots of great, top-selling products such as the Amazon Echo Dot:

Echo Dot Listing
Credit: Amazon

The Echo Dot is listed as a "best seller" and it legitimately deserves that designation.

The "#1 Best Seller" badge really helps sell you on the Dot's usefulness. If so many people like it, it must be good! In this case, that's 100% right. We've tested all of the Echo devices and the Dot is one of our favorites. But it's important to note the part that comes after the badge: "in Home Audio Speakers."

That's the category that the Dot is dominating. And it's a big, legitimate category. There is a lot of competition there. But there are lots of other, smaller categories where products can quickly jump to the top in sales and earn a "Best Seller" badge. In some cases, the best-selling products have nothing to do with the category.

Take a simple search for something like "Wireless Headphones" on Amazon. The results look something like this:

Search Results
Credit: Amazon

When you search for "wireless headphones" you will often see multiple products flagged as a "best seller."

Most of the top 10 results are flagged as "Best Seller" products. Some of them are legitimately so, but then there are products like the Hussar Magicbuds, $28 wireless earbuds that are currently the Best Sellers in the "Powersports Speaker System" category.

Product Listing

It's easy to tell a product is a "best seller" but less obvious why it is winning that badge.

What else is in the "Powersports Speaker System" category? A litany of speakers and wiring primarily used on motorcycles, boats, and jet skis—and no other headphones. This is just the kind of vague, low-volume category a merchant can become a "Best Seller" in without too much effort.

Powersports Best Sellers
Credit: Amazon

As you can see, the earbuds don't really belong in a category with speakers meant for use on a boat.

By placing these cheap headphones in a completely unrelated category, they've earned a very valuable badge. If you are shopping in a hurry—who isn't?—you may hardly even notice. They're a best-seller, they're cheap, and the reviews aren't bad, right?

Of course, as we have written about in the past, review scores can also be gamed. ReviewMeta—a website that analyzes user reviews for unnatural patterns—did find some issues. It doesn't mean the headphones are bad or that the reviews are fake (though that's possible), but I wouldn't trust these as much as I would other top-rated, best-selling earbuds.

When every "Best Seller" looks the same, it's up to the buyer to figure out the difference.

There's only so much that Amazon can do to stamp this stuff out. The "Best Seller" system seems largely programmatic, and Amazon has thousands of categories that would be nearly impossible to police by hand. But when every "Best Seller" in every category is given the same treatment, it's up to the buyer to figure out the difference.

Is it shady? Not necessarily, but these headphones were obviously put in the wrong category and benefited by getting a "Best Seller" badge. Even if this were an innocent mistake, we've seen dozens of other merchants doing the same thing across the site—clearly there's a pattern. As always, buyer beware.

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