header image

Amazon – Even A Smart Company Falls Flat On Its Face Sometimes

Amazon does soo much right …

Amazon does a ton of things right, almost too many to list, but here goes …

Brilliant layout

Across the top of every page is a massive and clear search box (this is a big site, and users are often in a hurry) whilst the top navigation is clear, obvious and maintains an air of consistency whilst changing subtly according to category.

If we divide individual product pages into three columns, the left-hand column contains the product image, the middle column has a product description (with star-rating), price, savings, delivery information and availability, and the right-hand column shows the shopping cart. Clean, simple and functional, the typical Amazon web page must be the result of hundreds of hours of research and eye-tracking studies. It’s a brilliant starting point for learning about information architecture.

Fast-loading web pages

The junk is loaded ‘below the fold’ after the good stuff has been loaded at the top. It seems obvious, but many websites are riddled with ads relying on a plenitude of third-party servers, or are lazily designed to load a sidebar only after loading a ton of junk. There’s nothing worse than a browser rendering a page as you read it, or content ‘hanging’ because some naff advertising network can’t afford fast servers.


Reviews are the  heart of Amazon. How many of us spend time checking out the reviews before purchasing a product?

Amazon manages to keep obvious spam out by insisting on proof of identity before a review can be left (you have to buy a product  first). They also promote the use of real names to inculcate a sense of personal responsibility (thus reducing their spam workload) and clearly have human reviewers double-checking reviews.

Users can rate each other’s reviews (‘3 of 6 people found the following review helpful’) and can leave their own responses to reviews. Reviews have a thousand-word limit and in the case of books many people choose to give a concise and step-by-step overview (which paradoxically often adds to the desirability of the book) whilst others leave a more generic ‘impression’ (which is just as useful).


Wishlists are a brilliant concept.They’re all about the dream – the dream that one day you’ll be able to buy product X (or your loved ones can buy it for you :-)) and in the meantime your dream is safely stashed away in a little box on a far-distant website.


Using their huge database and seeing how the great crowd flows (i.e. what you and I and everyone else buys) it’s easy enough for Amazon to figure out what products are likely to interest which type of customer (which is a bit humbling, as it implies that we’re not so unique after all). And Amazon lets us know  discreetly about those recommendations at every opportunity. Even in our emails (I think I’m getting too many of those emails, Amazon :-) ).

Delivery –

– and over-delivery. And how!
Everything’s made easy at every turn, and then your parcel arrives on your doorstep quicker than expected, and it’s in that lovely, functional, neat little cardboard packet with the logo on it and at that point the Pavlovian responses kick in as you sign for the packet and hurry indoors and tear open the cardboard – !

(Oh. Is that just me?)

Amazon’s professional through and through, and consistently professional, too.


But Amazon also does some things wrong …


Years ago Amazon had delusions about entering the Search Engine market with its own search engine, the ludicrously named A9 (which utilised the Google index). My memory of A9 is of an utterly mediocre search engine.

But A9 also powered (and still powers) Amazon product search.

And boy, is it crap!

It’s not too bad on the broad range of categories but it’s hopeless with books. Unless you enter the exact title of your book you’ll get ‘Your search did not match any products. ‘

Here are some Amazon search results, and see if you can work out what the original title of the book was: :-)

‘Your search “Chin Shakes The World: The Rise of the Hungry Nation ” did not match any products.’

‘Your search “China Shakes The borld: The Rise of the Hungry Nation” did not match any products.’

‘Your search “akes The World: The Rise of the Hungry Nation” did not match any products. ‘


On other products the search isn’t quite so obviously bad:

‘Your search “ilter Cartridge” did not match any products in: Kitchen & Home’

‘Your search ” Filter artridge” did not match any products. Did you mean: filter cartridge’.  (Success!)


What, exactly, is the point of a search engine where you need to know precisely what you want before the ‘search engine’ will deliver a result? Because of the incompetence of Amazon’s ‘search engine’ I now use Google to find the ISBN of any book whose title or author I don’t exactly remember, and then paste that ISBN into the Amazon search box.


Wishlists are grand but because they’re wishlists (things we wish for) they end up getting very long and spread over many pages. It would be so nice if there was the option to show as many items as we want on one page. Easier to scan and  easier to pick out titles we may have bought elsewhere or no longer want.

But the biggest bugbear of all is that bought items aren’t automatically removed from a wishlist. Have I missed something here? Is there a magic button somewhere? Who on earth wants to buy something from a wishlist, or have something bought for them, and then have to hunt through that same wishlist to manually remove the item from it?


Subtle spam still gets through i.e.people kick-starting or promoting their own or their mates’ books. There are give-away signs (e.g. look at their other reviews if you’re suspicious) but why make the spammer’s jobs any easier by listing them all?

There are also those who don’t buy the book but just want to vent their anger at the author.

A little trick if you don’t like a product is to leave a one-star recommendation rather than the two or three star recommendation it probably deserves, and on a long-tail product that doesn’t get too many reviews there’s a high chance enough people will like your recommendation for it to appear in the high-visibility ‘Most helpful critical review’ column.

Feedback and Complaints

Years ago I wrote to Amazon and pointed something out and in response got a cookie-cutter letter reply.

If I remember rightly it was one of those corporate replies that make the customer feel worthless and in the wrong.

I’ve never, ever bothered communicating with Amazon since. Have they changed? I’d be very surprised if it they have, but who knows?


You can leave comments by clicking here, leave a trackback at http://www.alchemweb.co.uk/amazon/trackback/ or subscribe to the RSS Comments Feed for this post.

5 Comments     0 Pings

By Anonymous Thu Jun 20th 2013 at 7:17 pm  

Amazon are a bunch of ****tards! Tell me why the hell a horror/thriller like “Cabin in the Woods” would be shown under the movie>comedies filter?

As funny as seeing people mutilated is I wouldn’t rate it as comedy

By Robbie Collins Thu Mar 28th 2013 at 7:52 pm  

Your comments about Amazon Search are misplaced. Amazon search isn’t the result of poor product design. It is intentionally designed to return items that are (1) in stock, (2) more profitable, (3) need to be moved, or are related impulse buys. They are aslo trying to make comparison shopping more difficult.

By Ed Thu Feb 16th 2012 at 11:25 pm  

It seems clear to me why Amazon’s search is so poor–it is a perverse form of marketing. They KNOW it churns up myriads of tangential and/or irrelevant items. But that is intentional. The get you to look at something else for a multitude of reasons, not limited to: 1) Promote a more expensive remotely similar but in the same category (possibly paid for by the vendor of the irrelevant item) 2) the item you want is not profitable, 3) the tangentially relevant items that did come up are more profitable, 4) they have you over a barrel and this is their way of flipping the mid-digit at you as they laugh all the way to the bank.

By tiki Thu Nov 10th 2011 at 4:46 pm  

Searching Amazon is just a big pain, I can’t imagine such a big company with many years in the bussiness, with such a mediocre search engine. Ridiculous ! I search google or other sites for an item, and then I go at Amazon to buy it if the price is right.

By dave thomas Fri Jan 28th 2011 at 9:30 am  

Spot on about Amazon. Perhaps too generous with your praise. Have to disagree on google. I entered “why does amazon search suck” and your page was 1st hit. Sure, they’re grubbers. They sense life on top is short and are looking for quick returns. Can you blame them? Just my opinion.

Maybe a AmazonSeachSux facebook page would get some traction?


Leave a Reply

Allowed XHTML: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>