It’s that time of year when there’s no shortage of magazines (including Slate!) and Instagram influencers telling you what to buy. Another source of advice is Amazon itself, which appears to highlight recommendations from its vast ocean of stuff through an “Amazon’s Choice” badge. Your “best”-addled brain might be tempted by products with this badge—after all, who better to know what’s good than the purveyor of goods. Don’t do it!
“Amazon Choice” isn’t so much a promise of quality as a marker of popularity—and a faulty one at that. In a number of cases, the Amazon’s Choice label seems to have been affixed with all the care and skill of a robot flinging milk and cereal in the general direction of a bowl.
If you pay attention to it—as I have, in so many hours as a professional human product reviewer—Amazon Choice’s sloppiness becomes apparent. Its product categorizations, for example, often don’t quite make sense: an eyebrow and lash growth serum earned the Amazon’s Choice label in the category of “magnetic eyelashes”—surely someone wanting instant giant lashes would be disappointed with a potion demanding continual use for an eventual result. When I checked the page again a few hours later, the designation had been moved to a set of actual false magnetic eyelashes. While the category was now correct, these lashes had just one review (four stars) and were not available on Amazon Prime. “May arrive after Christmas,” red letters above the buy buttons warned. Hmmm.
In other cases, the category in which an item is “Amazon’s Choice” is so wildly specific as to be meaningless: A card game called Exploding Kittens gets the badge of best product in the category of … “exploding kittens.” The other contenders on that search page are hardly competition: They include games called “Unstable Unicorn,” “Joking Game” as well as an Exploding Kittens expansion pack called Imploding Kittens. Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is listed as the winner in the category “stila stay all day waterproof liquid eyeliner.”
In these cases, the label seems like a way to make random (if well-rated) things look enticing, rather than signifying an intentional recommendation of a genuinely good product compared to the other things on offer. In at least one case, the Amazon Choice badge was affixed to something outright dangerous: “Humble’s Miracle Solution A Mineral,” was, at one time, Amazon’s Choice in a category that began “jim humble mms miracle mineral.” Banned in Canada, it’s a bogus and harmful “treatment” for autism and HIV/AIDS, and was removed from Amazon entirely after the Daily Beast inquired as to why it bore Amazon’s endorsement.
Amazon won’t share exactly how they make the Amazon’s Choice selections with me or other product review professionals who have questioned the badge’s utility and framing. In response to my request for comment, they said it’s based on “popularity, rating and reviews, price, shipping speed and more,” suggesting that there’s some sort of algorithm behind it. (Given the mishaps mentioned above, it seems clear there isn’t much human curation.)
And yet, the Amazon’s Choice badge tries to impose a sense of editorial order—it guides you from a sprawling list of search results to something that was picked, cutting out the decision fatigue of shopping, making sure you purchase something instead of getting overwhelmed and wandering away without spending money. It seems more authoritative than a Best-seller or Amazon Charts badge—both of which are earned based on more straightforward numbers. But it is ultimately less useful than either of those—it’s just a loose label that alerts you to items that are popular for a vague mash-up of reasons. You’re probably better off spending a few minutes reading the reviews.