Nicholas Kinports

@nickatnight

Ecommerce Companies Are Hijacking Consumers’ Brains with the Illusion of Choice

In a previous article on the coming ecommerce mega-binge, I review eight trends that are conspiring to eat the future of all transactions lock, stock, and smoking router.

While it’s interesting to observe trends, they are nothing but a foundation to step into a bigger world and main line trillions in digital transactions. No, I’m not talking about crypto, though that’s a piece of a much bigger puzzle.

In this article, I’ll review five ways consumers (and probably you, too) are being manipulated into transacting online at an exponential rate.

But first, a quote:

“Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without.”
— Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded 2003

The deliciously evil (and oh-so-French) Merovingian character represents a program operating in the confines of the Matrix, a virtual prison designed to obscure the terrible reality of a fictional future.

And the faster we move toward a very real ecommerce-driven future, the more it seems Merv is spot on…

Humans are predictable animals, online and off

When Gerald Häubl and Valerie Trifts published Consumer Decision Making in Online Shopping Environments in the late 1990's, there was no way of knowing how the next 20 years would impact ecommerce.

Yet their study shows that while online shopping technology, platforms, and devices have come a long way, our brains have not. From the paper:

At the first stage, consumers typically screen a large set of available products and identify a subset of the most promising alternatives. Subsequently, they evaluate the latter in more depth, perform relative comparisons across products on important attributes, and make a purchase decision. Given the different tasks to be performed in such a two-stage process, interactive tools that provide support to consumers in the following respects are particularly valuable: (1) the initial screening of available products to determine which ones are worth considering further, and (2) the in-depth comparison of selected products before making the actual purchase decision.

Sound familiar?

Häubl and Trifts accurately describe the exact process most of us go through today when making an online purchase. Smartphone, voice, or regular old Google search, we’re all a slave to the same behavioral inclination.

That’s because we want to believe — deep down — that we are getting the best deal, finding the best product for our needs, or discovering the flaws and “trickery” before it’s too late. It’s the promise of the internet age and having infinite knowledge at our fingertips. It’s also what makes that red SALE icon pop or that “Limited Stock” indicator create a sense of urgency. We are wired to go for the kill when we see the opportunity.

Sale and urgency indicators play to our more primitive instincts. Image via endive

The reality of the fact is that no amount of research can get us out of the system, because our choices were already restricted the millisecond we began that very predictable process.

Product search is biased and easily gamed by authoritative websites

Search any blackhat community and you’ll find loads of content and instructions on how to manipulate Amazon search rankings. It’s no secret their search algorithm is somewhat infantile compared to Google.

That said, Google can’t escape search results manipulation either. The problem isn’t going away any time soon, as every fix to the core algorithms are temporary. There’s simply too much money in search for it to be otherwise.

When everybody is playing the same game of manipulation, the system may seem balanced. In reality, consumers that think they are getting the best quality results are getting a mishmash of gamed content that may change every second of the day. There’s no escaping it, but if you don’t have a deep technical understanding of search you’re none the wiser.

In an era where search platforms are evolving to compete for share of wallet on a two market front — advertisers with goods to sell and consumers with money to spend— nobody is safe, and seemingly good actors are anything but.

There was a time when journalists made a living reporting the facts in an unbiased and hard hitting fashion. Those times are, for the most part, over. The rise of digital media has thrown the world of journalism into a tailspin, and the vessel is being righted through the clever, and somewhat grimy, world of affiliate marketing.

Try an experiment: Google the name of any major news publication and a product. I’m partial to listening to music while I write, so I’m going to go with headphones. Let’s start with CNN:

CNN search results show many pages dedicated to affiliate marketing. Image via lonelybrand

Click any of the resulting links, and you’ll be directed to a poorly developed page on the CNN.com domain listing headphones and earbuds along with stock photos, pricing, and links to buy on Amazon.

What the hell is going on here? Is CNN now reviewing hardware? No, they aren’t. In fact, CNN isn’t even testing any of their recommendations to begin with. They are copying and pasting images of the products from Amazon’s website and making claims that the products are somehow “best”. CNN isn’t alone in this behavior. It’s the latest monetization trend spreading into the world of mainstream media in a post Facebook world.

There’s good financial incentive for CNN and many other major media outlets to shill products. Inspect CNN’s links to Amazon closely and you’ll see they are actually affiliate links, which pass data to Amazon when clicked. When users fill their carts and check out on Amazon after clicking one of these links, CNN is paid a fee from Amazon, typically about 4.5% of the total purchase.

It’s not uncommon, as most major ecommerce websites now offer affiliate programs to publishers in hopes of drumming up more sales.

CNN enjoys a position as an authority. Thanks to quality and unbiased journalism, Google and other search engines rank CNN.com pages highly compared to other websites that may have similar content. In our example, the result is that consumers click to CNN more often when looking for headphones, because CNN appears first in search results. Google can’t distinguish between a valuable piece of journalism and a list of the longest lasting Bluetooth earbuds. CNN knows this, and has manipulated their headphones pages to rank above others by pointing internal and external links from other owned properties to these pages.

The majority of consumers have no idea this is taking place, and likely believe they are getting the best recommendations from a trusted brand in news. The reality is much different.

Our attention spans have never been shorter

Let’s say that with enough work you could truly get the best and most unbiased comparison information, and overlay that with all-inclusive pricing, discounts, and shipping costs from various online retailers. What would that information be worth to you?

For the average adult, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. That’s because the digital age has created faster, more aggressive, and more addictive distractions. That stimulus has the unfortunate side effect of reducing or splintering attention spans.

Today we’re moving toward a world of walled gardens, where individual companies curate their own experiences designed to keep you in their experiences for as long as possible. And the longer you stay in their world, the more you’ll buy from them.

Only five years ago it was inconceivable to think that Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix would be in an all out war over the future of media. Yet here we are, trying to figure out who has that song we heard on the radio, or who has the latest Marvel superhero show on streaming.

Because this competition is just getting started, consumers aren’t seeing the big picture. As the major players erect walls that prevent consumers from transitioning easily from one experience to the other it becomes exhausting to compare products, services, and prices. Thanks to shortened attention spans, cognitive wear out will likely happen before the discipline to compare across platforms prevails. There’s certainly precedent that it works; remember when the government had to actually pass a law forcing mobile phone carriers to allow you to port you number from one to the other?

What’s the point?

Like Neo in the Matrix, one you unplug there’s no going back. The world of ecommerce starts to look less like a paradise and more like a prison. And choice certainly isn’t part of the equation.

Creating a false reality of accomplishment by giving consumers enough choices — but not too many — helps satisfy our desire to research and compare without the risk of us leaving an company’s digital ecosystem, and everybody from Google to CNN to Amazon is on the take.

In future additions to this series I will focus on how smaller businesses can take advantage of these ideas to grow, and the reasons why now is the best time to be pursuing the ecommerce journey.

Nicholas Kinports is an entrepreneur and technologist creating products and services aligned with the next trends in consumer behavior. He also writes at lonelybrand.com, and can be contacted on Twitter.

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