How more than 1,200 popular online shops manipulate customers

More than 1,200 of the most visited English language shopping websites manipulate customers. Partly with illegal “dark patterns”, as a study published on Tuesday found out.

When sales fail completely, potential customers drop out in large numbers and leave carts filled with carts, e-commerce companies are puzzled. Was it because of the competitor’s lower price? The color of the buttons? The product photos or the font size? The solution to the conversion puzzle can usually only be found with hard analysis work or with expensive tools. There are simply too many conversion levers.

The manipulative dark patterns

In addition to the obvious conversion screws such as pricing policy, design or range optimization, voucher codes and product bundles and seductive dark patterns are in the e-commerce toolbox. They are supposed to encourage potential customers to make more and or more expensive purchases through manipulation that is not always legal. A study by Princeton University and the University of Chicago published on Tuesday shows which of these methods e-commerce companies use and how they use them to fool customers into higher conversion rates.

11,000 online shops in the analysis

In the study ” Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites “, seven scientists from Princeton University and the University of Chicago examined the 11,000 most visited English-language shopping websites every month, according to Amazon subsidiary Alexa.com . For this purpose, the scientists programmed a crawler that calls up the shops and completes all steps to purchase. The crawler identified interfaces and saved them together with interactions for subsequent analysis.

The result of the analysis: 1,267 of the 11,000 shops analyzed rely on dark patterns. The more popular an online shop, the more likely it is to rely on manipulative methods for more sales and higher value shopping carts. In 183 of the 11,000 shops, the scientists found 243 deceptive methods that are illegal in at least parts of the world. According to the study, the shops examined would use 15 methods that could be divided into seven categories. You have probably already come across some of them while shopping online, but also in stationary retail.

The 7 manipulative methods

Category 1: Sneaking

When it comes to sneaking, seven of the 11,000 e-commerce companies analyzed misrepresent and distort user actions. They cheer products on their customers without prior consent by having their systems secretly put the products in their shopping carts. This also includes delayed notification of additional costs or hidden subscriptions.

Category 2: Urgency

With methods in the Urgency category, 361 of the 11,000 shops analyzed believe that their customers are of urgency. For example, they set deadlines within which customers have to purchase the desired items in order to receive special prices.

Category 3: Misdirection

Using misdirection methods, customers are asked in an up- and cross-sell manner whether they want to buy a rim cleaner for their favorite rims for an extra charge. The crux of the matter: The button for confirming, for example, has a red background, while the button for rejecting it is colorless. 164 of the online shops analyzed by the universities use these practices.

Category 4: Social Proof

Social proof is a popular method in e-commerce that aims to increase the likelihood of purchase through product reviews and testimonials. In 264 of the 11,000 shops analyzed, however, it is unclear where the reviews come from and whether they were created organically or are simply fake.

Category 5: Scarcity

Using the methods of the Scarcity category, 581 of the shops claim to their potential customers that there are only a small number of items in stock and that they should strike quickly. Pretending to be in high demand also falls under this method.

Category 6: Obstruction

The obstruction methods are user friendly and user unfriendly at the same time. For example, subscribing to a newsletter is child’s play – unsubscribing through numerous and complicated steps is all the more difficult. 31 of the 11,000 shops use these methods to hinder their customers.

Category 7: Forced Action

Forced actions are similar to obstruction methods in the opposite way. In order for customers to be able to complete purchases, for example, they first have to subscribe to the newsletter, like the shops’ Facebook page or enter a lot of data, some of which is not required. Applied from six of the 11,000 pages.

The real number of manipulative shops is far higher

The real number of online shops that use these manipulative, deceptive, but also fraudulent methods is likely to be far higher. After all, in their study, the scientists “only” analyzed the 11,000 most visited shops. The scientists did not mention names in their study. However, if you look at the Shopping category  in the Alexa Top Sites service , from which the scientists obtained their data via the API, you will find some well-known names there. Among other things, Amazon itself.

Manipulating shops are not lone criminals

In their analysis, the researchers from the two American universities also found that the manipulating online shops are not isolated perpetrators. Many of the shops use tools and services from third parties. They were able to identify 22 such third-party tools. Not all of the tools and services are illegal in nature. The agency Beeketing is represented most frequently, with a customer base of more than 400,000 companies according to their own statements. The company from San Francisco offers tools, among other things to increase the conversion, the traffic from social networks, to enlarge the community or just one to “increase the urgency in order to maximize the conversions”. Other third-party providers involved include Dynamic Yield, Yieldify, Fomo, Fresh Relevance, Insider and Bizzy.

Dark patterns cannot only be found in e-commerce

The manipulative dark pattern patterns have been known for several years and are not exclusively found in e-commerce. Smartphone and tablet apps, for example, show users advertisements that can be accessed and paid for. A popular case at the time was Apple’s iOS 6 operating system. The integrated ad tracking should allow users more targeted advertising. The button to switch off tracking was hidden in the general settings under General and then under Info. So not in the general settings, but hidden where technical information such as the serial number of the iPhone or the utilization of the memory was available. At first glance, the tracking was automatically deactivated there, had Apple not used the double negative and deceived the user in this way.

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