ProPublica has a warning for Amazon shoppers, i.e. pretty much everyone who shops: The results that come up first after a search are often not the best deals. Amazon gives preference to its own products or to companies who pay for its services when it comes to picking items that end up in the so-called "buy box," according to the investigative group's analysis of 250 popular products. In fact, "we found that the practice earned Amazon-linked products higher rankings in more than 80 percent of cases," writes Julia Angwin. In those cases, the average difference in cost, including shipping, was nearly $8 for what Amazon's algorithm recommended and the actual cheapest price, found somewhere lower in the list.
Shipping is the real wild card in the results. Its cost does not come into play in the search rankings—but only for Amazon-linked products—and customers see the additional charge only when they get to checkout. For those with the $99 Prime membership, which includes free shipping, all of this is mostly irrelevant. ProPublica floats the idea that this is Amazon's way of pushing Prime membership—lure people to checkout with a low price, then add on shipping while reminding them that it would be free under Prime. Click for the full story, which includes the hope of one small-time retailer that Walmart's purchase of shopping website Jet.com will bring competition and relief. (Read more Amazon.com stories.)