Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-commerce Web Sites

Publié le 6 juillet 2018

Créée le 6 juillet 2018

Today, many e-commerce websites personalize their content, including Netflix (movie recommendations), Amazon (prod­ uct suggestions), and Yelp (business reviews). In many cases, personalization provides advantages for users: for ex­ ample, when a user searches for an ambiguous query such as “router,” Amazon may be able to suggest the woodworking tool instead of the networking device. However, personaliza­ tion on e-commerce sites may also be used to the user’s dis­ advantage by manipulating the products shown (price steer­ ing) or by customizing the prices of products (price discrim­ ination). Unfortunately, today, we lack the tools and tech­ niques necessary to be able to detect such behavior.
In this paper, we make three contributions towards ad­ dressing this problem. First, we develop a methodology for accurately measuring when price steering and discrimina­ tion occur and implement it for a variety of e-commerce web sites. While it may seem conceptually simple to detect dif­ ferences between users’ results, accurately attributing these differences to price discrimination and steering requires cor­ rectly addressing a number of sources of noise. Second, we use the accounts and cookies of over 300 real-world users to detect price steering and discrimination on 16 popular e-commerce sites. We find evidence for some form of per­ sonalization on nine of these e-commerce sites. Third, we investigate the effect of user behaviors on personalization. We create fake accounts to simulate different user features including web browser/OS choice, owning an account, and history of purchased or viewed products. Overall, we find numerous instances of price steering and discrimination on a variety of top e-commerce sites.


Aniko Hannak

Northeastern University Boston, MA

David Lazer

Northeastern University Boston, MA

Gary Soeller

Northeastern University Boston, MA

Posté par

Daniel Le Métayer

Research director

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