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Match + Ranking = understanding Amazon for Authors

Amazon is not just the world’s largest online store, it is also one of the world’s largest search engines too. But, rather than offering up a list of websites to visit as Google or Bing might do, it serves you a helping of the products it happens to be selling.  The key to an author understanding how Amazon works is to accept that what we’re working with is a complex mathematical algorithm which determines which, of the millions of choices available, are going to be seen by the average user.

(Just a quick update: before we get going I need to make it absolutely clear that I’m NOT talking about sales rank in this post, rather the ranking that influences others things around Amazon. That is a whole other kettle of fish to be explored another day.)

Every search engine works in the same way. Items, from web pages to products, are indexed in databases and ranked according to a variety of ever-changing criteria. When someone does a search, the results returned are those that best match the search term used and also have the highest ranking. This match + ranking process is the reason why great websites with fabulous content are never seen, and it’s why your novel never shows up on the listings even when the person searching has typed in words that are highly specific and relevant.

Unfortunately, the days of any search engine returning anything based solely on keywords are long gone.

According to Amazon

Our work starts long before a customer types a query.  We’ve been analyzing data, observing past traffic patterns, and indexing the text describing every product in our catalog before the customer has even decided to search. Once we determine which items are good matches to the customer’s query, our ranking algorithms score them to present the most relevant results to the user.

The only difference between the Google and Amazon search algorithms is that Google focuses on presenting the right information according to a search query and Amazon focuses on presenting the product someone is most likely to buy.

Apparently there are 25 key elements to the Amazon search algorithm – that’s much less than the 200+ Google uses. They all

So what can you do to improve your book’s visibility?

This is the point at which we delve into the dark and musty realms of SEO (if you are glazing over at this point please bear with me, all will become clear – I promise). SEO stands for search engine optimisation and you may well be doing it to get your blog or website ranked against specific keywords on the likes of Google. But, often we forget that it’s also relevant on a site like Amazon – simply because it is one of the world’s largest search engines!

There are two types of SEO (search engine optimisation) that everyone needs to think about when promoting books.

  1. On-site – under normal circumstances this would be what you do within your website and comprises things like content, structure and internal links. In Amazon this is related to the page about your specific book.
  2. Off-site – with a website this tends to revolve around what you do outside your website to bring traffic flooding to it. In Amazon it is related to getting people to visit the page about your book – you know the one with the Buy Now button on! These actions can take place on Amazon and outside Amazon.

Amazon On-Site SEO

The primary element of SEO on your book page is Content – every online marketer knows that content is king. The more the better in many cases. For an author ‘content’ relates to the following sections:

  • title, subtitle and keywords
  • categories
  • book description
  • product description > about the author
  • more about the author
  • reviews
  • bestsellers rank
  • customers also bought/also viewed
  • frequently bought together

Choose your title and any sub-titles carefully, it is a core part of the on-site SEO and if you can get a keyword in there that’s great. Of course this is harder for fiction than non-fiction, but even in these times all is not lost. You can choose up to seven keywords for a Kindle book and these must be relevant to the audience you are hoping to attract.

You can choose two categories when you publish a Kindle or CreateSpace book. However, depending how people find your book, Amazon may choose to add you to other categories as well. For example, 101 Handy Hints for a Happy Hysterectomy (Kindle) appears regularly appears in three categories

amazon bestsellers

You’ll probably notice that only two of those are Kindle categories, the other is a physical book category.

You may want to choose a category like Fiction, but it’s too broad and highly competitive. Going for something very specific gives you the chance to shine and even hit the best seller list. It also helps you appear on other book pages

Of the remaining items, only three of these can be edited and influenced by the author and/or publisher. These are the book description, product description and more about the author. The remainder are outside our jurisdiction although we can influence them to a certain extent by other actions we take elsewhere.

The book description allows you to use 4,000 characters – that’s roughly 600 words or so. The product description (about the author) section is 2,500 characters, so roughly 250 words and finally ‘more about the author’ must have a minimum of 10 characters but you can use up to a page of A4 if you really want to go to town – however, I’d recommend at least 500 characters – that’s about 100 words. I’d recommend using up to the limit if it’s possible.

The first two of these sections can be modified wherever you happened to publish your book. If your book is published through the Kindle Direct Program changes will be reflected within 24 hours. If you’ve published a physical book through CreateSpace then it be 5 days before the changes are made. With systems like Lulu then you may be waiting a few days or weeks for the updates to be reflected on Amazon.

Fortunately, the final section, more about the author, is governed by the Amazon Author Spotlight and any changes take about 30 minutes to appear.

Descriptions and keywords

The descriptions above should be written to appeal to the audience you want to buy and purchase the book. Therefore they need to reflect their needs and expectations, this may not be the same as you think they are and may require some careful research before completing. Have a look at the descriptions of similar books at the very least.

Where possible you should be using keywords you know people are looking for throughout at a ratio of at least 2/3 per 100 words. Again, don’t assume you know the words and phrases people are looking for, in my experience we’re almost always wrong.

Researching keywords is a laborious task. There are several ways you can do it – the easiest is with a tool found in Google Adwords called the keyword planner. This nifty little application tells you how many people looked for particular terms on Google in the previous 30 days. You may be wondering why we’d bother with Google when we’re interested in Amazon. The reason is simple, humans are predictable creatures, we do the same things time and again and the chances are we’ll use the same terms on Google to find things to buy on Amazon.

Most search engines and Amazon is probably no different will check specific parts of a description for keywords. These often include the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

Frequently bought together

This is the holy grail of many authors. It’s automatically generated by Amazon and is the heart of it’s recommendation system based on what’s often considered item + item collaborative filtering. Effectively, your book needs to have a high volume of sales AND a great ranking to get a look in.

bought together

Customers also bought / also viewed

These may seem like harmless carousels but in reality they are a key factor in your campaign for online book sales success. We are all influenced by others, even by people we don’t know and if you’re stuck for a good read or a recommendation then you may well have picked up a book or two by following the links you find in these areas.

It’s worth paying attention to the books that appear in this section on your page. These sections are automated, based on what Amazon knows about your book and it’s customers. If the books being shown are in the same genre or about the same topic then you know you’ve got your description and keywords about right. If however, they are completely out of kilter then it’s a red flag that something is seriously wrong with your book description and keywords and you need to address it pretty darned quick.

also bought

To appear in either section against another book though you must meet certain criteria – you must sell books consistently or people must visit your book page. The latter is much easier to achieve than the former, but without getting people to the page you can’t hope to make a sale anyway. Therefore, much of your activity should be focused on getting your book page appearing on the screen.

Amazon Off-site SEO

Off-site SEO is always focused around getting people to visit a particular website or page. It’s often related to what’s called a link strategy, but assuming it’s just about links would be reducing its vast field of influence enormously.

Every action a person takes, such as visiting your book page, leaving a review or buying a book influences your ranking across the Amazon algorithm and this is adjusted on an hourly basis, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A single sale can push your book to the top of the category if you’ve chosen the right one, a lot of people visiting the book page can have the effect of making it visible on other book pages and a positive review means the book is more likely to appear higher in search listings. Therefore the role of off-site SEO is to encourage people to take as many of these actions as frequently as possible.

Ratings and Reviews

Have you ever asked for a review for your book? Not from family and friends but from your buyers and the reviewer community. If not, then now’s the time to gird your loins and step into a brave new world.

The interesting thing about reviews is that the more you get, the fewer you have to ask for as people are more inclined to leave them when there are others available. It’s also important to remember that you don’t necessarily need all 5 star reviews – the more you get, the less readers will accept them all as genuine.

Add a paragraph or two at the end of your manuscript inviting people to leave a review. Contact book bloggers and the Amazon reviewing community. Just pick your targets carefully, don’t annoy people who clearly don’t read your genre just because they have a great reputation elsewhere.

  • 101 Handy Hints for a Happy Hysterectomy – 90 reviews with a 4.3* rating
  • In My Own Words – 10 reviews with a 4.6* rating
  • LinkedIn Made Easy – 17 reviews with a 4.2* rating
  • Even my only fiction book thus far ‘Woman on the edge of reality’ has managed 20 reviews with a 3.3* rating

So what can you do to help your off-site SEO?

Perhaps they key aspect is to link to your book page on Amazon in all relevant places. Most self published authors I come across seem to prefer selling their books directly because they make more money that way. However, I prefer to go for the volume and visibility that Amazon offers and I’d recommend others do the same thing, at least in their early days.

I recently made a seemingly counter-intuitive decision to send my potential customers off my own eCommerce site to other locations to buy their eBooks. There were several reasons for doing this:

  1. the change to the VAT rules around eBook sales
  2. the problems encountered by purchasers post sale trying to upload books to their Kindle devices
  3. people are more likely to buy a Kindle eBook on Amazon than on any other website
  4. I could offer links to several locations including Amazon UK, US, Apple iStore and Lulu for pdf’s

What I found since taking this step is that sales of books on my own eCommerce site have grown AND I’m selling more eBooks via the other sites as well.

I could continue writing this post but we’re now at almost 2,100 words and you’ve probably fallen asleep. So, over the coming weeks and months I’ll be adding more suggestions to my 101 Book Marketing Ideas for Authors. Many of these are designed to get people moving and taking the actions you’d like that will help your book rank on Amazon.

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4 thoughts on “Match + Ranking = understanding Amazon for Authors

    • Linda Parkinson-Hardman says:

      I agree with you in on sense Martyn. My only concern is I feel instinctively that putting all our writing eggs in one basket, which is what the industry is effectively doing with Amazon, is not going to be good for it in the long run. But, having said that – we all have bills to pay. It’s that age old dilemma of the good of the community vs what’s good the individual and I don’t think there is ever and easy answer.

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