Reblog: Mythbusting The Amazon Algorithm – Reviews and Ranking For Authors

Posted by: Cate Baum April 30, 2016 in Features

How to get the best out of your reviews and sales to rank high on Amazon without the myths from former search expert and COO of SPR, Cate Baum.

Despite many educated guesses that seem to have passed into urban legend in self-publishing communities online, there are no secrets to the Amazon ranking system.

I have spent the last few months tracking down programmers, algorithm experts, and reading technical documentation about Amazon’s algorithm, and the documentation that is provided online by Amazon at Amazon Seller Central and KDP. What I didn’t do was talk to any authors or bloggers, because that seems to be where the myths are coming from.

My first takehome fact for authors is that Amazon’s ranking is not a great mystery that authors must slave over to “hack” into showing books in ranking. There are no “secret” ways to “trick” Amazon. If this is all a bit technical for you and you just want to make your book page work, I have summarized conclusions and action points at the end of the article.

MYTH 1 – Nobody knows how the Amazon Algorithm Works

TRUTH – Yes they do.

The Amazon Algorithm is an A9 algorithm, a pretty run-of-the-mill product search engine with a personalization built in. A9 is a company in Palo Alto that creates product algorithms, code that tells Amazon’s website how to sort and load product lists for each customer’s experience. Anyone who wants to read about how this algorithm works has to do nothing more than search for information online and read the manuals, forums, science articles, and a myriad of other documents that tell you EXACTLY how it works. You can even see samples of the code that makes it work if you look!

This sort of algorithm is an item to item collaborative algorithm. This means it works on a node system. What’s that? It’s like a tree of products, or a catalogue, put in order of hierarchy. That means the information Amazon uses to suggest and deliver products to you when you search for them is based on the finite terms used to describe products entered into its catalogue. The fact it is collaborative means it bases results on factors pertaining to the signed in customer only, factors surrounding that customer’s behavior on Amazon and online, and what is popular that day. It also learns about you, and retains those learnings for search and suggestions.

A9 algorithm – pic: A9

MYTH 2 – Amazon has secret ways of ranking books

TRUTH – None of it is secret.

It works according to the algorithm. The factors are already written into the algorithm, which has to be a clear-cut set of commands. There’s no magic here, and it’s simply a case of knowing what factors are used in this sort of algorithm. It’s true that A9 will not be interviewed by the media because of a competitor clause they have with Amazon, but that’s not the same as being magical and clandestine.

Of course, the one part of Amazon’s product promotion that is always going to be confidential is its preferences for pushing certain big-selling products on certain schedules according to publishers and their own agendas. These products, however, still fit into the algorithm and run quite nicely inside its parameters. Products like these are simply put on the site in clear view in ad boxes (such as Easter products over Easter) to push them, which works.

Ranking is influenced by factors that anyone can look up in Amazon documentation (we will discuss in detail):

  • A product that is priced well in relation to similar products, but that is priced in a way that will turn the best profit in relation to its competitor
  • A product that offers a description that gives bullet points or features that the algorithm will recognize in terms of keyword
  • A strong keyword in the title that will help categorize the product (I suggest a subtitle to deal with this)
  • Sales in each session period, which is 24 hours, compared to others in your category
  • How many times someone clicked on your listing to your product, known as Click Through Rate (CTR)
  • Spelling, grammar, editing, and quality of your interior, and also the quality of the cover
  • Number of verified reviews, helpful reviews and new reviews –outside of this, unverified reviews do not count towards ranking but do count towards social proof and CTRs (see below)
  • Product page is complete in all sections and meets Amazon Guidelines on word count, layout, and image size and quality used.

The MAMM Factor – Amazon’s Objective

Amazon has one objective for its sellers to bear in mind: Make Amazon the Most Money. Amazon expert James Amazio says, “Make Amazon the Most Money in 24 hours by letting them let your product be ranked higher than the other guys. Total Revenue = Number of Products Sold x Sales Price.That means that each 24 hours counts, so doing a giveaway over three days isn’t going to help Amazon make money, so this doesn’t help ranking or exposure much at all.

Sales and Rank

Sales are not straightforward numbers either. What Amazon looks for is the number of sales for a product with the best profit in its category (Remember MAMM?). So if your book is 99 cents, but another book is selling at $2.99 but not as many as you, it’s likely Amazon will recognize the $2.99 book higher in rank because it makes Amazon more money. This means you need to do some research on what is selling in your potential category before choosing one, and also before choosing your price. 99 cent books may do well in Romance, for example, but maybe in another category you’re pricing too low to show Amazon a good profit margin.

This is also true of certain “publishers” that force authors to price at $16 or more. While this might be their own profit margin covered, it leaves little room for Amazon to make money if the other books are $3.99 in that category, and it’s going to take a lot of sales to convince the algorithm to prioritize your book in ranking if the chances are poor for Amazon sales. It’s not a case of “less sales for more profit.” It’s a case of “what books sell better relative to other books in that category.”

CTR – Click Through Rates – Book Covers DO matter

If you have a high amount of clicks from the Amazon search list generated to your book page, this counts towards ranking. This means your book cover has to be amazing. It has to stand out.

After They Click –  Zoning

Amazon, like most websites, charts where people click on a page. If you hover over buy boxes on pages, this may count towards ranking/inform Amazon about that customer’s preferences for their next search. This means that advice pertaining to what matters on a page really can be burned down to one piece of advice: Make sure every section above the fold on Amazon book pages gets filled out according to Amazon’s guidelines.

If zoning counts, everything you can see without scrolling down, and that includes the number of Customer Reviews shown, matters. We’ve been saying for years that having decent copy and Editorial Reviews matters, and it does. Content of Customer Reviews? Not so much. To see how readers look at reviews on Amazon, check out our eyetracking results report here.

Conversion Rates

What does count is that if someone goes to your page, you need them to buy your book and convert into a sale. By having a properly filled out Book Page you are increasing your chances of that happening. Conversion rate is measured by amount of clicks through against how many sales are made.

MYTH 3 – You can figure out keywords that people will use to find you by typing into the search bar and seeing what is autosuggested.

TRUTH – The search bar is personalized to YOU and YOU ALONE.

This is a useless and possibly damaging practice being bandied about by bloggers who think they have uncovered a “secret.” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In this case, the lack of knowledge of how an algorithm works is leaving holes in understanding globally on this subject.

Amazon has a department called The Personalization Platform Team. Look ‘em up. They spend their time working on coding the search bar to serve absolutely personalized product lists to you. By testing this carefully, it’s easy to see exactly how this works. I spent quite a significant amount of time talking on Moz and other sites to engineers and programmers to understand and clarify this information, some of whom have worked at Amazon.

Testing The Search Box

Lately, my work at SPR has meant I have had to buy a lot of Christian non-fiction to study certain buying behaviors for Christian author clients. As a result,  I now have a purchase history that looks like I go to church and read about Christianity on a regular basis even though I don’t. Because of this, I am now served suggestions such as “The Bible Diary 2016” maybe because I bought a diary recently also, and “Hymns for Women.” I guess, because I am a woman.

When I typed “Illustrated…” into my search bar, suggestions are, “Illustrated Bible” and “Illustrated Biblical Stories for Children.” Neither of which are titles of books, but generic product words that maybe more than one product seller has used in their product description.

When my colleague in another location did the same, he got “Illustrated Sex Positions” and “Illustrations.” These suggestions are something of a more secular nature! And maybe because he has lately had to buy a lot of erotica for work clients, and maybe, because he’s a man he got the fiction suggestion, based on books he bought before that were bought by other people at the same time as this one shown. I did not see any of the same results as him, even if I searched for “Illustrated Sex…” It was as if our Amazon catalogues were entirely different.

The factors Amazon uses to autocomplete are as follows:

  • What you searched for previously
  • What you browsed previously
  • What you bought previously
  • What other people who are similar in demographic bought before in the same basket
  • What categories you search in more often
  • Products that Amazon thinks you’d like to know about
  • Social media use – Facebook for sure, probably Goodreads, but no others can be confirmed due to trade secrets yada
  • IP address history
  • GPS data from mobile
  • What you’ve clicked on when Amazon recommended a product

There’s also a good amount of Jedi mind trickery going on that you just can’t get into as one lowly author. It seems these myths came about because Amazon wants you to think your autosuggestions are completely based on your own browsing power, and the search bar obsequious. However, one test by the Baymard Institute found, “During testing, autocomplete suggestions were found to directly alter how and what the test subjects searched for. A lot of the test subjects perceived the autocomplete suggestions to be “recommendations” by the site, and therefore showed a bias towards selecting them over using their own query” when in actual fact, these suggestions came from their own preferences and history. You can’t second guess millions of combinations of each reader’s search history to figure out keywords, especially when the only tool you have is your own preferences!

Takehome fact: Do not figure out keywords for your book by seeing what autocompletes in the search box. It’s only based on your own user experience and nobody else’s.

If you want to be a real geek, you can go into personalization in this book by John Berndt.

If you yourself don’t like the idea of being tracked by Amazon outside of Amazon, you can turn off personalization by following these steps. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Your Amazon experience just won’t be the same.

MYTH 4 – It’s a job finding keywords to make your book discoverable and you have to do a bunch of tricks and resort to many author advice blogs to find answers and theories

TRUTH – Amazon tells you for the most part which ones to use in Amazon Guidelines.

Because Amazon is not Google, that is, it is an item to item algorithm model, you don’t have to struggle to define keywords in the same way. What’s in its catalogue is all it’s going to search for, and it’s going to personalize that so much that the best way to get seen is by keeping your words generic and broad for the most part, combined correctly with categories, and not apart from categories, which is usually bandied about as the effective way of doing this. It is not.

On this list, you will see the search engine will serve up results much more effectively when you use categories that have keyword requirements, and then you stick to those requirements. Here’s the link to the list. No mystery. Just read it off the list. Add it. Get seen. Most author who don’t get seen are not following the rules in other ways, or are using categories that require keywords without using the proper paired words on this list. Here’s another link to a guide offered to authors with fantastic advice.

MYTH 5 – If you pick a niche category to get to #1 you are just conning everyone that you got to the Bestseller Lists by exploiting the “loophole.”

TRUTH – Because this is a node tree system, you are not conning anyone, this is not a “loophole” and you are helping your book. 

Here’s a thought. If you ran in a local race, and all but two other contestants dropped out, and you came first, you would still be awarded the gold medal. Then you’d be qualified to run in a regional race. Let’s say in this race, you’ve had a bit more training, and because you won the last race a few more people have turned up to cheer you on. A few have written about you in the paper and online. Because of this, you manage to get the silver this time. And so you move up to a national race. Suddenly, you’re on TV, and getting recognized as a runner.

This is how Amazon works. If you get to number one in a niche category, it shows the algorithm you did OK. This places you (dependent on all the other books on sale that hour and how they perform) in a less niche category automatically, in fact, the one next along the “branch.” If you get a few reviews at this point, and carry on selling, you’ll move up again.

Anyone who says this is a con is obviously not proud of their book. Blogger Brent Underwood, who faked a book to prove Amazon has a “loophole”, should be ashamed. Amazon’s niching wasn’t the con. He was. He stopped two other real books from making the jump, and now some publisher wants to really publish his fake book! He taught us nothing except if you want to tell a lie and get away with it, you can.

That doesn’t mean you should have the takehome that there’s a “loophole” in Amazon. There’s not. It’s not a loophole at all, it’s just a smaller race to win. Ask yourself, would a multi-billion-dollar platform like A9 really have a loophole that some pundit who knows nothing about selling online could “exploit”? If you were to tell someone you won the 100-yard sprint and got a medal at the local apple fair, do you think they would say, “you exploited a loophole! I wouldn’t advertise that medal if I were you!” Of course not! They would congratulate you!

If you are a Best Seller in Non-Fiction-Cooking- International Cooking –Spanish Egg Dishes let people know! Next you’ll be a Best Seller in International Cooking, then Cooking, and then Non-Fiction.

It’s all about consistency and retaining sales. Amazon says, “When we calculate Best Sellers Rank, we consider the entire sales history of a book. Monitoring your book’s Amazon sales rank may be helpful in gaining general insight into the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and other initiatives to drive book sales, but it is not an accurate way to track your book’s sales or compare your sales in relation to books in other categories.”

MYTH 6 – You are advised to write to Top Amazon Reviewers and other reviewers to ask for free reviews to boost ranking.

TRUTH – This can result in some terrible, horrific scenarios for the career of your book and should be avoided.

Amazon’s algorithm can sense if you have been in touch with the reviewer, number one. This can result in the review being removed by Amazon or worse, your book taken out of the ranking system altogether.

One guy on Reddit recently wrote to say he had followed advice given on a certain author group recently, only to be reviewed with one-star reviews from Top 1000 reviewers accusing him of spamming them. His book was completely ruined. These methods may have worked some time ago, but now reviewers (me included) are pretty tired of unsolicited emails and many of us have removed our email address from our Amazon profiles.

The best way to get reviews on Amazon is to advertise your book using tried and tested methods that will not have you connected or communicating with the reviewer in any way. These methods include advertising on Amazon, Goodreads, and more notably for results, Facebook.

Number of Customer Reviews vs. Content of Reviews vs. Gifting and Swaps i.e. Free Reviews

First, only Verified reviews technically count towards ranking. Gifted books have to be picked up fast: “A gift sale counts towards a sales rank only if it’s redeemed within 24 hours by the recipient” so any review you get from gifting or sending your book out for free to reviewers? Doesn’t directly count towards ranking if they don’t redeem it quick enough. This means what you need are Verified Reviews, i.e. reviews as a result of a sale. Amazon looks at the number of verified reviews, new reviews (less than a month old) and reviews that have been upvoted as factors towards ranking.

Since June 2015, the algorithm has given “more weight to newer reviews, reviews from verified Amazon purchasers and those that more customers vote up as being helpful. A product’s 5-star rating, which previously was a pure average of all reviews, will also become weighted using those same criteria, and so may change more often,” reports CNET.

At SPR we offer a mailing promotion service to readers who buy and review books with a guaranteed number of sales, within Amazon Guidelines. Look for services that offer both guaranteed sales and reviews if you are looking for Verified Customer Reviews.

Social Proof and CTR

Getting your free reviews may help with social proof. If customers look at the number of reviews only, and you have 200 4 star average reviews, they may click your listing over someone else’s. This in turn helps your CTR for ranking. During research it seems between 40 and 60 reviews is the consensus between experts on hitting minimum social proof your product is good.

MYTH 7 – Nobody knows when the algorithm updates

TRUTH – We do. It’s in Amazon KDP’s Manual

Sometimes people talk about the Amazon Algorithm and when it’s going to “update.” By this, two different things are meant. First, we can talk about when ranking will update. Amazon KDP says, “Rankings are updated hourly but may take 24-48 hours to appear after the first completed sale.” Some people talk about when the algorithm will update when they want to know when Amazon will change the parameters, or how the algorithm functions and lists products. However, these changes are imperceptible to sellers including authors, and generally are weighted towards helping you sell.

How Can I Use This Information? Best Practices For The Amazon Algorithm

You have a good opportunity to fill out your Book Details correctly using Amazon Guidelines. Here are the main points to help your rank:

  • Get an amazing book cover to increase click through rates – plus, any other photos you add should be at least 1000px
  • Synopsis should not be more than 4000 characters.
  • Use 7 generic keywords that describe sub-genre, mood, and location, not words that relate only to your book.
  • Do NOT use keywords more than once in keyphrases because this can look like “keyword stuffing,” a spammy practice that can get you dropped in ranks.
  • Never use brand names or company names as it’s against Amazon Policy
  • Make sure if your category has keyword requirements, you use those keywords
  • Add Editorial Reviews because these go above the fold and will be seen a great deal more than Customer Reviews and give you a one-shot chance to sell your book to new readers – these are also essential if you put your book on Pre-Order, because you can’ t get Customer Reviews at this point
  • Use your Author Central page to link all your books. Selection is a ranking factor, so make sure customers can find your selection of books if you have more than one. Amazon is committed to showing series books on the same page, but you must tell them your books are linked by using the series details in your admin, such as numbering your books.
  • Merge print and ebooks, and different editions by writing to Amazon Support. This will merge all reviews for all versions of your book too, giving you a higher amount of reviews for your product under one listing with more selection.
  • Verified Reviews are a ranking factor, so the more reviews the better. Aim to reach 40-60 reviews overall minimum to hit social proof that your book is worth buying, and aim for new ones every month.

Read Part II here.