Beating Amazon’s algorithms


In this section, we look more closely at sales rank and search, two of the most important drivers of how well a book sells on Amazon, and we examine some of the things we can do to influence these algorithms and improve a book’s performance converting Amazon’s customers into buyers of your ebooks.

 Amazon’s algorithms


Computer algorithmAs we’ve seen, many of the elements that appear on an Amazon product page are generated by algorithms and will be different for each visitor and even for the same visitor at different times.

Amazon, like Google, Facebook and other online powerhouses, guards the exact nature of these algorithms carefully so that most of what we know about them is based on observation and educated guesswork, combined with the occasional snippet of guidance from Amazon. They’re also subject to change, so what’s worked in the past is no guarantee of future success.

In this section, we take a look at two of the most important algorithms on Amazon.com — Amazon Best Sellers Rank and Amazon Search — and one of their most important drivers.

NOTE: Aiming to beat algorithms is fair sport but there’s a line between reasonable and unreasonable methods.  Companies like Amazon are very protective of the integrity of the results their algorithms produce and will penalize sellers who cross the line.

The importance of picking the right categories


Categories aren’t an algorithm — you set categories when you upload your ebook file. But they play an important role in influencing algorithms.

Amazon lets you choose up to five categories (two categories by default if you’re a self-publisher). Categories dictate where your book appears on the Amazon site when users browse by Department.

You might be tempted to pick the biggest and most popular categories to list your book under in the hope of reaching the most people browsing the listings. But they’ll also be the most competitive, while smaller, more targeted categories will give you a better chance of getting a place on the all-important best seller lists.

Example: On a recent day, in the Biographies & Memoirs category, Amazon listed:

  • 12,263 Kindle ebooks in Biographies & Memoirs > Memoirs, of which 439 were new in the past 30 days
  • 1,733 Kindle ebooks in Biographies & Memoirs > Ethnic & National, of which 46 were published in the past month (and 2 in Coming soon)

So if a book could fit into either classification, it would stand a better chance of making the best seller lists in the Ethnic & National category. And this would, it seems, provide a similar promotional uplift to winning in a bigger category — in other words, if a book is relevant to the customer, Amazon doesn’t appear to discount its success just because it’s in a smaller category.

Smart Category Selection: Amazon ‘rolls up’ its categories so that sales ranking in a category deep in the tree also counts towards the more general categories above it.

Tip#1. If you make enough sales to qualify, you’ll get into the sales ranking of the higher category as well as your chosen niche. So picking a major category as one of your choices only increases the sales you have to reach to rank at all.

Tip#2. You’ll get more potential rankings if your two categories are in different trees  — for instance, ‘Literature & Fiction’ and ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense’ — than if they both roll up to the same top-level category.

Amazon Best Sellers Rank


As well as being of interest to consumers, Amazon’s Best Seller rankings are among the most powerful drivers of sales once you’ve got a Top 100 slot. At the bottom of the Product Details section, under yet another iteration of the all-important customer star-rating, you’ll find the Amazon Best Sellers Rank. This number — often in the hundreds of thousands — shows where a book’s sales rank relative to other titles.

Amazon also uses categories to break out best seller lists for each category. If a book is performing well in one or more of its categories, Amazon will list its category sales rank.

Getting on to one of these lists can lead to a big sales boost. As well as endorsing a book’s value in the eyes of potential buyers, best seller lists feed into algorithms that drive Amazon’s recommendations engine and search results. The higher a book gets — and the longer it stays there — the more it will appear to visitors in those key places.

Amazon Page Sales Rank

Click to enlarge

Comparing sales rank to sales

A book’s Amazon sales rank gives a clue about its likely sales – but only a clue since Amazon doesn’t disclose the actual sales-rank-to-sales ratio. It will change anyway over time (hourly, daily, monthly), and it looks like it’s influenced by where a book is in its sales lifecycle – it treats the same daily sales from a new book differently from sales of a perennial seller.

Tip: There’s evidence that the Amazon sales rank that drives these category best seller lists is based on sales volume, not dollar value. So a launch strategy that prices your ebook low initially, then rises as your sales ranking, review ratings, etc. improve, will potentially be more effective than one that starts high and falls over time. This is the opposite of the traditional strategy that print book publishers use.

Tracking sales rankings

There are several online sales tracking tools that let you track the sales rank performance of your book or competitors. Some also try to estimate actual sales though these estimates should be treated as educated guesses at best.

Examples of tracking services are:

All of these offer free tracking and some offer additional services or reports for a fee.

Amazon search: How to rank higher in search results


Just as you can optimize your website to appear higher on Google’s search pages, so you can optimize your book to perform better on Amazon’s own site search.

Here are a few things that will help your books rank higher in those important search results.

How to rank higher in Amazon search results

#1 Get onto best seller lists

Amazon takes into account best seller rankings and other popularity measures when delivering search results so that your hard work will pay off in attracting searchers as well as browsers.

#2 Participate in the Look Inside program

Amazon extracts keywords from inside the book and uses them in its search results. With Kindle ebooks, the actual ebook file is used for SITB so there’s no need to upload a file or enroll separately to benefit from this. (Amazon officially call this ‘Search in the Book’ or SITB).

#3 Choose a title with good keywords

It’s not always possible – or desirable – to have a title stacked with terms that searchers use; but if it is, consider this approach when you’re thinking of a title. Proof that it works comes from the new bane of the publishing world: ebook spam. Spammers create and sell thousands of ebooks of dubious value because they perform well on specific, popular search terms.

#4 Add a sub-title to the ebook title

If you have a short, relevant sub-title that can enhance your search results, you can apply to Amazon (through an AuthorCentral account, for instance) to add it to your main title. ‘Going West: Hiking in the Canadian Rockies’ should perform better than ‘Going West’.

#5 Link to your Amazon book page

Get links to your book from external sites, your Facebook and Twitter profiles and networks, your email signature, direct marketing emails and anywhere else you can create or cajole a link.

Amazon tracks where its site visitors come from and if they come via a link to your book on Amazon’s site, it looks more favorably on your book in its search algorithm.

Amazon’s logic might be partly based on the famous Google measure of relevance – how often your page or site is linked to – but it’s no doubt also self-serving, by encouraging you to favor links to your ebook on Amazon.com rather than other sites.

Incidentally, you can join Amazon’s affiliate program and earn a commission when you send buyers their way.

#6 Improve your ebooks’ quality

Amazon says it will mark you down if your ebooks are poorly edited, proofed and produced. So will its readers, so this makes sense.

Resources


For a more detailed look at some of the issues touched on here, I highly recommend two articles from social media consultant Carolyn McCray:

Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.

 

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