Cate Baum wrote an excellent piece on “Mythbusting the Amazon Algorithm- Reviews and Ranking for Authors” that I think everyone should read. Cate Baum is the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of Self-Publishing Review and a former search expert. She knows her stuff. Earlier this year she had grown tired of all the misleading information that was being circulated amongst the Indie Author community about how Amazon’s rankings work. She decided she wanted to tackle the biggest myths and set people straight.
I highly recommend reading Baum’s full article. She even wrote a Part II since part one was so well received. (Thank you to @AssaphMehr for bringing both of these to my attention!)
Here’s the highlights with some of my thoughts.
Myth 1 – Nobody knows how the Amazon Algorithm Works.
False. Yes they do.
Amazon uses an A9 algorithm. There are detailed manuals and articles that shed light onto how it works.
Myth 2 – Amazon has secret ways of ranking books.
False. It’s not secret.
Amazon use preset factors inputed into the A9 algorithm. Cate Baum provides a very handy list of some of the factors that it considers:
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.
False. Every search bar and the suggestions provided are personalized.
Just like ever other sophisticated search company today, Amazon provides a personalized experience for each user. That means the search suggestions you see on Amazon are different than the search suggestions I see.
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.
False. Amazon provides excellent guidance.
Look at Amazon’s author guidelines. Amazon is fairly helpful in this regard.
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.”
On this myth, Cate Baum is providing her opinion on Amazon’s node tree system for rankings and why she believes you’re not conning everyone by being #1 on a “niche” genre. I see both sides of the argument.
There’s no requirement that you have to be the #1 bestselling book for all of time that has ever been written forever and ever amen period. That would be a ridiculous goal. So any “bestseller list” is going to be a niche category in some respects. It’s quite an accomplishment to reach #1 regardless of the niche, even if your niche is #1 Book Written on the Third Tuesday of the Month During a Leap Year. That’s still impressive.
That being said, telling someone you’re an Amazon #1 Bestseller without any context can be misleading. But that’s you doing the conning, not Amazon or the rankings. And on this, I absolutely agree with Baum.
Myth 6 – You are advised to write to Top Amazon Reviewers and other reviewers to ask for free reviews to boost ranking.
False. This can actually harm your rankings.
Amazon has detailed guidance on how reviews can be solicited and what reviews will be allowed. It is also clear that a “Verified Purchase” is rated more highly than reviews that are unverified. If you don’t follow Amazon’s guidelines, you may find yourself losing reviews. (In my case, you may find yourself temporarily losing reviews even if you DO follow Amazon’s guidelines.)
My take from the research I’ve done on it is that about 50 reviews should be your initial target level to have a “proof of concept.” This is a good starting number to have so readers can get a good sense of whether people like your book or not.
Myth 7 – Nobody knows when the algorithm updates.
False. Sort of.
Amazon’s KDP Manual tells us that the rankings are updated every 1-2 days. However, we don’t know when the inputs and parameters for the algorithm are updated. We’ll never know that. This is proprietary and the secret sauce that is A9.
Baum goes on to include additional myths in her Part II. Again, I highly recommend you read the full article. It is very informative and well considered.
I do think Baum is a little too far leaning toward the position that these are all false myths, though. Baum is correct. Amazon does give a lot more guidance than the rumors that are circulated within the Indie Author community. However, there is still a high degree of opacity in the rankings as well. All of the factors that are considered in the rankings and how the factors are weighted are not clear, and I think this matters. I certainly don’t expect Amazon to provide this information, for a variety of reasons not the least of which is that people would game the system, but this shouldn’t be ignored either.
If I’m an Indie Author, which I am, and my time is limited, which it is, I only have so much time I can put toward marketing. I need to prioritize where I spend my time. It makes a difference if Amazon’s rankings puts a higher emphasis on sales conversions or page views.
Let me explain. If I’m trying to sell my book Pieces Like Pottery, a logical plan would be to have my book considered by as many people as possible. If 1 out of every 20 people that view my book page on Amazon actually purchase the book, then I want as many people as I can get to view my book page. It becomes a numbers game.
However, if Amazon weights conversion more heavily than sales and page views, my strategy could have a negative effect. Maybe a conversion rate of 5% is not ideal for Amazon and they prioritize books with higher conversion rates. If that’s the case, then instead of getting as many people as I can to consider my book, I would want to be spending my time targeting those readers I think have a very high probability of buying my book (and only those readers) because it would help my ranking.
Again, I don’t expect Amazon to tell us how these factors are weighted, but it does matter. I think Baum skims over some of this a little bit too much at times.
I also have a small issue with the tenor of the article. Baum doesn’t come out and say it outright, but it is heavily implied throughout the article. So much so, in fact, that I’ve seen it repeated a lot by Indie Authors. Baum’s article implies that Amazon wants your book to sell. This is true insofar as if your book sells, Amazon makes money; but I think it misses the point of why Indie Authors worry about these rankings at all.
Amazon wants to make money, but they don’t care how, (not within this context anyway). Amazon couldn’t care less if YOUR book sold or not. It means nothing to them. Amazon just wants books to sell, not YOUR book at all. And this is exactly the point of all the fretting.
If every book could sell to the extent that we all become bestsellers and wealthy authors, that would be excellent, but it’s not possible. So we end up competing in the rankings against other books in hopes that our book will be ranked higher, resulting in more search results revealing our book, which results in more users seeing our book, which results in more users clicking on our book, which in turn results in more readers buying our book, thereby helping the cycle to start all over again.
Amazon doesn’t care if your books sells. You have to care. If you don’t, no one else will.
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