Keys to Understanding Amazon’s Algorithms

by | Jul 17, 2013

by Penny Sansevieri (@BookGal)

Penny has been marketing books online longer than just about anyone. I had the great pleasure to meet her a couple of months ago, after we had known each other for years. It was a real treat. But not as big as the treat she has in store for readers today, as Penny walks you through how to understand the formulas that Amazon uses throughout its site, and which can bring your book to the attention of millions of people. This is critical stuff, so dig right in.

Did you know that much like Google, Amazon is its own search engine? The Amazon algorithm, though not publicized directly by Amazon, is something that can really help to boost the exposure for your book once you understand it.

When you’re looking for better ranking with Google, most search engine optimization (SEO) experts will tell you to look at keywords and tags as well as on-and off-page SEO factors. The same is true for Amazon though there is one additional component Google does not have: categories. For this piece, we’ll dig into two main elements of Amazon ranking: keywords and categories, both of which can greatly affect your page/book exposure.

Keyword Searches

First up are keywords. Have you given much thought to your keywords in your title, subtitle, and description? Most authors I speak with haven’t really thought much about this. Often with fiction it’s tougher, obviously, but there are also ways around this.

You’re allowed to use seven keywords or keyword strings within the Amazon page. This is the back end of the site, meaning the place where you upload your book so knowing what your keywords are is important. This means keywords that are popular in your market. How do you find these? When you type in a word on Google, the search engine offers you suggestions.

For example, if you type in the word “cooking” it’ll come up with cooking for singles, gluten-free cooking, etc. The same thing is true for Amazon. Type in the word “cooking” and the terms “cooking for one” and “cooking for two” pop up automatically. What does this mean? It means that if you have a book that works with these keywords, you should consider including them in your title, subtitle, and/or book description on Amazon.

When I was trying to decide what to name my book: How to Sell Books by the Truckload on Amazon I input the search term: selling books on Amazon. When you search this way, my book comes up on the first page (a good thing). During this search process, I noted all of the other titles that popped up first. Many of them were just titled: Selling Books on Amazon (smart authors) which digs right into the keywords and that’s what you want. That’s why you want to run this search.

Ideally, since you’re allowed seven keywords or keyword strings on Amazon I would suggest doing searches for enough keywords to fill the keyword section in your book listing. You’ll also use these in your description on your actual Amazon page.

Making Use of Your Keywords

Now that you have your keywords, here’s where to use them:

Book listing in the back end of Amazon: You can do this via your Amazon publisher account or Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) account. If you have neither, this means you will have to go through your publisher to get this fixed, or ask them what keywords they selected for you and if they aren’t exactly right for the book, suggest that they change them. Be careful with this, though. Some publishers don’t like it when their authors become involved in their Amazon listing. Just explain to them that it will help your sales, which helps them, too.

The interesting thing with keywords is that you can change them pretty often. Why would you do this? Well, first of all to test them. You want to be sure you are using the right words and you won’t always know this until you test it, especially if you’re dealing with a cluttered market like diet or business. I would suggest testing keywords for two weeks, and seeing how they do. At the two-week point you should start to see either a sales increase or nothing at all. If it’s the latter, then you may want to get in there and adjust the keywords accordingly.

Book Title, Subtitle, and Description: Most of you reading this probably already have your book listed on Amazon so changing the title and/or subtitle may be a moot point. But there’s still the book description which can go a long way to optimizing your page. For those of you who don’t have a subtitle on your book, you can still add it to the back end of Amazon. I’ve done this numerous times, and yes, it still counts towards your ranking as Amazon will pick up all of the data on your page.

For your book description, there are some particular elements and keyword placing you should consider. First, make sure the headline has the primary keywords in it. In other words the main keywords you found. For my Amazon book, it’s “selling books on Amazon.” Then, let’s say you use some bullets to describe the various elements in your book. Be sure and include your other keywords there. For me it was “selling more books” (still different from selling books on Amazon), “making money with books,” and several others.

book marketingNow, for the word count, this gets tricky. While it may seem like you want something short and sweet (so many people don’t like long book descriptions, right?) this is where the algorithm either kicks in, or doesn’t, based on the word count.

You must have at least 500 words in your book description. Why? Because too little content won’t register well (if at all) with Amazon and Google won’t pick it up, either. I know we haven’t really discussed ranking on Google, but the book description does factor into that as well. You get up to 800 words, you can use all 800 if you want (it certainly can’t hurt), but 500 words is a minimum.

Another note about your primary keyword: it should appear 2 to 5 times for every 100 words in your book description. So, no keyword stuffing, certainly, but using the keywords in a way that will help ping Amazon’s algorithm and also get you some attention in Google, as well.

Picking the Right Categories

For most marketing people, the word “obscure” sends shivers down our spine. Generally obscure is synonymous with failure or, you know, something that’s impossible to find.

But on Amazon this is a very different ballgame. The best categories are the ones that are slightly obscure if not totally so. Let me explain why this is.

The first example is when a book hits #1, regardless of the category it’s in. So, if you have a romance book and you really want to get some great ranking within your category you might say that getting placement in “contemporary romance” is ideal and while it might be, I wouldn’t recommend it. Why? The category is too broad.

Look instead to dramas which are a subcategory of contemporary romance. At one time this narrow category only had 41 other competing books in it. If your book hits #1 in that category the Amazon algorithm can kick in and you might see your book paired with other titles, or on a recommendation list with other high-profile books.

The reason for this, aside from the algorithms we’re discussing here, is that Amazon is really just like any other store. Let’s say, for example, that you run a local Gap outlet and you see that the cashmere turtlenecks, which are in the back of the store, are starting to sell like crazy. You decide to move them to the front, figuring that the additional exposure could help push them even more.

Your decision to shuffle them to the front was a good one, you see they are selling very well. Now you pair them with  a shawl or a pair of pants. The two together do even better. Most consumers will like a suggested item that’s tacked on to something that’s popular. The same is true for Amazon; pairing items together that “match” will help to elevate both titles, in some cases almost equally.

Finding the right categories (much like digging through keywords) will take a bit of time. To get started, click on this link:

It’s really important, however, to pick a category that is appropriate to your title. Meaning that you shouldn’t just plop your book in a category because it’s niche. It needs to have some correlation to your book. Some folks say that if you put a book in the wrong category, just to get ranking, Amazon can remove the book entirely. While I’ve never known this to happen, I would still caution you to play fair when it comes to category selection.

Two final notes on categories:

  1. Categories change. Dramas, for example, are no longer a sub-sub category in romance. I don’t know why Amazon does this but I suspect that shuffling around these categories is helpful to its internal system.
  2. Print and eBook categories often differ. What I mean by this is that you may dig through the link above and find the right category, but making changes on Amazon may require some help from its team. This, however, is really easy. I have found that a print book listing and an eBook listing (though KDP) will vary greatly in the categories they offer.

When you find the category you want for your book, the first thing you may want to do is go to your backend and make these adjustments, i.e. change this category.

If your eBook is in the KDP system you’ll need to email them through your Author Central Page. Just hit the “help” button (again from within your Author Central Page) and email their staff. Most of the time you’ll find the email is responded to and the category adjusted within 24 hours. Their response time is fantastic. If you don’t know what the Author Central page is just click here:  You use your Amazon login to access your page. Everyone has one, whether you’ve claimed it or not.

Category Switching

I’ve found that switching categories around is another great way to get Amazon’s attention. Generally I don’t recommend switching categories too often, once a month maybe. First you’ll want to test a category, meaning you want to see how well your book does in that niche and then move it, once it hits the #1 spot.

Other Ways to Get Amazon’s Attention

There are several other things you can do to get Amazon’s attention, including eBook promotions (the freebie days through KDP) and also pricing adjustments. Playing with price changes (I recommend not doing this more than once every six weeks) is another great way to play with the algorithm on the site. Why? Well, some experts say that frequent book changes (new review postings, changes in category, keywords, and pricing) helps ping Amazon just like updating the blog on your website.

Google loves websites that get frequent updates and blogs help to do just that. Changes to your Amazon page have a similar effect. This is another reason why I never suggest that authors blast their books on Amazon, pushing for dozens of reviews within the first month of launch and then forgetting the page altogether after the book has been out for a while.

Keep adding to the page, enhancing it. Change up the description and keywords every now and again, fiddle with pricing and swap out categories. As long as you’re doing the right things for your book, the more you play, the more it pays.

Good luck!

book marketingPenny C. Sansevieri, CEO and founder of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., is a best-selling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert and an Adjunct Professor with NYU. Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most leading-edge book marketing campaigns. She is the author of twelve books, including Red Hot Internet Publicity, How to Sell Your Books by the Truckload on Amazon, and From Book to Bestseller which has been called the “road map to publishing success.” AME is the first marketing and publicity firm to use Internet promotion to its full impact through The Virtual Author Tour™, which strategically works with social networking sites, blogs, and relevant sites to push an author’s message into the virtual community and connect with sites related to the book’s topic, positioning the author in his or her market. To learn more about Penny’s books or her promotional services, you can visit her web site at To subscribe to her free ezine, send a blank email to: mailto:[email protected] Copyright 2013 Penny C. Sansevieri

Photo: Amazon links have my affiliate code.

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  1. Keith Pott Turner

    Hi Penny or and Joel, I was never any good at logarithms let alone algorithm. Why doesn’t Amazon publicize it? I’m looking for much better ranking with Google so I looked at the Keywords you described. My book is called Turner Trees by Keith Pott Turner, in the inside of the book it pronounces “Family history and biographies, A really good read is Turner Trees”. The title Turner Trees is not in my Blurb and that is what Amazon has used to describe my book. It does mention Turner-ology Trees and starts with my name Keith Pott Turner and the fact I am linked to Peers. Pioneers and Buccaneers. I think Turner Trees is an Amazing book, but I am biased. I am an expert researcher but poor at marketing. Maybe because the Keywords advice is dated and three years old or just hasn’t filtered through yet?



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