Many authors believe search engine optimization (SEO) is a cryptic mystery average humans cannot solve.

But SEO is simply crafting a page in such a way that it ranks high in search rankings. In this article, we’re going to explore Amazon SEO. We’ll explain why it is essential and how to apply it to your marketing plan.

Dave Chesson is one of the top Amazon SEO experts. He’s the creator of Kindlepreneuer.com, a website devoted to teaching advanced e-book marketing, which even Amazon KDP acknowledges as one of the best resources on optimizing your book’s marketing.

Why Is Search Engine Optimization Important for Authors?

Thomas Umstattd Jr.: Why is Amazon SEO so important for authors?

Dave Chesson: Amazon, SEO, is about getting your book in front of the right shoppers. A shopper goes to Amazon and types what they’re looking for into the search bar. When they hit the “search” button, Amazon decides whether to show books, which books to display and the order in which those books appear in the search results.

We have found that 20% to 30% of the shoppers will click on the book that appears at the top of the search results. That percentage quickly drops to single digits the farther you get from the top. Appearing at the top of the list increases your ability to get seen and your ability to make sales.

Thomas: A lot of people think Google is the dominant search engine, and it is for certain kinds of searches. For example, if I’m searching for a dentist, I’ll use google. But when people are searching for products, over half of the searches happen on Amazon.

More people are searching for products on Amazon than on all the other search engines combined, including Google. No one is going to Google and typing “mystery suspense writer” or “Amish romance.” For authors, Amazon is where you want to rank at the top.

Dave:  More than 197 million people have an Amazon account, which means it’s easy to make that purchase right then and there. If I find a book I want to buy on another website that sells books, the problem is that I’ve got to create an account, make a password, and enter my credit card information on a website I don’t fully trust.

A lot of people will leave that website, search for it on Amazon.com and buy it there because they already have an Amazon account all set up. It’s a wonderful marketplace people trust. They know Amazon will always have what they want.

Thomas: Amazon took over the market by simply caring about the customer—the book readers. The traditional publisher’s customers are Barnes and Noble and Amazon and other retail channels, but Amazon customers are the actual humans who are reading books. That has been their secret sauce.

Why is SEO so hard or scary for so many authors?

Three Keys to Amazon SEO

Dave: SEO for Google seems to be a hard-core, billion-steps task. Amazon is more straightforward than Google.

There are three keys to Amazon SEO:

  1. Identify the target that you want your book to be shown to. When a customer types a phrase into that search bar, what are the phrases you want your book to show up for?
  2. Identify where you want your book to be indexed. To be “indexed” means that you are convincing Amazon that your book should show up somewhere in the search results. It might be the first book in the list of search results, or the then-thousandth book.
  3. Increase the ranking of your book so that it appears at the top of the list. A higher percentage of people are going to click on the first book than the fourth one listed.

A lot of authors might do one step, or they might do two steps, but they rarely do all three.

Thomas: The one I see the most often that authors miss is identifying their target. Everyone wants to rank on Google or Amazon, but they never think about what they want to rank for.

What tips do you have for the author who doesn’t know who to target? How do you identify that target audience?

How do Authors Determine What to Rank For?

Dave: There are three things to care about when it comes to keywords.

  1. Make sure it’s a keyword people actually type into Amazon’s search bar.
  2. Make sure the books that show up for that keyword are actually making sales.
  3. Make sure the keyword is not too competitive. Too much competition means it’s unlikely your book will be listed near the top.

For example, you might want your book to show up when someone types “thriller novel.” Lots of people are typing that phrase to search for their next thriller. Books that show up for those search words are making sales. But is there any chance that my debut thriller novel is going to rank number one in Amazon for the term thriller novel?

No.

I think that’s why a lot of authors get scared.

Without software or paying for tools, here are three ways you can figure out how to identify targets, get indexed, and increase your rank.

Find out what phrases people are already typing.

Amazon has an auto-suggest system in its search bar. You can start typing the phrases you’re thinking of, and Amazon will try to guess what you’re going to finish typing by looking at what other people have typed in the past. As you type, you’ll see a dropdown list of phrases people have actually typed.

You’ll want to make a list of these auto-suggested phrases. You won’t know how many people typed that phrase. You just know that enough people have typed it, and Amazon thinks it’s a good guess. That’s how you build a list of phrases that people use.

Figure out how much money those books are making.

Once you type in that phrase and hit search, you can click on the books that show up, and you can see their Amazon bestseller rank. And we have a free calculator on Google which you can find by searching for “kindle calculator.”

Take the Amazon bestseller rank, put it into the calculator, click, and it will calculate an average of that book’s daily sales. You’ll be able to see a particular book made $48 or $4000 today. You’ll know which books that show up for that keyword or phrase are succeeding and selling.

Find the competition.

This part is more subjective. Look at that list of books and ask some questions.

  • How good is the cover?
  • How well does this book fit that search term?
  • How popular is the author’s author famous, or have I never heard of this person?
  • How many reviews do they have?
  • How frequent are those reviews?

You can also do a Google search to find out more about the authors of those books. Maybe they also write for Forbes magazine, or perhaps they’ve won an award for Best Fantasy.

Gather all that information and ask:

  • Did Amazon present the right books?
  • Can I beat those books?

Once you have those three things, you can start to know which keywords are going to be most beneficial.

Thomas: There’s a sweet spot where you don’t want to target something too popular, and you don’t want to target something too obscure.

For example, if someone searches for your name, your book will probably appear at the top of the list. But if no one is searching for that term, it does you no good to appear at the top.

Are there paid tools to help make that whole process easier? 

How to Find Amazon Keywords for Your Book

Dave: We developed Publisher Rocket software. Its sole purpose is to help you accomplish those three steps quickly, and that’s just in our keyword feature.

You can type phrases into Publisher Rocket, and the software will pull even more phrases for you that customers have searched for. It will tell you how many people per month typed that phrase. That number will give you a competition score from 0 to 100, with 100 being impossible and 0 being easy to rank for. That takes out the guesswork and saves people a lot of time.

How Does the Amazon Search Engine Work?

Thomas: Let’s talk about how the Amazon search engine works. Because a lot of people think it’s just like Google’s search engine, but that’s not true in some ways. Amazon can see how many people are buying books, and Google can’t. The dollar signs are far more important for Amazon’s search engine than for Google’s.

How does Amazon’s search engine work, and what is it looking for on a page?

Dave: We talked about how to identify the right keywords you want to target. The second part is convincing Amazon’s algorithm that your book should show up for that term.

When you publish a book, you have seven Kindle keywords that you can enter.

We have done experiments on this. We found that the words included in your title and subtitle have a more significant impact on whether or not you get indexed.

You don’t want to awkwardly stuff keywords in your title, but understand that when you put that keyword phrase in your title or subtitle, it sends a strong signal to Amazon that your book should be showing up in search results for that term.

Keywords aren’t a magical thing. They’re simply the words your target market is using when they’re thinking of the book they want. Those words and phrases make great sales copy.

Use the wording people use to describe their pain-point and think about putting that in your title or subtitle because it connects with that searcher. Amazon has said they use the title and subtitle to index, so we know it’s effective.

Thomas: Let’s talk about the title and subtitle because this is where the marketing and strategy overlap with the craft. I think this is easier with nonfiction. You can have a short title and use a longer descriptive subtitle that includes a number of your keywords in a natural way.  

For fiction writers, what do you recommend for a title and subtitle that is compelling for humans and still has keywords people are using to search?

Dave: You want to convince the searcher that your book is the book they are looking for.

There are three things that an Amazon shopper will look at before they click:

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Subtitle

You need to make sure that those three things answer certain questions.

How to Title Your Book

People searching for a nonfiction book are asking these three questions:

  1. What will this teach me?
  2. How will I benefit from it?
  3. And who is this for?

Fiction readers are asking different questions:

  1. What genre is this?
  2. What subgenre is this?
  3. What can I expect?

A GameLit Example

For example, I am a hard-core fan of the GameLit/LitRPG genre. Game LitRPG is literature about role-playing games, and it is a subgenre of GameLit, which is usually where the person is trapped in a video game and has to fight his way out.

If I look at a book cover for a GameLit book, there is no image or symbol you can place on that cover that tells me immediately that this isn’t just another fantasy book. You must communicate it somewhere else. That means you must tell me in the title or subtitle.

For instance, the cover of one of my favorite GameLit books has an image of a female character fighting a giant spider that’s trying to kill her. The cover might indicate it’s fantasy, but it doesn’t tell me it’s GameLit.

This author used a one-word title, and between the cover and the title I knew it was fantasy, but it was her subtitle told me what I wanted to know. The subtitle was “Epic GameLit RPG.”

Those are probably keywords she has investigated. But more importantly, to me as a searcher, when I typed “GameLit” into Amazon, I couldn’t tell if the first couple books were GameLit. But this author informed me right there in the subtitle.

I knew right away this was my genre and sub-genre, and I knew what to expect. She had a good blurb and got my click. I bought it on the spot and enjoyed it.

Thomas: This is a pro-human technique because it helps you, the reader, make the decision. It also helps the fantasy reader who doesn’t like GameLit. They’ll know it’s not what they’re looking for.

Plus, they won’t read it if it is not what they are looking for and therefore won’t be disappointed. Often disappointed readers leave negative reviews when they read something they were not expecting.

What SEO Techniques Should Authors Avoid?

In the traditional SEO world, there is Black Hat SEO and White Hat SEO. Google has a lot of rules, and if you’re breaking them, it’s called Blackhat SEO.

Are there any black hat SEO techniques that authors should avoid on their book pages, or does Amazon control it so that authors can’t do what they’re not supposed to do?

Dave: You can do several things to give your book a chance to rise above the rest and improve its ranking. But the deciding factor on which book ranks higher is which book makes Amazon more money.

Amazon has information on which book ended up with a sale, and therefore they know which one made them more money. Even though Amazon uses your keywords to index you, they’re using the shopper’s decisions to decide your rankings.

That’s why you can’t use black-hat techniques. And that’s why Amazon isn’t being destroyed by black-hatters and people trying to game the system.

What Does Amazon Index At For Search Purposes

Thomas: Does Amazon use the book’s description (or blurb) to index the book? 

Dave: Yes, it does, but there are two conflicting beliefs on it.

One side says the book descriptions aren’t indexed. They will point to a tactic where they typed or copied a sentence from their description, then pasted it into Amazon search, and the book did not show up in the search results.

Other people will type in some crazy word that only appears in their book description, and when they searched Amazon, their book didn’t show up.

But Amazon has reported that they read the descriptions you use, and they use it to choose whether or not your book shows up for the description words.

But here’s why the two things mentioned above don’t work.

I believe Amazon doesn’t index full sentences because that’s not how shoppers type. We do not type complete sentences when we search. We type descriptive words, phrases, or nouns, and it’s never grammatically correct.

It’s they’re way to crawl and pull the information. It’s not about using a full sentence or some made-up word it’s never seen before. It’s looking for things that it thinks it should see.

Here’s a great example of this in action. When you go to your book sales page on Amazon, scroll down to the reviews. They now have this like density cloud at the top

where they’re listing certain words that reviewers have used to describe your book.

You can click on one word, and they’ll show you reviews that include that specific word or phrase. Those review phrases are not crazy words. They’re usually specific to the book’s title, a type of review phrase, or a genre/sub-genre specific phrase (a.k.a. keyword).

That is because Amazon has said this is a Lit RPG book. Therefore, they’re going to crawl and index all the words reviewers are using. They’ll use the most common phrases.

Thomas: We should be clear and state that humans are not making these decisions. There’s an artificial intelligence neural network at Amazon that is using machine learning, and it’s training itself based on Amazon data on how to better rank books.

It’s looking at that text, and it’s running it through these ever-changing algorithms. It’s getting smarter and better at identifying words that matter, which is great.

Machine learning finds a thousand words that people said about this book in the description or in the reviews, and it determines which are the ones that matter. It uses complicated statistical methods to identify what those words are and aren’t and it’s shockingly good.

Dave: If they can increase conversion rates by just 1 percent, that means billions of dollars with Amazon, so they’re trying to learn everything and make sure they provide the best products possible based on the search.

How to Improve Your Book’s Amazon Ranking

The number one thing that boosts ranking is if somebody goes to Amazon and types in your keyword, scrolls, clicks, and purchases. If that happens, that shopper just sent a direct signal to Amazon, telling them that when this phrase is used, that book was the best choice.

Now, here is a hack I feel safe giving because you can’t “black hat” the system. When you do a launch, you have people who are enthused about your book and planning to buy it. Instead of sending people a link to your book, ask them to search for it on Amazon using a specific phrase.

If they’re the first person to type it in, it might take a bit to find it. But when they finally find it, and they click and purchase, your book’s ranking will jump up immediately. I’ve noticed that about four or five people doing this will help drive your book right to the top for that keyword.

Thomas: That is a brilliant, solid strategy.

Dave: This is just a tactic to give you that push to the top so you get a chance at being where you should be.

Thomas: That’s an easy strategy to implement. You’re rewarding Amazon because ultimately, their goal is to sell books, and they don’t care which books sell. If you’re sending people to Amazon to buy books, why not have them do a search instead?

Does Amazon Customize Search Results Per User?

Dave: Yes, and they’re hard-core about it because it provides much better search results. If they know what I’ve already been buying, and they know, they’ll show me things related to what I’ve already purchased.

Over time, Amazon will show you products based on what they know you buy. They also know that if I bought three books in the same series, I’m going to want the fourth book when it comes out. I’m going to see that fourth book more often than somebody who hasn’t bought any of the series.

This is how they make themselves more money. Because remember, rule number one is what makes Amazon more money. In the end, providing the right product to the shopper is not only a great way to make the shopper happier, but it’s also a great way to make more money.

So, yes, Amazon takes your previous shopping attitudes and habits and buying habits, and it customizes what books and products it shows you based on that.

Thomas: So just because you’ve typed a search phrase six times and you see your book as number one in your search results, that doesn’t mean other people doing that same search are seeing the same things.

Dave: That’s right. One way you can see what other users will see is to use Chrome’s incognito mode when checking Amazon. If you have Chrome on your computer, right-click it and then select “open in incognito.”

Incognito Mode prevents Amazon from knowing it’s you logging in. You’re browsing with a blank slate. They only know you’re in the United States. When you’re doing keyword research, use your browser’s incognito mode so that your previous buying habits and search habits do not affect what Amazon shows you.

Thomas: That’s a great tip. Firefox, Safari, and Opera have the same feature but it is called “private window.”

A Common Myth about Amazon SEO

Thomas: What is a common myth about Amazon SEO that you want to debunk?

Dave: People say nobody knows any of the information about Amazon and that everybody is just guessing. When I talk about these things, I try to clarify that “I think” or “I know” because I want people to understand which things we know and which information is our best-educated guess.

There are a lot of areas where Amazon does report what influences their decisions. You can find out by filing through a bunch of information. When it’s a fact, I refer to the source. When it’s my subjective opinion, I let people know.

Thomas: Any final tips?

Dave: An author’s best strategy is to answer those three questions about your cover, title, and subtitle. Not only will that help you with what we talked about–national rankings, people clicking and buying–it will also help you with all your other marketing efforts.

Confusion leads to no sales.

If you confuse, you’ll lose. If somebody can’t look at your cover, title, and subtitle and understand those three answers, then they’re probably going to walk away. Do some work there, and you’ll see some significant changes across the board, not just in SEO rankings.

Thomas: Dave, where can people find out more about you?

Dave: You can find me at Kindlepreneuer.com. Ask questions when you visit my Contact Me page. I’ll be more than happy to reply. Or you can listen to my Book Marketing Show Podcast.

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