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Amazon's algorithm

Why Understanding Amazon’s Algorithm is Important for Your Book’s Rank

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Last week I talked about how a negative review on Amazon can actually help sell books. This week I’m going to go more in-depth on Amazon’s rating system as it applies to book reviews. Full disclosure: I have no secret knowledge of Amazon’s algorithm. Everything I’m about to tell you is experience-based only.

I first realized something was askew with the Amazon algorithm when I had 16 five-star reviews and only one 2-star review, yet the percentages in the handy-dandy review chart that comes up for every product showed 22% of people rating it as 2 stars and, of course, 78% giving it a five-star rating.

I’m by no means a math genius, but even I can tell that 1/16th is not the same as 22%. I wanted an explanation.

Like any self-respecting writer, I penned a letter to Amazon’s support staff, asking them to adjust the numbers for me. I got a swift reply. Here’s what they said:

The overall star rating for a product is determined by a machine-learned model that considers factors such as the age of the review, helpful votes by customers, and whether the reviews are from verified purchasers. Similar machine-learned factors help determine a review’s ranking in the list of reviews.

The system continues to learn which reviews are most helpful to customers and improves the experience over time.

Nice. But customers don’t know the intricacies of Amazon’s algorithm, so if they glance all they see is that nearly 25% of readers gave my book a lackluster review. In all fairness, the next time I viewed my page, the 2-star review percentage had been knocked back to 12%. I’m pretty sure Amazon’s machine didn’t suddenly learn a new trick. I suspect there was a glitch and Amazon wasn’t copping to it.

Back to the algorithm, which considers three things:

Amazon’s Algorithm: Age of Review

Newer reviews are weighted more heavily than older ones.

To make the most of this aspect, encourage readers to leave feedback even beyond the launch of your book.

Amazon’s Algorithm: Helpful Votes by Customers

There are little thumbs up/down buttons next to all the reviews that says “Was this review helpful to you?” The more thumbs-up presses the positive reviews get, the more they’re weighted. Same goes for the negative ones, so it helps if your positive reviewers do more than simply say “Great read!” The more insightful a review is, the more likely it is to gain a thumbs up. I’d like to go on record as disagreeing with this aspect of the algorithm. Someone may have written a review that helped sell the book, as my negative reviewer did, but that thumbs up will only make that review count as, well, more negative.

To finesse this section, encourage readers to thumbs-up positive reviews that have helped them.

Amazon’s Algorithm: Verified Purchases

This means those ARC copies you give out for reviews won’t be weighted very highly by Amazon’s software. That’s a shame, since in my mind, they’re totally valid. It also means when someone purchases your book in Australia and you’re in the US, the review does not receive a verified purchase label. I have no idea why this is — I’ve queried Amazon  and not heard back as of this writing. I don’t know if this happens between other countries but I know the Australia/US anomaly exists.

Verified purchases are the gold standard — encourage everyone to purchase your book, even if they’ve gotten a free advanced copy.

The Last Word

Besides being aware of the components of the algorithm to fine-tune your marketing, you also need to be on top of your book’s product page, managing it on at least a weekly basis. I’m fairly certain that 22% number was a simple error on Amazon’s part and not generated by their algorithm, otherwise there would have been no change in the percentage as a result of my letter. Let’s face it, Amazon’s a big company and lots of things can go wrong. It’s up to you as the product owner to take responsibility. So make regular visits to your book’s page and be involved. Amazon’s response to me was lightning-fast, and I don’t really care if they admit fault or not, I just want the percentage to be more reflective of reality.

And if you want to sell books, you will too.

See you on the next page!

 

 


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reviews help sell books

How Negative Reviews Can Help Sell Books

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Seems like a radical idea, but negative reviews can actually help sell books and I can prove it.  One reader gave me the best present ever when she contacted me through my website. She’d just bought my supernatural suspense novella, Salt in the Blood, based on a two-star review. Yes, you read that right — two stars. She told me it was the best two-star review she’d ever read. She also mentioned the commenter’s reasoning was exactly what made her push the buy button.

In my post, What Do You Do With A Bad Review, I pick apart the review and show you how to make lemonade out of those lemons, but I never imagined a review like this (see below) would help sell books, too.

bad review

Until now, I’ve shuddered every time I read it.

But the young lady who contacted me said the reviewer’s mention of the descriptive language of the novella caught her eye and she immediately wanted to read more. She felt like the main criticism was the short length and fast-paced story, which is covered in the book’s descriptive passage. But here’s the other thing: She said that she only looked at the book in the first place because it didn’t have a full five stars.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important.  She only looked at the book in the first place because it didn’t have a full five stars. 

negative reviews help sell books How a Negative Review Can Help Sell Books

It seems counterintuitive that consumers would bypass a five-star rated item, but research backs this trend up. The folks over at Techcrunch report that the sweet spot for generating purchases was an average star rating between 4.2 and 4.5. Why? Consumers are getting wise to the plethora of fake reviews on Amazon and other ratings sites. And many simply discount the five- and one-star reviews as not insightful enough. According to an analysis of Amazon reviews, more than half of people give five star reviews, and the next most common star rating after one star is four stars. Very few people give two star reviews.

Another way a negative review can help sell books is if it is specifically critical. The woman who reviewed my novella disliked it, among other reasons, for its short length and fast-paced story. Luckily, these two characteristics are appealing to some readers, so someone who’s looking for a short, energetic read might be further intrigued by Salt in the Blood based on her review.

Playing the Review Gamereviews help sell books

Writers live for good reviews. After pressing ‘publish’ we await the verdict of our reading public and pray they pronounce us fit to be read. If we get negative feedback, we question whether or not we should put pen to paper again. We sulk. We get angry. But instead perhaps we should drum up a bit of thanks. A little bit of criticism, besides being a good way to keep one’s ego and expectations in check, could be just the ticket to higher sales numbers and even more fans.

Of course, a review is not just a star rating, at least on publishing giant Amazon. In next week’s post I’ll take a closer look at the Amazon review system and give you a few tricks you can use to keep your books looking good the browsing reader, even if you score a few negative reviews.

See you on the next page!

 


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