Amazon – Reviews, Ranking, Ratings & Sales – What’s it All Mean?

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by Katherine (Kaete) Mariaca on November 7, 2013

Last week I participated in a book swap, what some call a book review exchange (you can read about it here).  A few days later, one of the participants sent out an email. She was sad (concerned? upset? angry? disillusioned?) because her book’s rank had dropped nicely during the day that we were all purchasing it, but its rank began to rise again the next day (remember, the lower the rank – the closer to the #1 position – the better). She seemed to blame the loss of rank on readers.

While I did not fully understand how she could blame readers (maybe because they didn’t see her rank was improving and didn’t start purchasing it?), I thought that maybe she was new to the Amazon game and would benefit from my (limited) insight into the working of Amazon’s algorithm and how it affects rank, etc. After I emailed it to her, I thought the information might be helpful here as well and so (without re-working it into a more post-like piece), I am pasting it here:

Hi, ________:

I thought I’d chime in and explain a little about Amazon’s ranking policies. The fact that your book dropped in rank to about 13,000 and is now back up around 70,000 has nothing to do with readers.

Amazon’s ranking algorithm is VERY secret; still, if you monitor and research it, you can get some insight into its workings.

First of all, Amazon constantly updates its rank. Its website says that they do so on an hourly basis but, truthfully, it is ongoing. Meaning, it doesn’t update on every hour or half-hour. Rather, it updates constantly but its algorithm is set to wash through (update) the entire world-wide system pretty much hourly. For your book, this means that you might see gains and losses within each hour.

OK, now let’s look at what rank actually means. According to latest estimates, Amazon currently has some 4,000,000 books in its system. If your rank is 100,000, for instance, that means that there are (at that moment) 99,999 books doing better than yours. If your rank is 10,000, then 9,999 are AT THE MOMENT doing better than yours (and all the others with higher rank numbers are doing worse).

Amazon uses a number of (mostly) secret numbers to determine a book’s rank. These include:

1-     Number of sales in a given time (since it updates regularly but generally within an hour, then hourly sales matter greatly, but you can also assume that daily, weekly and monthly sales also figure into it, though each is probably weighed differently)

2-     Number of reviews. The more reviews, the better. BUT, Amazon gives less importance to anonymous reviews than it does to “Amazon Verified Purchaser” reviews. That is because the company knows that a lot of (but certainly not all) of non-verified reviews are from family and friends. Of course, quite a few will also be from beta-readers who were gifted the book and so did not purchase it, but Amazon has no way of knowing if those reviews are simply your personal cheering squad (who will say it is great no matter what) or are from outside sources who actually read the book

3-     Quality of reviews. Books with more stars are going to be ranked higher than books with 1 and 2 stars. So, if two books have the same number of sales, the same number of reviews, but one has mostly 4 and 5 stars and the other has 1 and 2 star reviews, the first will rank better.

4-     Number of people who have rated the reviews as helpful or not. This is an indication of reader interaction. So, if you have a great review, the more people who click on the “this review was helpful”, the better. Firstly, Amazon will put the most helpful reviews at the top of the reviews list. Why? Because helpful reviews lead to more sales. So, if you have great reviews that help other people find and purchase the book, then your book’s rank improves.

5-     Free vs. Paid for books. KDP Select was a great program when it started because more readers took chances on new authors when their books were free. In the beginning, Amazon gave equal (or almost equal) weight to KDP Select free books as it did to pay-for books. Unfortunately, too many readers began to hoard free books – would download them just because they were free – and would rarely come back to review them or would rarely actually come back to Amazon to buy books. What actually happened is that KDP Select devalued books because readers, not having to pay for them, began to expect free and to resent paid for.  Over time, Amazon began to recognize this and they altered the algorithm. While the number of KDP Select free downloads will impact your rank, if those 1,000 (just a number, it could be whatever number) of people actually paid for the book, even $0.99, your book would rank much better.

6-     Genre or category. OK, I’m going out on a limb here (I haven’t heard others talking about it but, because I monitor Amazon, I believe this to be true), but I believe that certain genres (Amazon calls them “browse categories) give more weight to your book than do others. As an example, I’ll take poetry (poets, this is not a diss). Historically, poetry does not sell as well as say, romantic fiction. It is easier for a book to reach the top 100 in the category of poetry than it is in the category of romantic fiction. Pure numbers have a lot to do with this – there are far more romantic fiction books than there are books of poetry. So, if your book is doing very well in a highly-competitive category (like romantic fiction), then Amazon will take that into consideration for its rank (imo).

7-     And any number of other variables.

A book swap is valuable because it gives you a certain number of sales within a given amount of time. These both (and together) improve your book’s rank. But, as soon as the swap is over, your book’s rank will begin going up again (because other books are selling better IN THAT MOMENT).

This is not to say that a book swap isn’t worth it because the affect is so temporary. Actually, the boost in rankings is helpful – as long as you use it as a springboard for more sales. When your book improves in the rankings, Amazon features it in a number of ways – thereby putting it in front of more potential viewers/purchasers/readers.

Take KD Pryor’s book, The Portal’s Choice, for instance. The book swap propelled her book into the top 100 paid books for three of its categories. During the time it was in the top 100, the book was featured on a variety of Amazon pages that highlight the top 100 books. The more often a book is in the top 100, the better its rankings. KD’s job, then, will be to work at getting and keeping her book in the top 100’s.

Now that her book has hit various Top 100 lists, she can update her marketing to draw attention to that feat. Hopefully, that will encourage more people to buy/read it.

The book swap also benefits participants in because it guarantees (well, of course, only if participants actually follow through) a certain number of reviews – reviews from Amazon Verified Purchasers (see number 2 above).

OK, I’ll stop now. I hope this little bit of insight helps. If you want more information, please check out my blog, The Essential eBooker – There, I try to keep up with the latest news on self-publishing, etc.

Best to you all!


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