Google’s search engines, including YouTube, Google, and the Google-powered engines on vast numbers of websites, are unquestionably the most important search engines for which to optimize websites. Google alone has 88% of global market share, so why should we even bother with other search engines? If you’re selling on Amazon, you need to get to know the Amazon search engine.
The Amazon search engine
We had this brought home to us by a client who has been working on his placement at Amazon. Like many CPG companies, this client has an ecommerce site and placement in retail shops, and also sells on Amazon. He figures Google is important, but getting good organic rankings at Amazon is just as important. People search for products three times as often at Amazon as they do at Google, even if they don’t end up buying at Amazon. You want to get good rankings at Amazon if you’re on Amazon. Our client figures sales and reviews are the key to top placement for search on Amazon, but we had to acknowledge that we didn’t know whether that was true or not.
We set out to find the truth.
An extremely thorough article by Nathan Grimm at Moz points out that Google and Amazon have different goals and metrics. Google wants searchers to have the best possible experience, so providing that at your website is key. Amazon, on the other hand, wants to sell products, so sales and conversion rates are likely to be key. He also points out that Google works with unstructured data, while Amazon structures data pretty firmly from the get-go.
Many of the points Grimm makes about optimizing for the Amazon search engine are logical extrapolations about findability. His experience shows that Amazon uses keywords much the same way other search engines do, and that following Amazon’s best practice guidelines (for images, for example) benefit search rankings.
But there are also some significant differences. Amazon doesn’t care about duplicate content, and may not focus on quality of content either — though humans probably respond better to quality content, and sales do affect your rankings.
Grimm shared a message from Amazon to their sellers:
Factors such as price, availability, selection, and sales history help determine where your product appears in a customer’s search results. In general, better-selling products tend to be towards the beginning of the results list. As your sales of a product increase, so does your placement.
So sales are key, but being a good seller is also important. Have too many out of stocks and poor seller ratings and you’ll be ranked lower. We know for a fact that our client is a good seller, so we continued to search. Grimm thought reviews might be part of the mix, but had no specific evidence, so we looked for confirmation.
The Start Up Brothers are firmly convinced that both number of reviews and number of stars affect Amazon search rankings. This is of course one of the easiest areas to manipulate, and Amazon, like Google, has cracked down on those who step over the line. The brothers also believe that description quality and completeness are high on the list of ranking factors.
Seller Interactive focuses more on quality of copywriting and product photos. We’ve seen Amazon sellers who don’t even make the basic effort of hiring native speakers to do their copywriting, so we can readily believe that this makes a difference in rankings. If nothing else, we are sure that Amazon wants to encourage well-written text.
There is widespread agreement that filling out all Amazon’s forms completely makes all the difference, and that category choice is important, too. Krista Fabregas has written an article that steps readers through the process of creating a successful listing. CPC Strategy has a report out that makes an interesting argument: sales performance, availability, and price are the biggest drivers of Amazon rankings, but your content is what you can really control, so go for the best text. Skubana offers practical guidance on using classic SEO strategy in the Amazon ecosystem.
So this is the combined wisdom of Amazon sellers. As an Amazon shopper, I can also get some data.
Amazon search engine vs. Google: customization
Rosie, Gideon, and I ran a quick experiment. We all searched for “tea” while logged in at Amazon on our own computers, in our homes.
We can see right away that Amazon doesn’t customize the way Google does. I regularly buy tea from Amazon, which carries my favorite obscure foreign brand. I have bought Twinings tea from Amazon, but have never and would never buy Lipton’s or Bigelow. Here are my search results if I just put in “tea”:
Rosie never drinks tea, and is not an Amazon shopper. Here are her search results:
Tea-drinker Gideon is even more of a tea snob than I, and only buys tea locally. He lived in Colorado when we did this experiment, whereas Rosie and I both live in Northwest Arkansas. Here are his search results:
As a returning customer, I was reminded of a previous purchase, and Gideon’s lack of a Lipton ad may reflect geo-targeting, but it is evident that Amazon doesn’t customize the way Google does. Three very different customers got identical search results. Being #1 on Amazon means you are #1.
Amazon reviews and popularity
But our results do not support the idea that the number of reviews is a factor in top placement — quite the contrary. The top item has only 2 reviews. It’s an inexpensive Prime Pantry item, so it may get lots of sales — but does the Bigelow tea tray look like a bestseller? Rosie points out that it looks like a gift, and it may be a common B2B purchase for office use, but regular tea drinkers aren’t usually displaying a tray of tea so much as they are making a cup or potful and drinking it — their tea is probably in the cupboard. The third place item has the largest number of reviews.
The same search today gives somewhat different results, with sponsored products leading the pack, but still doesn’t appear to confirm that reviews or plain old popularity give sellers top placement:
Lipton is the best-selling tea in the U.S., but their decaf green tea is almost certainly not the most popular item Amazon has under “tea.” The front page listings do not include a single box of ordinary black tea bags. Unflavored full-caffeine black tea is the most popular kind of tea in the U.S., accounting for 80% of the 3.8 billion gallons of tea drunk by Americans each year. Amazon’s search results may indeed reflect the sales records of the sellers, but they don’t just show the best-selling items at the top.
As for reviews, the listings on the front page include an item with 8,668 reviews and an item with 1 review. There are 5 star average reviews and 3 star average reviews. It’s not as simple as reviews.
Amazon vs. Google: broad or exact match
Every item on the first page of results included the word “tea” in its description. A search for “black tea” showed 18 items containing the phrase “black tea” in their descriptions — plus two called “English Breakfast,” which I suppose all tea shoppers will know is black tea. The same pattern holds for other searches: “green tea,” “oolong tea,” “breakfast tea” — every term shows up in the items as an exact match on the first page of search results.
By page 3 of the search results, things have broken down a bit. “Breakfast” is still included on every description of page 3 results for “breakfast tea,” but the items include books, cereal, and toys. You’ll also be relegated to inner pages if you have a broad rather than an exact match. Most of the items on page 3 for “oolong tea,” for example, have a different order for the words. “Oolong loose leaf tea,” “tea oolong,” “oolong dragon tea” — these are page 3 results, not page 1.
Your description is extremely important for your Amazon products. And you have to really know what your customer is typing in when they search.
Searches for “black tea,” “breakfast tea,” and “English breakfast tea” have a great deal of overlap in a Google search. The most generic term brings up more information on health benefits of black tea and the least generic brings up more products to buy, but all three terms bring up several of the same basic sites. The presence of the search terms as an exact match in the title isn’t a given, either.
The same three terms at Amazon bring up completely different results. Exact match is essential in each case. And it’s all about the description. If you don’t do anything else to spiff up your Amazon listings, find out what your customers search for and make sure those terms are in your description. See Krista Fabregas’s article for a clever example of how to work multiple keywords into your description.
As searchers, we can’t see the sales performance or the quality of service of any seller. As a seller, you should certainly focus on making sure you’re at peak performance in these areas. But it’s clear that content is king, even for the Amazon search engine.