Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.
But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.
I’ve been publishing Kindle books now for over three years at the time of this writing, and I’ve been a part of many author groups on Facebook. One thing that always comes up is the importance of online reviews. Everybody seems to generally agree that reviews are important, but nobody can agree conclusively on just how many reviews a book needs, or what calculable impact exactly that number of reviews truly has.
If you ask five different authors, you’ll get five different answers as to how many you need or what the minimum threshold is before your book is suddenly catapulted into best-seller land because you tipped the scale on just the right number of reviews.
In fact, in many of these social media groups, you’ll find indie authors who’ll approach you and others looking for review swaps, which, if you haven’t already figured out, is not necessarily the best way to get those badly needed reviews.
While it’s true that the number and the quality of reviews your book receives on Amazon does play a role in the exposure and visibility your book gets in search results and the “also boughts” sections of Amazon’s site, nobody truly knows the pinpointable role they play. Amazon has done a better job keeping that under wraps than Colonel Sanders has with keeping KFC’s chicken seasoning ingredients a secret.
All we have is anecdotal opinions about our own preferences when looking at a book on Amazon and how many reviews, whether 1 star or 5 stars, we look for before deciding on making a purchase. Don’t believe any guru who tells you otherwise. Everybody just believes something someone has told them, but none of us have been able to get to the horse’s mouth for ourselves.
So for that reason, I decided to sit down recently (circa 2015 at the original time of writing this article) and try getting to the bottom of this, or at least as close to the bottom as one can, and see what I could uncover.
While you can visit Amazon’s Customer Review Guidelines for yourself to get clues, you’ll mostly find standards and best practices as to how to craft an acceptable review. But you won’t get any idea of how they help in a product’s ranking, exactly or specifically.
What Is Sales Rank On Amazon?
The sales rank is a number with 1 to 8 digits. And here’s what we know about it and how books usually rank. I got the following bullet points from Chris McMullen who detailed this on his personal blog article Amazon.com Sales Rank—How Does it Work? (Research-Based). I didn’t put the next part in block quotes because I re-wrote it a bit, but otherwise, I got all these from his site instead of re-inventing the wheel:
- The better a product is selling at Amazon, the lower its sales rank number. The bestselling product in a category has a sales ranking that is low.
- The worse a product sells at Amazon, the higher its sales rank number. If a product hasn’t sold for several days or weeks, its sales rank goes up considerably into the 6 or 7 digits.
- If a product has never sold on Amazon, it won’t have a sales rank at all, yet.
- Different editions of a product (like hardcover, paperback, and Kindle books) each have different sales ranks.
- Books have overall ranks and also specific ranks within subcategories. Ranking high (say #1) in books overall is much, much better than ranking high #1 in just a specific subcategory.
Unlike the New York Times Best Seller list which changes from week to week, Amazon sales rank changes throughout the day. Hourly, in fact. That being said, authors, publishers, marketplace sellers, and many other people and businesses use sales rank data to help judge how well their products are selling.
I originally came across an article called Amazon SEO Tactics: Because Amazon is a Search Engine Too by Dave Chesson which seems to no longer be available, and it elaborated more on the ever-changing rankings:
Because of this, a product can usurp another product by having a large amount of sales in a short period of time. However, to maintain that position, that product needs to consistently and continuously make sales.
This algorithm rule is extremely useful during holidays when people are more likely to buy Halloween-themed candy in October, but will want Valentine-themed candy in February.
Now, that may seem like a tall order and something we optimizers can’t affect too much; however, there are other factors that can help our products get to the top that we can optimize for.
Dave goes on to say that one way to affect this change is with verified reviews:
The number of verified reviews and their overall rating is one of the most powerful variables in Amazon page rankings. A verified review is a review in which someone not only bought the product through Amazon, but also used the same Amazon account to leave a review. An unverified review is where Amazon doesn’t have a record of that person buying it, but they left a review anyway. I’m sure you know which one is more powerful with Amazon.
In Amazon’s eyes, a verified review is an honest and independent review, and a good indication of whether or not customers like a particular product.
If the Amazon search engine continues to place a particular product high in the SERPs based on just sales numbers, but customers aren’t leaving reviews or are leaving negative comments, Amazon will respond by lowering that product’s rankings and bring something else up further. While sales are important, Amazon cares about the customer experience as well.
Though I can’t find the original article anymore, it seems this more recent post The Secrets of Amazon SEO covers similar ground.
Many authors use KDP Select to make their book free for a period of up to five days total so that they can encourage people to download the book (while it’s free) with the hopes that people will in turn leave a review because verified reviews don’t just come when readers purchase the book, but merely when they use that Amazon account to download that particular e-book. This is viewed as preferable to giving copies of your book away to people and they may review it on Amazon but the review won’t have “verified purchase” next to it.
Though this information sounds plausible, Chesson doesn’t give any indication as to how he knows this for certain. Most people don’t. Amazon isn’t forthcoming about the exact role reviews have in rankings.
Also, the more digging I’ve done into this, the more I’ve discovered different authors have different preferences about whether it matters if a good review is “verified” or not. But the jury is still out on whether it’s better for your ranking if you have more verified reviews than unverified.
Amazon Recently Overhauled Reviews
Last June The Huffington Post published an article indicating the way reviews would work on Amazon was getting a change, stating:
A new update to the company’s customer review system will automatically recognize “helpful” product reviews and give them more weight, an Amazon spokeswoman told The Huffington Post. CNET on Friday was the first to report on this change.
Under the new system, which is already rolling out, the best reviews are those that are recent, written by people who purchased the product from Amazon and frequently cited as “helpful” by Amazon users. Such posts will now have greater influence over an item’s overall “star” rating, which was previously an average of an item’s starred reviews.
The reason this was important is because Amazon would now give greater weight to “legitimate” reviews, allowing publishers and authors like myself to worry less about people gaming the system with a flood of junky reviews.
This article by HuffPost also indicates that this newer system also doesn’t impact which items come up when you search on Amazon, unless you specifically sort by review scores. This would seem to imply that if that is how a user searches, then the type of reviews your book or product has will play a role in if they show up in search results.
In that sense, then yes, you want many reviews, and good ones. But how many are necessary?
In the NY Times article mentioned above, successful and perhaps one of the most well-known self-published authors, John Locke is quoted as saying,
“Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”
Considering he became one the most well-known millionaires from indie writing, it’s worth taking that into consideration.
Concerning hiring people to write reviews, one of the men he hired viewed it this way:
People don’t just judge a book by its cover anymore but by the reviews on Amazon.Click To Tweet
Mr. Rutherford, who says he is a little miffed that the novelist never gave him proper credit, is more definitive. “It played a role, for sure,” he said. “All those reviews said to potential readers, ‘You’ll like it, too.’ ”
How Product Reviews Influence Sales Performance on the Amazon Marketplace
The CPC Strategy Blog posted an article, How Product Reviews Influence Sales Performance on the Amazon Market Place last year on the relationship between positive reviews and search ranking. According to its author Jon Gregoire,
If you think of product Discoverability as “Amazon SEO,” the goal is for your products to receive better exposure on the Amazon SERP and show up for relevant search queries. And so a given ASIN will become less discoverable if it A) does not have any product reviews and B) if it doesn’t have a positive review rating.
So all this seems to tell us is that if you have a book with 100 five-star ratings, it’s highly probable it will show up in search results better than if it only have 6 five-star ratings. Plus, it’s not as easy to tell if other factors—like frequent returns, customer complaints, list price, Amazon profit, customer reviews, browse category, and product availability—have any direct impact on sales rank or not.
Recent Amazon Lawsuit Takes On Fake Reviewers
If you’re a new author, and you recently published your new book on Amazon, it can be tempting to fall for whatever you come across teaching you that you need more reviews or your book won’t sell. This temptation can be easy to fall into, leading you to pay for reviews or encourage people to write reviews for you, or do review swaps with other authors. All of these things may have short-term gain, but it will be outweighed in the long run, in my humble opinion.
As I’ve previously said regarding why I no longer participate in review swaps, authors have a vested interest in showing off how their book is well-liked by those who’ve read it. But the average consumer who stumble across the book through Amazon search or in the “also boughts” on other book pages might not have any way of knowing all these glowing reviews are from other authors trying to help each other out.
“The whole point of reviews is that we can access points of view that aren’t paid for,” said Laura Davis-Taylor, EVP of customer experience at MaxMedia. “They are a neutral third-party. People want this information and the second we start thinking that they may be the advertiser, the less credible they are, which means the less utilized. If that happens, we as [consumers] will start looking elsewhere for those neutral third-party points of view. Likely it will be friends and store associates. So yes Amazon, you’d better get on it! And Facebook? Look and learn.”1
The Horse’s Mouth Isn’t Exactly Wide Open
And when all else fails, the best place to get insight about how reviews work is to go to straight to the source. Except, like I mentioned earlier, Amazon isn’t exactly forthcoming about just how exactly their ranking and review algorithms work, unlike Google who put it all out in the open and help content creators with how to rank and be found in search results.
Amazon keeps their cards closer to their chest, no matter what any marketing guru or expert author tells you, we still don’t know some things. But here are things we DO know from their guidelines.
We want our top reviewer rankings to reflect the best of our growing body of customer reviewers, so we look at these factors:
- Review helpfulness plays an important part in determining rank. Writing thousands of reviews that customers don’t find helpful won’t move a reviewer up in the standings.
- The more recently a review is written, the greater its impact on rank. This way, as new customers share their experiences with Amazon’s ever-widening selection of products, they’ll have a chance to be recognized as top reviewers.
- We ensure that every customer’s vote counts. Stuffing the ballot box won’t affect rank. In fact, such votes won’t even be counted.
Did you notice they left out what the magic number of reviews is? Or indicate how exactly these helpful reviews determine rank? Or how a newly written review impacts the product exactly, other than just saying that it does?Amazon reviews are like the author's tip jar.Click To Tweet
So, after at least three years of having published Kindle books on Amazon, I still couldn’t tell you why you allegedly need 5 positive reviews as opposed to four. Nor could I tell you from all this research how Amazon uses the reviews other than to say having some is better than not having any at all.
If you are a reader, consider leaving a review of the books you read on Amazon in order to help passers-by know whether they should get a copy. Consider Amazon reviews the author’s tip jar.
And authors, let me know in the comments below if you have any helpful or recent information that we could add to this to help us understand these things.
If you are a podcaster or you like listening to podcasts, stay tuned as I’m working on a similar forthcoming post titled How Do iTunes Reviews and Rankings REALLY Work?