Amazon and the Also Bought Apocalypse Amazon Marketing

A real horror story has been slowly building for the last year or so and I’m getting a lot of emails on the topic so it’s time to deal with this head-on: what the hell is going on with Also Boughts?

For those unaware, the strip of books right which are usually placed underneath your product description on Amazon, headlined with “Customers who bought this item also bought” are popularly known as “Also Boughts” and have become the subject of much attention lately, as our knowledge of their importance grows in tandem with Amazon’s seeming desire to muck about with them.

Also Boughts example

First their importance: if you have read Amazon Decoded you will already know just how critical Also Boughts are and can skip ahead. For the rest of you, Amazon’s system is always trying to determine what kind of products you personally are most likely to purchase, so that it can display more of those to you. One thing it looks at very closely is the connection between products. People who buy printers tend to buy ink, for example, and recommending a printer-buyer some ink to purchase will elicit a lot of clicks.

But it’s not just obvious pairings like leathers and feathers, Amazon’s system is constantly analyzing what everyone purchases to predict what everyone else will purchase next. Each book (that has been purchased by a certain number of people) will have a number of connections in its system, which can be visualized by a tool like Yasiv.com — which isn’t perfectly accurate, but does a good job of showing how certain groups of products tend to be purchased together, which in turn gives us a good idea of what books Amazon will recommend a customer after they buy any given title.

I’ve been stressing for the last year how Also Boughts are central to the entire recommendation engine. I wrote a post called Please Don’t Buy My Book in 2017 which explained how critical it is to protect your Also Boughts in those first days of a new release — so that Amazon’s system doesn’t get an inaccurate idea of what kind of person might like it, just because some (well-meaning) family and friends bought it out of support.

While the Also Boughts on your page are an indication of the health of those connections in the Amazon system, what really matters are the connections to your book, not the ones springing from your book. In other words, the Also Boughts pointing at you are what really matter, and I teased that out in a follow-up post called Who’s Pointing At You?

(Note: this is a good time to point out that if you want to explore the archive of like 400+ posts here it’s much easier to do that now. Search works great, finally. Everything is also now tagged by category, and you can just click Amazon for example and get all my posts on that topic alone.)

After getting distracted for a couple of weeks by a pair of clickfarmers hitting #1 on the Kindle Store — remember that? — I wrote the final part of this Also Bought breakdown called When Reader Targeting Goes Wrong.

All that was just the beginning though, and I dug into the topic in a more holistic way in Strangers to Superfans — which is basically an entire soup-to-nuts system for targeting the right readers and turning them into superfans who do the selling for you.

OK, that’s a lot of stuff about Also Boughts.

In all those words, though, I appear to have miscommunicated something rather key, which is contributing to a bit of fretting about Also Boughts, and it’s important to clarify a few things.

Let’s deal with the panic first. To anyone who hasn’t noticed, Amazon has been playing around with various iterations of product pages for over a year now. In fact, it’s always toying with the design of these, it’s just that more people are noticing now as Amazon cycles through various iterations a little faster.

In many of those iterations, which it split-tests regularly so that different segments of its customer base will see different things, Also Boughts have either moved to a position of far less prominence near the end of the page, just above reviews, or have vanished altogether. To rub further salt in the wound, in most iterations the strip of Also Boughts is replaced with (yet another) set of pay-to-play Amazon Ads.

The latter strand of split tests is engendering mild terror right now but I think I can set your mind at ease, at least partly. While such a change would be unwelcome — if adopted, more on that in a moment — it’s not the Also Bought Apocalypse it is being painted as. For these reasons:

  1. The set of Also Boughts on your page aren’t what is inherently valuable here. And it’s not even those pointing at your book. It’s what they represent.
  2. The connections between books are what is truly valuable, and what Amazon uses to decide what to recommend next. The Also Boughts themselves are just signposts.
  3. If a signpost disappears, it might be harder to find the town you are looking for, but the town itself doesn’t disappear.
  4. Much in the same way, it’s not Amazon’s system that will get confused about a book’s connections in the recommendation engine, it’s us.

In other words, if you write grimdark Epic Fantasy and share an audience with David Dalglish and Brent Weeks and have assiduously developed your readership and been disciplined with your targeting and Amazon’s system recognizes that fans of Dalglish/Weeks also love your books, and then recommends your books regularly to those readers, and this is a real driver of sale for you… don’t panic. Those recommendations won’t change in any way even if Amazon takes Also Boughts to the woodshed and we can’t see them anymore. The connections won’t disappear, just the signposts.

Yes, it will still suck. Looking at our Also Boughts is a quick and easy way of telling us if something has gone wrong with our reader targeting leading Amazon’s system to have a muddle idea of what kind of book it’s dealing with, a clear sign that we need to point our ads in a different direction, or target a whole new group of readers. Maybe tools like Yasiv.com will still work, but we really can’t say at this point — that all depends on what information will still feed out to the API.

Also Boughts are handy in other ways too — for example, they are great for harvesting targets for ads or identifying authors you might wish to cross-promote with, because they are often a classic indication of who you share an audience with (in sometimes surprising ways, as writers tend to think in terms of who they write like — not always the same thing).

Some writers can be ambivalent about Also Boughts because they often feature “competing” titles and can tempt readers into clicking away. But remember that even if Also Boughts disappeared tomorrow, and even if they weren’t replaced with yet more ads, there would still be 100+ other books advertised on our Amazon pages (I know, I counted them). And the key thing about Also Boughts is that they cut both ways — your book is appearing on just as many other pages, drawing readers towards you.

Readers seem to love them too, as it gives them ideas of other books to purchase. Which makes sense. If they are attracted to Hunger Games the overwhelming likelihood is they will be into Divergent also.

And it may be readers, ultimately, that save Also Boughts.

There seems to be a gloomy tendency to assume that we’re always on the worst timeline, that the least advantageous iteration of these split tests is what will indubitably come to pass. But I know from studying the algorithms pretty closely for five or six years that history doesn’t really support that conclusion.

Even the Great Algo Wipeout of 2012 — which nixed freebies and put an end to the first crazy goldrush of KDP Select — wasn’t the very worst iteration that Amazon was testing at the time. In simple terms, Amazon twiddles with knobs and pulls levers and strives for a kind of reader-positive balance (but one that still makes them a pile of money, of course).

People seem to be assuming that a strip of Amazon Ads instead of Also Boughts makes Amazon more money. I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

Remember that conversion rates on Amazon Ads are abysmal — if we get 0.1% CTR on an Amazon Ad we’re onto a winner. By contrast, to show how broken Amazon Ads is at a fundamental, structural level, a CTR of 1% on Facebook or BookBub might be considered a failure.

On top of that, Amazon has a history of foregoing the short-term cash reward to build long-term user trust in its recommendations. That’s central to the core promise that Amazon makes its customers: that it will always seek to show you the products you are most interested in.

Yes, you could argue the entire existence of Amazon Ads runs counter to this promise, and I’d agree with you — particularly in its current iteration which just encourages bad advertisers and deep pockets to keep spamming the same ineffective ads with crappy CTRs, slowly eroding whatever user trust remains in those ads.

Amazon Ads have been getting their day in the sun, and we’ve seen them shoehorned uncomfortably into all sorts of places — a very un-Amazon approach, trying to trick customers into clicking on them instead of doing the harder, long-term work of making the ads more relevant (by encouraging better advertiser practices, engineered by making relevancy/CTR a part of the auction, but I digress).

But it hasn’t all been one way-traffic. One unpopular change/test has already been rolled back, and Amazon Ads no longer appear at the top of search queries. Presumably readers voted with their wallets, and Amazon decided that maintaining the prominence of organic search results was better.

Amazon may well decide the same with Also Boughts, but even if it doesn’t, just remember that it’s only removing the signposts. The connections which still matter will be unaffected.

We’ll have a harder job figuring out what those connections are, and whether they are healthy, but that just means we’ll have to double down on making sure our reader targeting is on point, that are books are being pushed to the right eyeballs, that our packaging is eliciting excitement from our core audience, that our books are jam-packed with all the tropes they devour, and that we turn those buyers into superfans by engaging with them regularly.

Same as it ever was.

24 Replies to “Amazon and the Also Bought Apocalypse”

    1. Emails to you in particular might be rare, depending on your settings, but Amazon sends out millions of recommendation emails to customers every day and if they really start recommending your book, you’ll know about it. This is (in part) how a book gets sticky. But it’s not just emails, there are lots and lots of on-site recommendations too. The homepage is quite personalized at this point and recommendations feed in there, and also after you check out a book, it will often recommend the #1 Also Bought. Amazon’s whole system is one giant recommendation engine, powered in large part by the connections between books/products which this Also Boughts are a visual representation of.

      1. Can I know, too? Her comment made me take a deep dive into your wonderful blog seeking those same FB posts. Grazie.

        1. Hi Sarina, that series is for my weekly marketing newsletter but you can sign up here – https://davidgaughran.com/amazon-decoded-landing-page/ – and you’ll get my marketing email which goes out every Friday. Once you’re all signed up, reply to your confirmation email and I can fix you up with a link to the first three installments that you missed.

  1. Er, one thing you mentioned isn’t correct. “One unpopular change/test has already been rolled back, and Amazon Ads no longer appear at the top of search queries.”

    Every big name romance book I’ve searched for has ads before the actual author. Sometimes, the specific person or book I’m looking for doesn’t show up until halfway down the page. Maybe it’s different in the UK, but in the US, it’s still very much a thing as of this morning. 🙂

    1. This is the danger in making loose statements about something where everyone is often seeing different versions!

      To be more accurate – as we seem to be seeing different versions of search pages, but I know that plenty of US-based writers are seeing what I’m seeing – the latest iteration of the search pages has axed the two Amazon Ads that had lately been inserted at the very top of the search results (at least the new version I’m seeing, along with some friends). Not the Headline Ads, but two regular Sponsored Results Ads.

      The basic point still holds despite this muddle, namely, not everything always trends towards the worst case scenario. Often less positive iterations don’t stick and/or less friendly changes are rolled back.

      Hopefully those changes will start propagating to everyone soon.

  2. Unfortunately I can second the unhappy news that my Amazon search results by author name still yield horrific results. But I hope what you’re seeing becomes the trend! Thank you as always for your insights.

  3. While I understand the analysis, and agree that if the results are bad enough Amazon will likely pull back from a worst case scenario, I don’t agree on what they’ll consider a worst case scenario.

    At this point, readers seem to be expressing increasing frustration with discoverability and this has been increasing, not decreasing. Informal polls from NLs and FB show (informally of course) that many readers are actively seeking some new place to find books, even if they still purchase them on Amazon.

    As you pointed out, there are over a hundred books advertised on a book’s page now. If the ABs are limited to the string of four or gone (as is showing up more lately) or shoved down to the bottom, then most of the easy visualized recommendations that readers have been trained to watch for over the past decade or more have been eliminated.

    Searches by subject string are often absolutely littered with bare chests and aliens having babies with humans and harem/reverse harem covers…even if you search for something not at all in that vein. Ads are, as you mentioned, completely and utterly useless for finding a book as relevant as in the ABs.

    So, if the reader experience isn’t improved by all this and hasn’t since the changes started, what makes Amazon think it’s a good idea?

    Honestly, as a book customer of Amazon since the very beginning and a Prime member since the first month that came out, I think it’s that they know they have us now. Their market share is at the mark where they no longer have to consider wooing the customers, only not making them so angry they’ll leave. With over 127 million households now tied into Prime, many will have to be made awfully angry to leave. Add in the Alexa saturation and you see where I’m going. I think Amazon is now primarily concerned with monetization and entrenchment keeps the customers.

    Losing ABs is bad for me as an author, but it’s been worse as a customer. Even their email recommendations are so off the mark that they’re laughable.

    1. I meant “worst case scenario” for us authors. I agree that Amazon’s view of that might be quite different – our aims do not always align, of course.

      I also agree that there are two competing interests at the fore with Amazon right now – that core promise of relevancy versus the (seemingly increasing) desire to make money now instead of building for the future.

      I too wonder sometimes if Amazon has decided it’s now at the lemon-squeezing stage – and it can be tempting to think in that way when looking at parts of the book business in particular – but then there is also lots of counter-evidence that it is still building and investing in the future rather than strictly focusing on maximizing profit today.

      Perhaps this is yet another area where it’s misleading to think of Amazon as a normal, monolithic company, and more instructive to view it as 100s (1000s?) of start-ups under a big Amazon tent, some at the larval stage, others at a late, profit-taking stage, all competing for (and having to pitch for) promo spots, front page real estate, ad space, etc. Amazon Ads are newer, and have been getting some of that prime real estate. But it’s hard to imagine that’s the best use of that space for Amazon, when all angles are considered, even when factoring in how much someone paid to get there (maybe if they were charging by impression I could nearly get on board with that view, but CTRs are just so damn low…).

    2. I agree. I loved your book. I “also bought” “superfans and two copies of “digital”. When I plugged you into my kindle you came up first in good company Jo Penn and Scott Bell , who are also two of my favorite authors for indies so at least on my Kindle you are in good company!
      However, when I dug deeper the goofy ads started popping up. What the heck does your book have to do with SQL Programming unless the algorithm knew I bought books on Scrivener for dummies, Formatting Books in Kindle, etc. the same time I bought your books on marketing.
      As an Amazon customer from the very beginning, I’ve bought thousands of books. I read several genres whatever the mood struck me. However. I’ve noticed lately the recommendations are nothing like I want to read. I’ve always ignored the paid ads.
      I loved the serendipity of “also bought” and had bought books similar to the one I’ve read and enjoyed. It’s like going through the mystery section of a library or bookstore. I gravitate to certain books. Even sometimes book Bub is off the mark even though I have selected crime fiction as my genre to read.
      I get everything from serial killers to kitty cats but Book Bub is close most of the time. I tend to like classic british mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein.
      Once I was doing research on romance writers and every once in a while I get manly chests recommended, nice to look at but I mostly read classic mysteries.
      I checked out my own mystery book and sure enough, the “also bought” is gone although thank goodness when I search for my book I still come up with books similar to mine in theme. I would rather be in competition with books that are in the same vein as mine. I can only write so many books. I love to recommend other authors, we’re all in this together.
      My ideal customer likes classic mysteries, small towns, interesting locals, and personal human conflicts that lead to murder with an intelligent sleuth and partner who solve the murder and bring justice to the perpetrator (who is an ordinary person).
      When I do an author signing the first question I ask a potential customer is:
      1. Do you like mysteries?
      2. Who is your favorite author?
      3. Do you like small town stories?
      4. Do you like stories about a family or neighborhood conflict that leads to murder?
      5. Then I tell them about a newly married couple, 2nd time around for both, one is a cyber forensic analyst and the other is a small town deputy in Northern Arizona near the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and the Painted Desert who solve mysteries and bring the evildoers to justice, all the while by learning about an interesting part of the southwest.
      6. I have a generous first 15 chapters free read on my blog. I also write about quirky interesting stuff about Arizona on my blog.

      I choose whom to sell my books and I make a sale every time. People come back and buy a second and third book to give as gifts because I let them know up front what they are reading.

      I was a salesperson (single mom feeding 6 kids). I needed to get to the sale ASAP or my kids didn’t eat or have a roof over their heads. I’m not wasting my time or my potential readers valuable time. I cut to the chase.

  4. Great post, as usual, David. You make excellent points. As an author in two genres – YA SF&F, and Medieval HF – under the same author name, seeing those Also Boughts is critical to me not letting my two audiences get mixed up by Amazon. I have to make sure I have enough ABs in the correct genre for each book to offset my crossover readers who simply like my writing. Amazon Ads help with that because they target the readers I want, so I start those ads as soon as my new book goes live. Any further suggestions on keeping Amazon’s SEs on point for those of us who write in more than one genre?
    Thanks.

  5. My personal observation as a reader is that the Also Boughts are largely useless. I may not be typical. I buy more nonfiction than fiction, and within my areas of interest I make it my business to know what’s out there. So there isn’t a lot of potential for the happy discovery via Also Boughts. But for me, at least, it is pretty much blank space I scroll past.

    The same, incidentally, is true of my recommendations. Many are so obvious as to be banal: This author whose book you bought turns out to have written more than one! Who would have guessed? Others are so non-obvious as to be simply mysterious, in a not terribly interesting and even less useful sort of way. The happy discovery is rare.

  6. Everyone is missing one important observation.

    Hint: You can’t be two places at once, even if everything says that you should be.

  7. Very surprised you underestimate Also Boughts so much. The connections staying is fine, but that doesn’t help readers. If ABs are taken off that seriously hurts discoverability. I personally discover MOST of the books through ABs, not through email recommendations, not through bestseller lists. I first find a link somewhere to a book as a recommendation, and then from there check out the ABs to see what else is similar and good. Grown really accustomed to it and if Amazon took it away, I’d discover less books.

    And that would be huge blow to organic book discovery process.

    Hopefully, this is just testing and it won’t stay. I’d be unhappy as a reader if they were gone. Looking forward to see how this pans out.

    1. It’s not so much that I underestimate their importance to readers as that I believe most other people underestimate the much greater importance of the connections between books and how that feeds into the recommendation ecosystem overall versus this on-page discovery. I think the latter is the main driver of the entire recommendation engine on Amazon and dwarves any on-page discovery benefits that Also Boughts provide. Those connections are responsible for driving the content of millions and millions of recommendation emails every day and millions more on-site recommendations. Also Boughts disappearing from our pages permanently would be bad. Those connections disappearing would be a complete and utter disaster – turning Amazon into one of its competitor stores where there is no halo to any promotion, no giant recommendation engine recommending our books to customers, where the only sales we would ever get on our books would be from customers we brought to the store.

  8. Also Boughts are still visible as they ever were on my Kindle. Three beneath the blurb and click to get the whole stack. If they take this away I will be well and truly pissed as it’s how I choose about 50% of my new reads, purchasing directly from the Kindle.

  9. Speaking of also boughts, I’ve been horrified that “Kindle Feature Spotlight” seems to truncate the book description when viewed in a web browser. What possible advantage could there is using screen real estate for THAT? Hopefully this is just a one or two week thing, and after a while, then they’ll return to the way it was before. Or maybe they’re going to use that strip for other marketing purposes….

  10. I’m crossing my fingers that the also boughts do not disappear entirely. I’ve been watching their location jump all over the screen (and sometimes disappear altogether) during the split testing. I understand that the functioning of the algorithms that are behind the also boughts is critical, but I wrecked the algorithms for my books in 2016 (before I understood the importance of reader targeting), and I’m still engaged in the repair action. I need the also boughts to gauge the success of my repairs. However…this is certainly beyond my control. So I’ll simply continue writing, publishing, and advertising, and hope for the best!

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