Amazon recommendations drive millions of dollars of book purchases every single day, and Also Boughts are central to this system, which can lead to panic when they periodically disappear.
Also Boughts play an important role in Amazon recommendations — that process of pairing books to readers like some literary version of Tinder — but the exact role in Amazon’s recommender system can be misunderstood.
So let’s break it all down today, and show you the exact role Also Boughts play in Amazon recommendations, and why you need to protect yours.
- What Are Also Boughts?
- How Amazon Recommendations Work
- Product Connections vs. Similar People
- Also Bought Myths & Benefits
- Personal or Contextual Recommendations
- Also Bought Pollution
- How To Protect Your Also Boughts
- When Gaming The System Goes Wrong
- Takeaway: Amazon Has Been Decoded
What Are Also Boughts?
Also Boughts reflect the other purchases your readers are making, and also influence which readers Amazon recommends books to next. As a result, Also Boughts have become the focus of attention among savvy self-publishers in recent years.
You can view them on any book’s product page on Amazon, where you may have noticed a strip of books usually placed underneath the product description, headlined with “Customers who bought this item also bought.” It looks like this:
The Also Bought strip doesn’t update as frequently as some parts of the Kindle Store, but it usually refreshes twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday evenings, which means they are a relatively up-to-date indication of how Amazon’s system views your book.
Meaning that authors watch them very closely.
Amazon’s system is always trying to determine what kind of products each individual customer is most likely to purchase, so it can make more accurate recommendations. One thing which is super important in this process 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 and then using that to predict what they will buy next, in its never-ending quest to maximize sales by crunching All The Data.
The net effect when it comes to authors is this: if your book appears in the Also Boughts of a book in your niche which is selling well, this can lead to a considerable spike in sales. Conversely, if something goes wrong with your Also Boughts, it can lead to a measurable dip.
It was understandable that authors would begin worrying when Amazon seemed to remove Also Boughts from book pages, with some speculating that Amazon would stop recommending books organically and only give visibility to those using Amazon Ads.
But that’s not how the recommender system works. And I can show you exactly what I mean.
How Amazon Recommendations Really Work
Amazon makes millions of book recommendations to readers every single day — both on-site in various slots around the Kindle Store, and by email as well. These recommendations take many different forms.
Some Amazon recommendations are very top-down, but most are either personalized for each individual reader, or contextual — based on what the reader is viewing at that moment, or the place they are in the Kindle Store, or an action they just performed. And all of this is completely unaffected by Also Boughts disappearing from book pages.
Let me give you an example.
During the research process for my book Amazon Decoded, I conducted a number of revealing experiments .
Have you ever noticed what happens when you buy a book in the Kindle Store? Specifically, have you noticed what happens on-screen afterwards? Amazon never misses a trick and as soon as you complete payment, a confirmation screen appears recommending more books.
Amazon is split-testing things all the time, so you may see this play out slightly differently each time you purchase a book, but, commonly, you will see Amazon push the book in the #1 Also Bought slot pretty hard.
(Unless there is an audiobook edition which is Whispersynced, then Amazon will often favor that recommendation instead. It can experiment with other approaches, such as a carousel of books, but this will also be heavily influenced by the Also Boughts of what you just purchased.)
If that #1 Also Bought is also the next book in the series, then Amazon will helpfully flag that it is indeed the next in the series – which can really drive that spillover when you are promoting Book 1, especially if you have also discounted Book 2.
(Assuming your Book 2 is that #1 Also Bought, of course, and that your series metadata is in perfect shape.)
This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen so much on the other retailers, because they simply don’t have recommender systems quite as sophisticated as the one powering the millions of recommendations Amazon makes every day.
Other retailers do have rudimentary recommendation engines, but Amazon is quite literally years ahead of the competition, and it doesn’t feel like that gap is closing because fundamentally different philosophies are at work.
Product Connections vs. Similar People
The research process for Amazon Decoded unearthed some fascinating information about recommender systems generally and the associated data-crunching, machine learning, AI, algorithms – that big system for pairing readers with books they will love.
I learned how Amazon’s recommendation engine was the first to really map out connections between products, rather than people, and how this was a great leap forward in the efficacy of recommender systems generally – to the extent that it is still studied by academics almost twenty years later, as well as companies like Netflix, busy building their own systems today.
And here’s the pertinent bit: the process I described above of “checkout recommendations” is completely unaffected by whether Also Boughts are at the top of your book’s product page in prime position, or if they are shunted down to the bottom of the page where most readers won’t see them, or if they are gone temporarily, or even if they are axed permanently.
The status of Also Boughts on your book’s page does not affect the underlying recommendation engine one bit. And this recommendation engine is what drives so many of our sales on Amazon — probably making up most of the sales we aren’t directly responsible for ourselves with our own marketing.
This is why any marketing push seems to go further on Amazon, versus other retailers, and why marketing campaigns tend to have a much longer “halo effect” on Amazon — even accounting for relative size. And this is why it’s often far easier for newer authors to bootstrap their way to success in the Kindle Store than anywhere else.
Also Bought Myths & Benefits
A common misconception is that it is the Also Boughts themselves – the strip of books on your product page – driving those sales and recommendations. However, it’s the underlying system, those connections mapped out between books, which is what triggers Amazon to often recommend Debbie Macomber to a reader after she purchases Nora Roberts.
This process doesn’t stop just because Also Boughts go away, the whole recommendation engine makes millions of suggestions to readers every single day and that system doesn’t come to a shuddering halt because Amazon wants to tinker with that slot on our book pages; I suggest that authors stop fretting about the general status of Also Boughts.
Of course, it would be better if Amazon would stop messing with Also Boughts altogether — I’m certainly not claiming otherwise.
The experimentation with this piece of real estate has been relentless, and increasing. I can think of a dozen different things Amazon has tried to shoehorn onto our book’s pages in the place of Also Boughts. Although I should also point out that these experiments have been going on for as long as I can remember – this is not a recent phenomenon, there is just more awareness among writers about Also Boughts these days.
And, yes, I will also grant that there is probably a moderate amount of on-page discovery. I’m sure some readers spot your book in someone else’s Also Boughts and purchase it instead, but also remember that cuts both ways.
Much more importantly, if we look at the typical CTR of an Amazon ad (there’s a wide range here but even a successful ad might be as low as 0.1%), this would seem to strongly indicate that the amount of on-page discovery that happens via Also Boughts has been greatly overstated.
Personal vs. Contextual Recommendations
Amazon recommends books to readers in many different ways. Some of those are very generalized, hand-picked recommendations like the Kindle Daily Deals. Others are larger selections of curated deals, which are then sorted algorithmically (like Kindle Monthly Deals, which tend to be sorted by Popularity).
Further types of recommendations are completely contextual – like those recommendations which pop up on screen after a purchase. More again are 100% personalized – the books you see recommended to you on the homepage of Amazon being an obvious example.
Let’s be clear: this entire system of recommendations is completely unaffected by Also Boughts disappearing.
Amazon makes even more types of recommendations to readers – predominantly in the form of millions of targeted emails. Some of these emails are hyper-personalized in the sense that they are strictly based on your own purchasing habits, or your own browsing habits.
(Indeed, Amazon cycles between the two depending on whether the system thinks your purchase intent is strong, or if you are more at the discovery state of your buyer journey, and it does that by looking at your browsing patterns in quite a sophisticated way.)
Some of those emails will be contextual rather than personalized too – for example Amazon will often recommend you that #1 Also Bought again, around two weeks after your purchase of that original book.
Note that while Amazon does track what you are reading right now on your Kindle, and the pace you are reading it at, it doesn’t yet seem to filter that information into the recommendation engine.
The system isn’t that smart… yet.
Instead, you get a cruder form of recommendation, which seems to be mostly based on the time elapsed since your purchase, and is unaffected by something like whether you have finished the original book or not. It just seems to be time-based, rather than personalized or contextual.
Again, the really important thing I’m going to keep stressing: this part of the recommendation engine is completely unaffected by whether Also Boughts are currently appearing on your book’s page. Indeed, the entire recommendation engine is utterly unaffected by Amazon’s tinkering with these Also Boughts.
The mistake people are making is thinking that the importance lies with the Also Boughts themselves, but these are just a visual representation of the system on your page. They are not the system itself.
Also Boughts are just a symbol, if you like.
Having Also Boughts on your book’s page is nice. They look good – much better than the hodge-podge of Amazon Ads, that’s for sure; they give a nice dollop of social proof too; they also propel a moderate amount of on-page discovery, as we said earlier; and they can help you claw back more of that crucial on-page real estate for you and your books, away from potential distractions like competitors and their Amazon Ads, or anything else that could tempt a reader away from your Buy button.
Also Boughts are desirable in other ways too.
For example, glancing at them on your book’s page is a quick-and-dirty diagnostic tool for your marketing. If they are scrambled, this is often a sign that Amazon has a poor sense of who your reader is, usually because your targeting is wonky and you are sending too many of the wrong people to your book’s page. Which is something you want to avoid.
I get all this. I’m not saying that stuff isn’t important. What I am saying that Also Boughts disappearing is not the crisis it is regularly depicted as. The recommendation engine is completely, totally, and utterly unaffected. And that, I respectfully suggest, is the most important thing here.
But the Also Boughts on your book’s page are important in other ways, ones which I do suggest authors should pay attention to.
Also Bought Pollution
Here’s what authors should really be worried about: Also Bought pollution. Because Also Boughts reflect the purchase history of your readers, it’s essential that you only target true readers of your genre.
A common mistake that authors make is getting a lot of friends or family or colleagues to purchase their first book, which is a nice way of showing support, but can really scramble your Also Boughts. In simple terms, if your brother Steve usually reads sword and sorcery fantasy, but buys your debut romance novel to support you, that’s going to confuse Amazon’s system as to who your readers are, and will limit its ability to find new readers for you. Worse than that, if there are enough Steves in the mix, Amazon will think you have written a sword and sorcery fantasy, and will proceed to recommend your book to all the wrong people.
And if there is one thing Amazon doesn’t like, it’s recommendations which don’t convert into sales. So it will recommend your book less frequently in the future. A key sign that this might be happening to you is if your Also Boughts become scrambled – i.e. they become filled with a hodge-podge of books from outside your niche.
This is called Also Bought pollution, and it should be avoided at all costs as it can be very difficult to fix. Whereas if you can achieve clean Also Bought – where most or all of your Also Boughts are other books from your niche – then you are likely in much better shape and Amazon is probably recommending your book to all the right readers instead.
Two examples should underline just what difference this can make to your book’s fortunes, and your bank balance.
Case Study #1: Escape Velocity Achieved
When I was releasing the second book in a series several years ago, I knew it was essential to have the first book in the #1 slot of my Also Boughts. I wanted to ensure that Amazon recommended Book 2 to anyone who purchased Book 1, but also that Amazon went back and recommended it to previous purchasers as well.
To increase the chances of that happening, I ran a sale on Book 1 during the launch of Book 2, which then dutifully appeared in the #1 slot in the Also Boughts. It went on to have an excellent launch, and both books continued to feed into the other for several months afterwards.
But it doesn’t always go that smoothly.
Case Study #2: The Death Spiral
I was launching a new series and decided to be quite aggressive with the launch of Book 1, unceremoniously kicking it out the door at 99¢ and rather unwisely trying to foist it on anyone I could find – including readers of other genres.
Launch week itself went very well and I racked up considerable sales, but when the Also Boughts finally kicked in (it takes around 50 sales on Amazon US, less for other territories), I realized my mistake.
My Also Boughts were filled with off-genre books, and Amazon then proceeded to recommend me to all the wrong reader – namely those who read thrillers and romance.
An impressive launch turned into a dead-cat bounce from which the book struggled to recover. A tough lesson to learn, but a valuable one.
How To Protect Your Also Boughts
Authors shouldn’t panic if Also Boughts get momentarily scrambled. It’s totally normal for Also Boughts to be a little all over the place for an update or two after your launch and they first appear, or for an update or two after a big spike in downloads, like you might see after a BookBub Featured Deal or a Freebooksy promotion.
Fixing Also Boughts which are permanently scrambled can be very difficult because you basically need to organize a promotion even bigger than that which scrambled them in the first place. It’s much better to avoid that fate by being disciplined with your marketing.
You should only be aiming your marketing efforts at true readers of your genre, and you should never fool yourself that a broader push outside your genre will work for you.
That fantasy of being some kind of genre-transcending breakout hit like Gone Girl or Ready Player One is as dangerous as it is seductive. (And ignores that breakouts tend to dominate their genre before breaking out.)
This post on the importance of reader targeting goes into that idea in much more detail, but the basic point here is that it’s important to construct marketing plans which work with the Amazon algorithms, rather than against them.
The big takeaway from all this is that you need to find true readers of your niche, and then aim your marketing at them. Exclusively.
Be really careful about “adjacent audiences” as they can be the biggest traps of all, especially when you are starting out. Don’t target Action & Adventure readers when your novel is at the more literary end of the historical spectrum. Don’t target erotic romance readers when your stuff is sweeter.
Yes, there might be some crossover, but if your Also Boughts get polluted, Amazon can then start recommending you to the wrong readers, which could create a death spiral which it is hard to break.
And the most crucial time to avoid that fate is when your book is first being launched, and there is no sales history attached to it yet, and Amazon has no idea yet what kind of book it might be.
When we start out, we’re desperate for sales and can be overjoyed when our mother purchases our debut, or when a colleague picks up a copy, even though they might be more into mysteries. But that is killing your book – especially if it happens before you develop a sales history with genuine readers of your genre.
Friends and family can show their support by buying your paperback, if you like, or can buy your ebook later on. But it really can hurt you if your sales are exclusively made up of such purchases at the start, when your book is still new, and it’s baby-head is still soft.
Just don’t be tempted into using cheap tricks, as they can backfire.
When Gaming The System Goes Wrong
I stumbled across a novel on Amazon some time ago which had rather unartfully shoehorned the phrase “Game of Thrones” into its subtitle.
This is what’s known as title-keyword stuffing – when you take what you think might be a popular search on Amazon (anything from a big genre to a famous author to a hot new release), and then shove it into your own subtitle… one way or the other.
The main people do this, I guess, is that they hope it will give them more visibility when readers are searching for something insanely popular, like Game of Thrones.
It’s probably against the Amazon Terms of Service, but that’s not the point here. Rather, it’s about targeting the wrong readers. Because the book using this wheeze was a historical novel. It wasn’t even fantasy.
Now, the ruse didn’t work – this particular book doesn’t appear in the first five pages of searches for “Game of Thrones” (I gave up after that). But let’s imagine for a moment it did, and lots of epic fantasy readers had purchased this historical novel.
What would have happened? That’s right, his Also Boughts would have been filled with all the other things that epic fantasy readers buy, namely epic fantasy novels. And pretty soon after that, his reviews would be filled with angry readers too.
There is no gimmick that will fix bad Also Boughts, or one which will fill your Also Boughts with perfect books. You can’t skip the step of crafting a marketing plan.
Just make sure it aims at the right readers.
Takeaway: Amazon Has Been Decoded
I’ve written about Amazon’s recommendation engine extensively over the last ten years and I have now released a book called Amazon Decoded which breaks down the secret workings of the Kindle Store in a way that has never been done before, examining each aspect of the recommendation engine, and showing you how to get Amazon to recommend your book more to readers.
Not only that, it will teach you how to construct marketing campaigns which will trigger recommendations to readers, how to make your book stickier in the charts, and how to launch books in a way that convinces Amazon takes over and does the selling for you.