The State of the Amazon Ranking Algorithm in November 2018

By Buy Box Experts on December 15, 2018

Amazon’s search ranking algorithm—the system that determines where a product appears in search results for a given keyword—is a common source of confusion and concern among sellers. Although most sellers are aware of the factors that influence search ranking, exactly how the algorithm weights those factors to rank a given product is often less clear.

In this post, we’ll cover concerns about the so-called “A10” update to Amazon’s ranking algorithm, why you should be wary of reports of “major updates” to the algorithm, and recent changes to the algorithm you should be aware of to ensure that your products are optimized for search position.

The “A10” Update—Are Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Sales No Longer Useful When It Comes to Amazon Search Rankings?

Earlier this year, there was a flurry of articles about Amazon’s “A10” algorithm update that supposedly marked a sea change in how products are ranked in search.

Indeed, a quick Google search for the term “Amazon A10 algorithm” (or similar terms) reveals a number of articles about this supposed change. But almost all of them are essentially clickbait, designed to do little more than drive page views and sell SEO services.

Sixleaf’s Dana Barfield calls the bluff on “A10”, saying that it amounts to nothing more than “crazy rumors.”

Plus, “A10” as a name doesn’t exist officially anywhere—the popular term for the search algorithm, A9, is based on the company of the same name, a subsidiary of Amazon that develops search engine and search advertising technology. That company has been, and continues to be, A9.

So, should you ignore A10? Was it just a mirage that opportunistic SEO shops picked up on to drive clicks—a big false alarm? Or did Amazon make a legitimate change to the algorithm that has driven this A10 phenomenon?

It seems the company may have. Specifically, some sellers have picked up on a shift in how Amazon weights sales from pay-per-click (PPC) ads like Sponsored Products. According to a number of anecdotal claims, at some point earlier this year, Amazon tweaked the algorithm to underweight PPC ad sales, causing some products’ rankings to drop in the wake of a PPC campaign rather than rise or be maintained as they may have previously.

Some reports that began surfacing this year said Amazon has effectively neutered PPC when it comes to search ranking. One video that has been doing the rounds points anecdotal evidence from multiple sellers indicating that PPC is no longer effective at improving or maintaining organic search rankings. The video even offers a pie chart with a supposed breakdown of the weighting factors the Amazon algorithm uses now, with PPC only receiving 5 percent of the pie.

But where do these numbers come from? This particular commentator doesn’t say, although he does claim that he’s seen a drop in ranking performance from PPC ads in his own store and those of some of his clients.

But others disagree about the exact nature of what’s going on when it comes to PPC and Amazon search rankings. According to Anthony Lee at Sixleaf:

“Some people believe that the subsequent rank drops from promos is a penalty being implemented by Amazon. I absolutely, VEHEMENTLY do not believe there is a penalty. This would make zero logical sense for Amazon to push promotions in all the ways they do (promo codes, coupons, social promos, lightning deals, etc) and then penalize them.”

Instead, Lee believes that Amazon is just treating sales from PPC promotions a bit differently now, essentially allowing these campaigns to spike a product’s ranking briefly, but recalibrating things after a short period so that the product’s organic sales performance is prioritized over the longer term.

“That way,” says Lee,” the listing still gets visibility for a time, but has to perform organically in order to stick somewhere in the ranking.”

Should Amazon Sellers Be Wary of PPC Now?

So who and what should you believe when it comes to “A10” and potential changes to the weighting of PPC campaigns in Amazon’s search ranking algorithm? Here are three key factors to consider:

  1. It’s entirely possible that Amazon has tweaked its algorithm to deemphasize the impact of PPC campaigns on a product’s search ranking in favor of factors like organic sales and conversion rate (aka the misleadingly named “A10” update).
  2. Because of the “black box” nature of the algorithm, we will never fully know—absent a comprehensive announcement from Amazon—the precise details of such a change (such as how many and what types of sellers and products may be affected).
  3. As a result, individual seller anecdotes—even when there are several of them—are not necessarily useful or informative for a given seller (i.e., you) to determine if their own products’ search ranking performance will be affected by any algorithmic weighting changes to PPC that Amazon may have made.

In short, your mileage may vary, and the experience of another seller or product should not be taken as a marker of how your own products’ search rankings will be affected by running a given PPC campaign.

When it comes to determining best practices for optimizing your search ranking, it can be difficult to suss out good information from bad and to know who to trust, given the black box nature of Amazon’s algorithm and the diversity of products on Amazon’s platform. And when your brand experiences an overnight shift in how PPC ads are influencing your search ranking, it can be scary.

But, as Ian Lurie, CEO of Portent, says in a guest post on SellerLabs:

“Confirmed, widespread algorithm changes are very rare. Don’t assume a big change. Focus on things you control. If you assume an algorithm tweak, you may miss the real problem, and your sales will suffer.”

On the other hand, “If you see a statement from Amazon, or sweeping changes affecting almost all of your colleagues’ stores, that is a shakeup.”

How to Approach PPC When It Comes to Your Amazon Search Rankings

The key for sellers that want to improve the search rankings of their products via a tactic like PPC is to use it in a sustainable, growth-promoting way, rather than as a means of “pumping up” sales on heavily discounted goods to get a quick win.

Much like Amazon has made it harder to keyword stuff a title than in years past, the pathway to success on Amazon today no longer lies in “brute force” or “hacky” methods of sales and conversion optimization. Amazon seems to be making it harder to improve a product’s ranking by running flash PPC campaigns to pump up sales volume in a short period, instead of using tools like Sponsored Products more sustainably by running regular campaigns that drive steady, consistent growth.

As Anthony Lee says, it would be illogical for Amazon to push promotions while simultaneously erasing their impact on search ranking. Amazon is not making PPC obsolete; more likely, it wants sellers to use this tactic as part of a long-term growth strategy, and the company has tweaked its algorithm to accommodate this intention.

Other Amazon Ranking Algorithm Changes to Look Out For

With that out of the way, let’s talk about some specific changes identified by Amazon consultants Sellics, which runs tests on how the ranking algorithm appears to be operating using test products and statistical analysis. Their approach can’t capture all possible scenarios or products, but it provides a more reliable indicator of the state of the algorithm than anecdotal reports from one or a small number of sellers.

In a blog post in October, Sellics’s Konstantin Pannicke reports on several important algorithmic changes that Sellics has been tracking.

Although the algorithm previously weighted keyword fields in a specific order—product title, then back-end keywords, then bullet points, then description—the placement of a keyword no longer appears to plays a role in the product’s organic ranking. As a result, Sellics suggests that optimizing content for conversion—making it readable and incentivizing the visitor to convert, rather than making sure that the most important keywords show up in the title, no matter what. This doesn’t mean these fields shouldn’t contain relevant keywords, but rather that the most important keywords may not necessarily need to be crammed into the title—especially if doing so creates a clunky, visitor-unfriendly reading experience.

The Sellics report also suggests that enhanced content, such as A+ (for vendors) and enhanced brand content (EBC, for sellers) is not being indexed for search. As such, they recommend taking a conversion-focused approach when building this content, rather than a keyword-based one. Enhanced content can still be an effective means to improve conversion by keeping the visitor on the page and conveying a product’s benefits and user experience in a deeper and more visually appealing way.

Finally, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve used EBC for your products, doing so will cause the product description to disappear from the product listing. But as some commenters on the Sellics blog post note, the product description may still be indexed in these cases, so it may be optimal to still create a product description even if you’re using EBC.

Brands Should Take Reports of Changes in Amazon’s Ranking Algorithm with a Grain of Salt

Obviously, even though sellers have relatively easy access to knowledge about the major inputs to Amazon’s search algorithm, the intricacies of how those factors are considered are kept hidden from public view. Absent official updates from the company or highly widespread and consistent changes to sellers’ experience, sellers should be wary of anecdotal reports of big algorithmic changes.

To detect if such changes have occurred, we suggest paying attention to information sources that run their own formal tests to detect algorithmic updates, like Sellics, rather than relying solely on personal or anecdotal experience of other sellers. You can also stay tuned to our blog, where we’ll report on these findings too, and continue to help brands sort through the confusing array of information out there on the topic.

Amazon’s Only Game Is Producing Happy Customers

There are lots of agencies out there promoting “secret strategies,” “special tools” or “tricks” to help you get your listings ranked higher more quickly on Amazon. And many of these agencies, along with sellers, often talk about how Amazon has “changed the game” on them with an algorithm update.

Amazon may update its search engine algorithm from time to time, but it never changes its game, which has always been and always will be to produce as many happy customers as possible. That’s why the only thing that really matters over the long term to Amazon is whether your listing is more likely to result in a purchase from a happy customer than other listings that are also trying to rank organically on page 1 for the same keywords.

Amazon looks at several factors to determine how likely your listing is to produce a happy customer. If it determines that the listing is likely to result in a great customer experience, then Amazon will reward the listing with a higher ranking. If not, then Amazon will rank your competitors higher. It’s as simple as that.

So where do ads fit in? First, Amazon ads can help sellers in the following ways…

  1. Drive more impressions for your products and brand.
  2. Drive more traffic to your listings.
  3. Drive more sales you wouldn’t otherwise get for keywords for which you’re not ranking on page 1.
  4. Allow you to gather data that will help you optimize your marketing activities and improving your traffic and conversion both on and off Amazon.

Second, Amazon does not “reward” or “punish” a sellers’ organic rankings just because the seller is running ads. Running an ad, in and of itself, is not going to handicap you in terms of the performance of your listings.

But that said, if you attempt to change the game yourself, then there’s a good chance Amazon will cause your ranking to change (up or down over time).

We’ll explain.

Let’s say you’re advertising a discount or promotion that is producing a lot of sales, with a high conversion rate on the listing. Chances are good that Amazon is going to see this performance and rank that listing higher for the keywords it deems relevant to the product. That’s because you’re sending Amazon a signal that this product listing is likely to produce a purchase from a happy customer searching for a given keyword.

But as soon as you decide to “change the game” yourself (e.g., by discontinuing your discount and starting to sell your product again at full price), or your competitor does the same (e.g., by also discounting their product or getting more positive reviews on their listing, etc.) then chances are your rankings will change—probably downward.

What about the case where a listing isn’t getting a good click-through rate or conversion rate over time at the product’s long-term price (vs. a short-term, deeply discounted price)? In that scenario, the case, improving your organic ranking is not on the list of benefits you’ll get from advertising that product.

In fact, if your listing has a poor conversion rate, then advertising could actually hurt your organic ranking off the bat, because when you send a lot of traffic to a listing that does not convert, you may drive down the overall conversion rate for the listing enough that Amazon will start ranking your competitors’ products over yours, assuming those competitors have better conversion rates on their listings.

So, be careful about trying to change the game on Amazon with advertising. It’s more important to understand and optimize the signals Amazon looks at to determine whether a listing is more likely to produce a purchase from a happy customer—things like click-through rates and conversion rates. Make sure you’re maximizing those factors first, before you focus on advertising.

Key Takeaways for Brands

  • There was no such thing as an “A10” change to the Amazon algorithm, at least officially—but Amazon may have made changes to deemphasize the impact of pay-per-click PPC campaigns on a product’s search ranking.
  • Be skeptical about any reports of large-scale “changes” to Amazon’s algorithm, even if multiple sellers are noticing a similar change in how their products are ranking in search. Amazon is a huge platform with many, many products, and your mileage will almost certainly vary.
  • As Ian Lurie of Portent Inc. says, “Don’t assume a big change [to Amazon’s search algorithm]. Focus on things you control. If you assume an algorithm tweak, you may miss the real problem, and your sales will suffer.”
  • Don’t be afraid of PPC ads, but use them in a sustainable, growth-assisting way, to promote products that already have healthy click-through and conversion rates, rather than “pumping up” sales on heavily discounted goods to get a quick search-rankings win.
  • Focus on optimizing the content on your listings for conversion, and less on placing keywords in specific fields, especially with A+ and Enhanced Brand Content, which Amazon doesn’t appear to be indexing currently.

Need help navigating the Amazon landscape and building a strategy for success on the platform—including how to use advertising to the best advantage? Get in touch.

Buy Box Experts
If you’re one of the estimated 20%–40% of brands who fire their agency annually, you can’t focus on that vision if you have to keep searching for the right support. BBE proudly retained >95% of our clients last year while applying focused dedication to our brand partners. If you’re ready to start over for the last time, contact us and find out why leading brands have partnered with us for so long.