What SEO Means on Amazon and How Brands Can Make the Most of It

66% of consumers start their searches on the ecommerce site when looking to buy

Search engine optimization has been around for more than 20 years, but optimizing specifically for Amazon is a more recent phenomenon. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Amazon
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Amazon is many things—including a search engine.

And when it comes to product queries, consumers flock to it. Research from Amazon optimization platform Feedvisor shows 66% of consumers typically start their searches on Amazon when they’re looking to buy a product or researching what to buy.

Yet, while the art and science of search engine optimization, or SEO, has been around for more than 20 years to help brands boost their rankings on sites like Google and Bing, optimizing specifically for Amazon is a more recent phenomenon.

According to Jon Maxson, senior director of SEO at digital marketing agency iCrossing, brands have started to devote more attention to their Amazon strategies in the past few years as it has become a more popular destination for search and also because Amazon has started to give marketers more tools to optimize product pages and more sophisticated ad-buying opportunities.

And while Amazon’s and Google’s algorithms are “fundamentally similar in that they are trying to return the most relevant results for a particular search query,” Maxson said, search on Amazon has a much clearer intent: to buy something.

“Amazon is not only concerned with what’s most relevant, but also what sells the best,” he said.

As a result, a “conversion-first mentality is critical for success,” Maxson said, and brands should spell out the value of a product to consumers to help make their buying decisions easier. That starts with keyword research but also includes deciding where to put those keywords in product titles and page copy.

S is for stuffing

According to Amazon, brands should focus on creating content with keywords that match customer queries as much as possible. In its guidelines, the platform says providing relevant and complete information for products can increase visibility and sales.

Mark Irvine, director of strategic partnerships at search marketing company WordStream, said because factors such as price, availability and selection are largely out of the control of SEO agencies, most focus on content. And that, he said, is why a search for “black umbrella” yields a listing with the title “Umbrella Windproof Travel Umbrella Compact Folding Reverse Umbrella, Lanbrella,” a bulleted list that uses the keyword “umbrella” nine times and a product description that includes the keyword 40 times.

Maxson noted this practice of stuffing in as many keywords as possible was once a common tactic on Google, which now penalizes sites for it because keyword stuffing degrades the user experience.

But it’s not so cut-and-dried on Amazon. Sales are the No. 1 goal, so brands that stuff keywords into product titles and pages may initially be more visible, but if the pages are unreadable, conversion rate can suffer. And, of course, brands that sell fewer products lose visibility. So, Maxson said, SEOs have to play around with keyword placement on Amazon to strike the right balance.

Sellers who have been approved as brand owners through the Amazon Brand Registry process can also access what Amazon calls its A+ Content feature, which lets brands change product descriptions and describe features in a different way by including a unique brand story, enhanced images and text placement. Amazon says A+ content can boost conversion rates, traffic and sales.

Leo Carrillo, associate director of Amazon and Marketplace growth at digital marketing agency Tinuiti, said Amazon recently launched another tool, Manage Your Experiments, which lets brands A/B test how their content affects conversion rate and what changes when they add features like A+ content. But, he said, it’s too early for any takeaways for brands because the tool is too new.

E is for exact

Riyaad Edoo, Unilever U.S., search and ecommerce lead at media and marketing services company Mindshare, said brands should “never really concentrate on just SEO for [their] product detail pages.”

Instead, brands should make sure everything is exactly right in their listings and focus on conversion rate optimization, which includes filling out all information on the product page, including warnings and ingredients; image sequencing, or the practice of optimizing the order of brand images by testing hero images to ensure that click-through rate is high from search engine results pages; and analyzing information from product reviews and the questions consumers ask to determine how they feel about a product and the information brands should convey.

Other factors that affect rankings on Amazon include how quickly a product sells for a given keyword relative to other similar products; mass relevancy, or the number of keywords relevant to a given product; fulfillment by Amazon; Prime eligibility; and designations like Amazon’s Choice.

O is for one algorithm

Another key difference: Google has two algorithms, one for organic search and another for paid search, which use different inputs. For organic search, Google’s ranking factors include keyword relevancy, site content, page speed and mobile friendliness. For paid search, inputs include bid amount and budget remaining in a given day as well as ad settings like geography and dayparting, or scheduling ads for specific times day. That’s according to Elizabeth Marsten, senior director of strategic marketplace services at Tinuiti.

Amazon, on the other hand, has just one algorithm, Marsten said. It is called A9.

Ads are not a ranking factor on Amazon, and brands don’t need to buy them to rank well organically. At the same time, ads increase consumer interaction with products, which boosts views and sales, and that does affect rankings, she added.

“Technically, you can increase your organic rank [with those tactics], but we all know if you throw gas on the fire, it tends to burn a little hotter,” Marsten said.

She said it also depends on the brand—a well-known brand consumers search for by name won’t have to spend as much on advertising, but lesser-known brands with a lot of competition can stand out with ads.

Walmart, on the other hand, recently launched a self-serve ad platform and explicitly states in its advertising FAQs that paid advertising will help increase organic rankings over time.

“I think [Walmart] works similar to Amazon as well: If you buy ads, you get more eyeballs faster, which starts to kick off the domino effect,” Marsten said.

To date, there hasn’t been as much innovation in ad formats or complexity on Amazon as there has been on Google, but Marsten said we’ll continue to see it evolve and, like Google, Amazon will realize the value of additional ad real estate on its search engine results pages, or SERPs, and continue to try to monetize them.

In the next year, Marsten said, Amazon will place more emphasis on expanding beyond the product detail page and creating brand experiences by giving key brands more control to use their own creative assets.

“Going into next year, I would be concerned with brands whose Amazon SEO strategies are strictly copy based,” Edoo said. “If you have keyword-attributable, velocity-based SEO strategies in conjunction with media, I would rethink approaches based on new weightings. Most of that will be important for the holiday season as well.”

Meanwhile, Google may take a page from Amazon’s playbook. Maxson said he expects to see the search engine shift to more of a conversion-first mindset of its own based on the amount of commerce that has moved to Amazon.

“I think Google is now paying more attention to what users click on in search results—are they happy with the experience on sites or bouncing back?” he said. “We’ll see that conversion-first mentality migrate back to Google because of Amazon’s success.”

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@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.