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Selling on Amazon
Using Web 2.0
To Power Your Book Sales

by Steve Weber

#79, 9 October 2006

Recently, Amazon has launched a flurry of new community features enabling booksellers and customers to make it easier for people to find books. The new features depend on user-submitted ideas, something referred to as "Web 2.0" on Amazon and elsewhere.

Two new Amazon features showing the most promise for booksellers are "Search Suggestions" and "tags." Each feature provides a completely new way for buyers to find your books and could make a critical difference in your ability to move highly collectible and scarce or obscure books.

Search Suggestions

Amazon's Search Suggestions feature is a form of "social search," which depends on human intelligence rather than predefined keywords or search-engine formulas. On each book detail page, the link "Make a Search Suggestion" allows users to recommend tying a book to specific keywords and provide an explanation of why the connection is relevant.

This differs from the most common way customers discover your books on Amazon: keywords in the title. The primary path to book discovery on Amazon has always been keyword searches. The customer types part of the title or author name, and Amazon shows books matching the search query.

But what if the customer doesn't know the official title? To give an example from the music world, legions of Beatles fans have always referred to the group's 1968 album with a plain white cover as The White Album. But that's not really the title. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The working title for this album was A Doll's House, derived from a play of the same name written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ultimately, the only text appearing on the album's cover was The Beatles.]

Now, using Search Suggestions, you can help customers find your books using alternative words and expressions than those found in the title or even the full text of the book.

Here's an example of a Search Suggestion that's already in use. For Shakespeare's Macbeth, one Amazon user submitted this search suggestion: "The Scottish Play." Typing these three words into Amazon's search box will now return "Macbeth" as the top result. The relevancy explanation is now shown next to a link to the book in Amazon search results: "Theater superstition dictates that Macbeth is referred to as 'the Scottish play.'"

Another example - searching for "stolen data" now returns the book, I.T. Wars: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium.

Here's an example of how you might use Search Suggestions to boost your own sales: Let's assume you have a 1928 copy of Miniature Boat Building.

Currently, the only way someone can find this book on Amazon is to search for the exact words in the title. But perhaps you know some better search terms: "model boats," "model shipbuilding" or "model boating hobbyist." You can add these search expressions for this book in just a few minutes, making it that much more likely that buyers will discover your book.

Once a Search Suggestion is approved, the book appears in search results, along with the relevancy explanation, when customers search using those keywords.

It will be interesting to see how well Amazon polices this new feature. Its guidelines for prohibited content seem to cover most of the bases:

  1. Profanity, obscenities, or spiteful remarks

  2. Commenting on other search suggestions.

  3. Phone numbers, mail addresses, and URLs.

  4. Availability, price, or alternative ordering/shipping information.

  5. Time-sensitive material.

  6. Suggestions which may be "controversial, politically or otherwise."

Tagging books

Tagging is a relatively new but increasingly popular way for Internet users to organize things by giving them personal keywords. Amazon added this feature in late 2005, and although it's not been widely used yet, advocates are hailing tags as "the new Dewey Decimal System for the Internet."

Tags might be best understood as a personal search system. For a book like Gone with the Wind, you might assign tags like "Civil War," "fiction," "epic," and "romance." If you were considering buying it as a gift, you might tag it "Joe's Birthday" as a pneumonic device for future reference.

Users create tags for their own reasons, but they can be used by anyone and can become an effortless, accurate recommendation system among people with similar tastes.

Besides books, you can assign tags to many other things on the Internet. Photos, for example. One of the first sites to popularize tagging, Flickr, is a social site where users can store, organize and (if they wish) share their digital photographs with anyone who cares to view them.

Instead of using categories to organize the photos - for example, a folder labeled "2005 Vacation" - users "tag" their photos with one or two words, say, "waterfall" or "solar eclipse," and perhaps the names of the people in each photo and where the photos were taken. This way photos can be organized in several ways.

Tags are a form of metadata, which means, literally, data about data. Tagging creates a folksonomy, a bottom-up method of categorization or labeling as opposed to the more top-down taxonomy, where categorization might be used in a library to show hierarchical relationships. Folksonomies can be useful for showing connections among books that aren't apparent by traditional categorization.

Tags aren't necessarily a replacement for top-down classification but a supplemental means of organization and order. A growing number of booksellers and readers are using tags to provide their own unique way of classifying books. Some online library online catalogs now allow users to use tags as a supplement to the hierarchical category system.

Book tagging allows people to assign trendy, granular labels to books, nuances that would escape the world's hippest, brainiest librarians. For example, there's no library shelf or Amazon category for steampunk, a subgenre of speculative fiction. But using tags, aficionados can dissect steampunk into all its subsubgenres, including timepunk, bronzepunk, stonepunk and clockpunk - all terms that are deadly serious to steampunkers.

Each of the 3.5 million books in Amazon's catalogue could be assigned its own unique category yet reside in thousands of other categories at the same time.

Amazon tags are publicly viewable unless users designate them as private. You can manage your tags through a "Your Tags" field at the bottom of every Amazon page.

In short, tagging is another method for booksellers to increase the visibility of their high-value items by adding the obvious keywords appropriate to their book. Amazon tags are indexed by Google and other search engines.

Here's more information on tagging from Amazon's help pages.

Using Search Suggestions and tags isn't something that will be worth your while for lower-priced commodity books; it simply wouldn't be worth the effort. But for selling your valuable titles, these new tools could provide a critical difference, and they certainly bear watching.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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