The Real Deal About Keyword Research

Once upon a time the best way to get attention from a reading audience was to research that audience deeply, then advertise to them on channels they already spent time with. Today, on Amazon, the best way to get attention from a reading audience is to deeply understand which keywords they use when searching for new things to read. 

Today we’ll talk about keywords in depth: what they are, how they work, why they work, and how to find the best ones for your books. We’ll also discuss where to put them in your book details, and our favorite tool for the job. 

Ready? Good! Let’s get started. 

Keywords 101

When you type words into the Amazon search bar, Amazon’s algorithm searches its database of keywords entered for all the books in its immense library, then returns results based (partially) upon those keywords. It works the same as a Google search, only using different algorithms with different tools. That means you want to choose the most appropriate and effective keywords possible when you publish your book on KDP. 

Amazon keeps its mouth shut about the details of its algorithms, to make it harder for people to hack them. However, a lot of smart people  have spent a lot of time and money figuring out how it works through testing different methods, combing through comments of Amazon employees, and other methods. That means we have a pretty good idea of what makes a book perform, keyword wise. 

If your book turns up among the top five results when somebody types one of your keywords into the search bar, you have a much higher chance of selling your book than if it shows up at 6 or below — and an infinitely higher chance than if it doesn’t turn up at all. 

Now that we’re clear on what keywords are (and keyword phrases; it's a catch-all term that can apply to multiple actual words), we’ll talk about how they work, how to find the best ones, and what you should do immediately after finishing this article to boost your books’ performance on Amazon. 

Finding the Best Keywords for Your Books

It’s tempting to pick the keywords people search for a lot. If you’ve written the next Game of Thrones, “Fantasy” seems like an obvious choice. If you’ve written the spiritual successor to 50 Shades of Grey then “Kinky Erotica” leaps to mind. 

The thing is, everybody already thought of that, too. There are literally millions of books competing for those keywords, some of which have Big-5 publishing house money behind their promotion. It’s like setting up a burger joint next to a McDonald’s. You’re not going to win that wrestling match.

Instead, you need to find keywords that are popular, but also niche enough you can compete on equal (or even advantaged) footing. 

To review: a good keyword fulfills to goals:

  • It is a keyword people actually search for
  • It’s not a keyword every author and publisher uses all the time

How to Do It (The Hard Way)

You can find keywords manually through a fairly simple, if time-consuming process. Even though we’re going to recommend an easier way in a moment, we do recommend every author try this at least once. That way you understand the nuts and bolts of the process so you can use keyword tools more effectively. 

Step 1

Open up Amazon using a browser in Incognito mode (this means your previous searches won’t interfere with the results). Set the search bar for either “Books” or “Kindle Store” so it doesn’t also search for shoes, makeup, home electronics, or whatever. 

Step 2

Begin typing in a word or phrase that’s related to your book. Stop every few letters to see what Amazon autocompletes for it. If it works for what you’ve written, make a note of it. Those autocompletions are based on the most common entries people put in the search box, meaning they include the keywords people search for most often when looking for books like yours. 

Step 3

Repeat step two several times for the first keyword or keyword phrase, then move on to another. Continue repeating until you’ve compiled a list of 20 to 30. Some will be very similar to one another, while others will be wildly different. 

Step 4

Beginning with your first keyword or keyword phrase, type the whole thing into the search bar and see what comes up in the search. Check the Amazon Rank for the top five and write it down. Repeat for all of your keywords and keyword phrases. 

Step 5

Scan through the Amazon Ranks you wrote down. Too low (meaning closer to the top) and you won’t be able to compete with the powerhouses already there. Too high (meaning closer to the bottom) and you won’t be able to profit because not enough people are searching at all. 

Step 6

Check your final list against Amazon’s list of forbidden keywords and keyword phrases. These won’t help, and can hurt your performance. 

Bonus Step

As you’re completing Step 4, keep an eye out for titles that appear over and over again. Select the top three to five and carefully study their title, subtitle, cover, and book description. Use these as inspiration for your own book details — nothing succeeds like success.

How to Do It (The Easy Way)

As I said, manually doing your keyword research once or twice will help you understand how keywords work and why some do better than others. With that out of the way, though, you can use various keyword tools to do this research for you. 

Our favorite (of course) is our Push Button Book Research and Search tools, which are included with our membership. Our tools will automate the “Hard Way” into a simple and straightforward process and save you a lot of time and effort to gather that information.

There are other tools, though, for those who aren’t part of our community. We don’t use any of them, but we hear good things about:

  • Publisher Rocket
  • Keyword Scout
  • Jungle Scout
  • Helium 10
  • AMZ One
  • Google Keyword Planner
  • Ahrefs
  • SellerApp
  • Keyword Inspector

Each of these will generate suggested keyword phrases from a single seed word, list them with relevant statistics, and choose the best ones in terms of profitability and competition. They are definitely the way to once you start putting multiple books out into the world. 

What’s Next?

After you find your most profitable keywords, the next step is applying them to your Amazon books so they actually make you a profit. No system is perfect, and Amazon’s is even less reliable than many because of how many participants are involved, so we can’t guarantee results even if you do everything right. 

But we can pretty much guarantee you won’t get good results if you do it wrong, and we do guarantee you won’t get anything if you don’t do it at all. 

So with that in mind, here are the three best places to put your keywords so your book puts its best foot forward for searches, and you can meet new readers who may become lifelong fans. 

1: KDP Keywords

In your KDP book details panel you will find seven spaces for keywords. Each of those spaces has room for 50 characters worth of keywords. Your impulse will be to put one keyword or keyword phrase in each, but here’s what some active experimentation by experts has found:

  • Amazon does not penalize you for placing multiple keywords or keyword phrases in a single box. You should use half of your keyword boxes for a specific keyword phrase which will give Amazon a strong indication that your book is relevant when somebody searches for that phrase, and the other half should include a number of comma separated keywords and phrases to provide more context for Amazon to find your book through.
  • Amazon search results do not worry about word order. “New Orleans Vampire Horror” shows up just as well in searches for “Vampire Horror New Orleans” or even “Orleans Vampire New Horror”.
  • Don’t repeat the same word within the same box, but it’s okay to repeat words in different boxes. Don’t do it verbatim though, as it’s a waste of space….instead we’re talking about having “Dark urban fantasy” in one box, “urban fantasy” in another, and “dark fantasy” in a third. 
  • Definitely use entire phrases verbatim, especially popular ones with three words or more — it helps you rank in the keywords most specifically involved with your niche.
  • DO NOT CHEAT: use only keywords that are directly and clearly relevant to your book. Coloring outside those lines will get attention from people who will either bounce from your page, or read your book and leave a bad review. 

Make the most of these keyword spaces, and your book will index rapidly and effectively in the areas where it can best profit. 

2. Title or Subtitle

Here’s the thing. In the Before Times, a catchy title or subtitle got the attention of readers as they strolled through a physical bookstore, or scanned the book reviews in their Sunday newspaper. That was the way people bought books…

…but not anymore. 

Although a good title can help, it only helps once Amazon brings your book to the attention of a potential reader. Having the right keywords as part of the book’s title and subtitle help make that happen. They are far more important than having a clever title, or even a compelling one. 

A few things to keep in mind about this:

  • Do not stuff the title or subtitle with keywords and keyword phrases like you did with the keyword boxes. Just one for the title, and one or two for the subtitle, is sufficient.
  • Although a lyrical and beautiful title is not necessary, all keywords and keyword phrases must  naturally, organically, and even elegantly fit the word flow. A great title doesn’t help much, but a nonsensical title hurts a lot. 
  • The title on your book cover must match the title in your book details, but things are looser with the subtitle. You don’t even have to put the subtitle on the cover.

Finally, we realize that many writers can’t stand the idea of not having a great title. It’s perfectly okay to compromise by having as clever a title as you want, then doing your keyword work with the subtitle. It won’t perform quite as well as a keyword-rich title, but it’s better than no keywords in the titles at all.

And we'll say it again: your title and subtitle should be human readable and appealing to your reader, even at the expense of skipping over a keyword for the bots.

3. Book Description

I want to start out by explaining the state of affairs right now. Some folks don’t think Amazon checks the book description for keywords. Other folks do. There’s not a lot of direct evidence either way, but most of the circumstantial evidence we've seen points to descriptions not factoring into search results. Honestly, though, we’re not that interested in the debate. 

Remember that keywords are the words people type in when searching for something new to read on Amazon. Whether or not Amazon uses your book description when keyword searching, potential readers will still have them in mind as they read what you say about your book. At least at a subconscious level, they will be alert for those keywords as they decide whether or not to give your book a chance. 

So even if keywords in your description don’t impact the initial search, they will impact how many people buy your book — and how many people buy your book definitely impacts how often Amazon recommends it to the next searcher. 

Okay. We’re going to put keywords in the description. Here’s some things to remember while you set them up.

  • Your description should be keyword-rich, but not keyword-stuffed. One keyword or keyword phrase per paragraph (or even every other paragraph) is good. 
  • The keywords should flow naturally with the prose of your description — not as seamlessly as in your subtitle, but they should not jar the reader.
  • Focus on key phrases that solve your reader’s pain point. For fiction, they want you to provide a read similar to books they already love. For nonfiction, they have a problem they want you to solve. 
  • Never include a “list” of keywords or hashtags; only use them if you can work them into the description itself.

One Last Little Thing

It’s important to be systematic with keywords and keyword research. There’s a lot of moving parts, and a lot of elements that are very difficult to tell apart once they start to stack up. You can use a spreadsheet, or some functionality of the keyword tools. 

Either way, having things organized from the beginning will help you immensely as you move forward. As a bonus, you will already have a lot of work done when your next book in the series comes out. Many of the keywords and phrases will be similar or identical to the ones you found the first time.