How Do Keywords Impact Sales?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

The question I receive most often from publishers is: “How do keywords impact sales?” While adding keywords to book metadata is considered best-practice, publishing businesses are naturally more interested in whether the practice will increase revenue. Keywords in this context are ‘off-page’ keywords, which are sent to retailers in an ONIX feed or added to a book via KDP, Amazon’s dashboard for Kindle books. Keywords aren’t visible to customers, but are indexed directly by retailer search engines (such as on Amazon), and allow publishers and authors to influence how readers find their books online.

At Kadaxis, we’ve added keywords to thousands of books, on behalf of a wide variety of publishers, and while some titles have seen significant short-term sales improvement (, in most cases, publishers observe an average overall increase across a portfolio of titles over time. In this post we’ll cover the relationship between search traffic and sales, and outline how the title selection component of a keyword strategy can have an impact.

Keywords Direct Online Shoppers To Books

When purchasing a book online, a customer, can take many paths in a session of book browsing. We’ve isolated one path for discussion. A typical path a customer might follow involves:

  • Typing a search query
  • Viewing a list of search results
  • Clicking on a book
  • Viewing the book’s product information
  • Making a purchase

Keywords can assist at the start of this flow, by helping books to appear in search results more frequently. But getting customers from search result to purchase is dependent on their previous exposure to the book, product information and other factors. Readers need to discover a book three times before they’re ready to buy, says Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group (, and ranking in search presents them with that option.

But the final responsibility to sell the book sits with the book’s product page. The stronger this page is the higher the likelihood of converting search traffic to sales. Some factors include and appealing title and cover, well-written descriptions, and positive customer reviews. A book with a bland, wordy description and a low count of negative reviews is unlikely to yield much return from adding keywords.

Sales Leads to Discoverability Leads to Sales

From a publisher’s perspective, a keyword’s core utility is to direct search traffic to books in the hope of selling more copies. If excellent, reader-focused keywords are assigned to a book, these keywords will only serve their function if the book appears in the search results of customers searching for books by those keywords. If the book doesn’t rank for those keywords, they are of no value.

So how do you determine whether a book will rank for its assigned keywords? The best predictor is sales. We consistently see a correlation between sales and the number of keywords a book ranks for: higher selling books also rank higher in search results. Generally, the more a book sells, and the more recently those sales occurred, the more discoverable it will be.

It can be insightful to examine the intent of different search providers when understanding how search works. Ecommerce retailers, such as Amazon, use search to sell products, whereas search companies, like Google, use search to help people find content. The focus on selling in retailer search can strongly influence how discoverable books become.

For many reasons, products that have sold well in the past have a high chance of selling well in the future. Amazon exploits this phenomenon in search (and across their site), by boosting the visibility of higher selling books in an attempt to maximize sales. They understand that the odds of a sale are higher if a customer is presented with a popular item, so search results are reordered based on sales data (and other signals, such as page views and conversion rate). This means even the most well reasoned keywords might not have any impact for some books, but for others, they’re afforded the opportunity to rank for disproportionately more search queries.

Maximizing Return Through Title Selection

The myriad factors influencing search visibility, conversion and buyer sentiment, make it challenging to determine which books will benefit most from keywords. But since the endeavor is relatively low cost compared to rewriting jacket copy or updating a cover, and the possible return is high, the most prudent strategy to maximize ROI is to add keywords to a number of high potential titles.

Tying the concepts above together, this means selecting titles with:

  • A high chance of converting: books with good publisher-provided metadata (to assist customers in their buying decision) and customer-created reviews and ratings (social proof).
  • A high chance of ranking in search: typically books with a solid sales history, ideally performing above the competition, with recent sales valued more highly (or pre-promotion).

Recurring ROI

Titles that respond positively from keywords will experience increased sales over time, while maintaining search visibility and accumulating social proof, criteria which positively reinforce each other. But this can take time to build, and the rate of improvement varies for different genres, audiences, titles, and is heavily influenced by the prevailing zeitgeist of the moment. It’s not uncommon for titles to “tip” after several months of gradual improvement, which is why it’s best to adopt a medium to long-term outlook for any keyword strategy. But once the right keywords take effect, the return can persist long after the keywords were put in place.

As with most sound marketing strategies, keywords aren’t a silver bullet to an overnight improvement in sales. But when applied strategically across a quality catalog, they can significantly impact discoverability, leading to an ongoing recurring increase in sales over time.