Learning Search

A Glitch in Amazon’s Book Search

I spend a lot of time searching Amazon in the course of my job. I don’t use it as much as I do a Web search engine — I’m not sure that’s possible — but I do use it enough that I’m cognizant of its occasional weirdness and search glitches. In this episode I want to take a quick look at a search bump that you might run into and a few ways you can resolve it, starring a lovely little book from 1928.

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A Quick Amazon Search

Isn’t that a terrific book? I love the lettering, I love the names, I love the fact that there’s a book on cryptograms from 1928. I want to find out if it’s worth anything so I go to Amazon. I type in burnelli the cryptogram book . I get zero results. But wait, there’s something weird going on here.

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Can you see what Amazon did? It found zero results because it changed the spelling of the author. And there’s no way to change it back.

If you just glanced at this you’d assume that Amazon did not have the book. But Amazon does have the book. You just have to take an extra step or two.

Easy Step: Category

You see how I’m searching “All” — that is, the whole of Amazon — in the screenshot above? Let’s do the same search only I’m going to specify the Books category.


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Popped right up, and instead of automatically “correcting” the name, the Amazon search results page asks “Did you mean: baronelli the cryptogram book”.

It seems odd to me that you can’t find an item on Amazon with a full search, but if you search by a specific category it pops right up. I don’t normally specify a category when I start searching on Amazon; I just start typing in keywords. This and other experiences have taught me that if I can’t find it with a general search — especially if Amazon changes my query — to go to a category.

But what if I do a book category search and still can’t find what I’m looking for? If sales rank listings are any indication, Amazon has something like 20 million books in its catalog. Therefore I don’t give up right away, but instead I use the advanced book search.

Slightly More Difficult: Advanced Book Search

Amazon’s Advanced Book Search is available at https://www.amazon.com/b/?ie=UTF8&node=241582011 . Do a simple search first because this is massive overkill. But if you’re looking for one particular edition, or you’re trying to find a hardback copy of a book when all your regular searches are finding paperbacks, do this.

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I don’t need to do this for my cryptogram book search but if I did I’d use the author, title, and publisher fields to find the book. When I’m doing searches for other books I find the publisher field also helps, but the Format field (paperback, hardcover, etc) has been the secret sauce for me when I’ve been unable to find a book on Amazon. Sometimes I’ll look everywhere on Amazon for a book and can’t find it. Then I’ll use the advanced search, specify the format along with everything else, and it appears immediately. Why? I don’t work at Amazon so I can’t say for sure, but my guess would be that the book I’m looking for is listed with the same title but as one of the “other formats” — see the screenshot below — and the advanced search is surfacing it.

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(Did not know that J.D. Robb was an 18th century author! 🙃)

Sometimes I’ll do a ton of Amazon searching and I won’t find what I’m looking for. I might not have the keywords right, or I’m looking in the wrong place, or there’s some other error I’m not aware of. In that case I’ll back out a bit and try again, only this time I use Google.

External Method – Google

I have in the past been hesitant to use Google to search Amazon. My reasoning went like this: Amazon is so huge that maybe Google hadn’t indexed it all, so any searches might be incomplete. But once or twice I fell back on using Google when Amazon’s search failed, and it worked well enough that I’ve been using it ever since. But always search Amazon first: by category, and then using the advanced search if you have to.

Formatting a Google search for Amazon is simple: title and author, with the operator site:amazon.com . (In case you don’t know – using site: on Amazon restricts a search to a top-level domain like .com, or a specific domain like amazon.com.)  My search for buranelli cryptogram site:amazon.com gave me quick results:

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I find also that Google can help me remember books on Amazon when I can bring the title to mind. To extend the Robb example, if I’m wondering “Which In Death book includes an ice rink as a crime scene?” I can ask Google, which will immediately tell me.

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Amazon has evolved into an enormous book catalog; I’m continually amazed at what I can find there. And if I can’t find it immediately, it usually just takes a few search tricks to winkle it out.

Categories: Learning Search, Rants

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4 replies »

  1. Ellis Island? Wow, what a trove. I found (with no effort at all) my mother (3 or 4 entries); my father (3 entries) and my (almost unknown to me) mother’s mother, Rosa Oppenheim, who arrived in 1939 on the Bremen from Germany. Think about that date… Thank you so much for your fabulous research, keep it up.

  2. Sorry to rain on your parade but your argument was somewhat muddied by an accidental miss-spelling at the start: burnelli instead of buranelli. I tried the search with corrected spelling and got same result, but then “buranelli” “the cryptogram book” got the following result: https://www.amazon.com/s/?ref=nb_sb_noss?url=node%3D69771&field-keywords=%22buranelli%22+%22the+cryptogram+book%22&rh=n%3A69771%2Ck%3A%22buranelli%22+%22the+cryptogram+book%22
    Appreciate your excellent reportage of the Web searching scene (and the fact that even someone as prolific as you still manages to trip up occasionally) ;))))

    Brian Bingley
    Adelaide, South Australia

    P.S Please close your eyes to the innumerable steals from your offerings amongst my BBBookmarks for WWWebsearch

  3. I did indeed trip up! Thank you for correcting me. I have seen this glitch in Amazon’s search before, and it did work with the correct spelling before (I checked this MANY times before I wrote it down.) I can’t believe I made this spelling error. I should really try not to write these things late at night. 🙂

  4. I first want to say that I appreciate your blog a lot. Thank you for your time.

    You can try the wonderful bookfinder.com to look up on several websites selling old and new books to find something specific at the best price. I’ve been using this for several years and it’s super effective in addition to be quicker!

    Best regards from Europe,

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