What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of helping search engines like Google or Bing identify what the content on your site is about, so that people searching for the kind of information you're offering will see your web site in their search results. It is not about "fooling" the search engine or "tricking" users into visiting your site, but about ensuring that your site appears in search results for which the content is appropriate.
For example, let's say that you sell motorcycle accessories. People refer to motorcycles by a number of different phrases. One person might search for "chopper accessories" while another looks for "motorbike saddlebags" and another wants "Harley jackets". If you want to draw as many visitors to your site as possible, you'll hopefully include all these phrases somewhere on your site (and with enough frequency) that a search engine associates those terms with your site.
There is a lot more to SEO than just plopping lots of phrases on your site. We'll cover the more critical points in this article. The rest I plan to offer later in an eBook.
Why Should Authors Care About SEO?
If you're a million-selling author with legions of dedicated readers, you may not need to care about SEO. After all, anything you write is likely finding its audience and publishers are clamoring for your work. Bit if you're not one of those fortunate few, you're probably experiencing some pressure caused by changes in the traditional publishing industry. Advances are smaller. Books go out of print faster. Publishers take longer to pay. Royalties on eBooks are declining.
Many authors are sitting on novels, short stories, and other writing that could be earning them money, but isn't. Self-publishing that content is one way to make money with it. Another is to share that content on the Internet and use advertising to monetize it. Regardless of the technique you use, you want to help readers find the content you're offering. If they can't find your work, they can't read it, and they can't pay you for it. SEO for authors is a tool you can use to ensure that when your readers look for you (or "something like" the content you're offering) they will find your work.
Knowing how to optimize your content for search engine indexing will help you. Knowing what NOT to do will help you as well. I'm going to discuss what search engines look for, how you can write and structure your content to make it easier for search engines to index your material, and warn you about mistakes that could hurt your search engine ranking. Although it may sound complicated, much of search engine optimization for writers and authors is based on creating good content that is accessible to your readers, which is something you hopefully already strive for.
What Do Search Engines Look For?
Search engines aren't all that difficult to fathom. They use programs referred to as "spiders" which scan the web looking for pages to index in their massive databases. When they find a new page, they begin looking at different items on that page in order to decide how to index it:
- What words and phrases appear on the page? Which ones appear most often?
- What words and phrases appear in title tags, bold type, italics, etc.?
- What words and phrases appear in image (photo, picture) tags?
- What words and phrases appear in HTML links to other pages (on this site or others)?
- What other sites link to this one, and what text do they use to do it?
- How often does the content on this site get updated?
All the above items are under your control, with the exception of sites linking to yours. You can encourage that, and do some of it yourself, but largely that is under the control of others.
The most important element in SEO, however, doesn't appear on that list: quality content. Fortunately, as an author, you should have everything you need to provide good content for your readers. How does a search engine decide that the content on your page is "quality" content? They use human beings.
There are individuals employed by the search engines to review web pages for quality content. These people actually go out and read the web pages found for a given search result. They rate it based on relevance, and their input goes into the indexing algorithm.
According to a Google search engine patent application I read years ago, they use another trick to "punish" deceptive sites. Specifically, they watch how long you stay on a given web page before hitting the "back" button in your browser to look at the search results and pick another page. How does this work?
Imagine that you've just searched for "mystery novels" in Google. A list of results appears. You click the first link in the list. When you get to that page, you find that it's nothing but a crappy page filled with advertisements and no usable information on mystery novels. You hit the back button almost instantly and go back to the search results. You try the next page in the results. This time, it looks pretty good. You stay and read for a few minutes. You hit the back button to look at more sites. Since you stayed on the first site for only a couple of seconds, but spent minutes on the second site, that tells the Google database something... The second site on the list must be more relevant, or have better content, than the first. They'll record a sort of electronic "vote" that the second site is better than the first. Over time, the first site (the one with lots of ads and crappy content) will start dropping down the list of search results. The second site will move up. The humans using Google actually help it improve the quality of search results.
Google does a lot more than the above, including things I'm sure we'll probably never know about. Because of the human review element, it's important that you don't try to "scam" or "spam" the search engines with your content. Doing that is the quickest way to move to the bottom of the search results.
How Should I Prepare Content for SEO?
Here are some basic guidelines for improving the ranking of your content in search engines:
- Write good content. This is the most critical piece. If your content is terrible, no amount of SEO will help keep it high in search results for long. The human element in search engine use will see to that.
- Include words and phrases people would use to find your content. Remember the motorcycle example earlier? When writing your content, try to imagine the various words and phrases a reader might use if they were looking for what you are offering. As best you can, weave those words and phrases into the text on your page. Don't overdo it or you'll run the risk of alienating readers or tripping the "spam" detectors.
- Include important words and phrases in HTML title tags, bold face text, and italic text. Search engines, like human readers, recognize that we tend to highlight the key words and phrases in our text. Careful use of these things will help the search engine to recognize what's relevant in your content.
- Include good links, with key words and phrases in the link text. For example, your short mystery story should probably have links to your other mystery stories. Those links should probably include the phrase "mystery story" (as in "here is another mystery storyI wrote" where the underlined words are linked). Remember it's the actual linked words that matter here. Ideally, the links should appear within the normal flow of the text, not in lists of links, as some search engines reduce the value of links presented that way.
- If you use images or photos, add "alt" and "title" attributes that contain descriptive phrases with your key words. Search engines, much like readers, will find articles with useful images more relevant or interesting than articles without images. If your page includes images, you can help show the search engine those images are relevant by using the "alt" and "title" attributes in your HTML image tags. Only do this if the image really is related to the keywords you're putting in the tag.
- Make sure the title and heading tags on your page contain descriptive text. For a short story, your HTML title tag might contain the phrase "Short mystery story - Murder at Midnight by John Doe". This helps a search engine to recognize that this page is a short story, a mystery, and is by John Doe. Often, these title tags become the heading in search results. Use them to help readers find your content.
- Use appropriate headings (H1, H2, etc. tags) in your content. Notice how I've used HTML headings (large bold tags) for phrases like "What is SEO?" on this article? That's intentional. Those headings help readers quickly see what parts of this article are about. They also help the search engine identify phrases that are relevant to the content I'm presenting. To the extent you can, you should do the same.
- Make it easy for readers and search engines to identify related content. One way to do this, as mentioned earlier, is to ensure you link related pages on your site together. If you post a short story, for example, linking to some of your other short stories from it will help. Having a "My Short Stories" page, which acts as a sort of central menu to your library, will also help.
- Phrase the same thought different ways in your text. Going back to the motorcycle example, brainstorm the various ways you might phrase a given thought. To the extent that you can naturally weave these various phrases into your content, do so. Use them multiple times if you can do so without hurting readability. Use them in link text, bold type, italics, heading tags, etc. This will all help the search engine (and the reader).
- Encourage people to link to your content. You can do this by opening asking in your content, by including links to Facebook/Twitter/Digg/etc. You can do it yourself by participating in online forums and linking back to your content where it is appropriate and relevant to do so (i.e., linking to your mystery story from a Chevy Corvette forum isn't appropriate or relevant and may hurt your ranking).
All of the above suggestions will improve your page's appearance in search engine results. To the extent that you can incorporate the above suggestions in your web site, you should. But if they hamper readability for humans, make your content look cluttered, etc., you should ignore them. (You may also want to read Google's Starter Guide to Search Engine Optimization.)
What You SHOULD NOT Do in SEO
Just as it is important for an author to do certain things in order to improve his or her search engine visibility, there are lots of things you should NOT do as well. Doing these will hamper your positioning in search engine results and could result in your site being blacklisted from the search engine (or being ranked very low in spite of really good content).
- Adding text strictly for search engines. Suppose you're posting an article on your site about writing fiction. You want to be sure that search engines figure that out. Should you put a blob of text at the end of that article which is nothing more than dozens of repeated phrases like "writing fiction, fiction writing, how to write fiction, write fiction, write stories" and so on? No. It may initially raise your ranking in search results, but humans will likely start penalizing you for that "paragraph of nonsense". (By the way, making the content invisible to readers by changing the text color to blend into the page background will get you banned very quickly.)
- Overdoing the bold, italic, and heading text. This will alienate readers and search engines alike. Depending on the length of the content, you don't want to do this more than once or twice per 500 words.
- Stuffing your content with key words. It's perfectly appropriate to use different phrasings for a thought in your content as long as it flows naturally. What you don't want to do is stuff those phrases into the content to the point that it hurts your readability. This makes you look like a terrible writer and will inevitably hurt your search engine ranking.
- Acquiring a lot of irrelevant links to your site. While having 300 pages link to your short story will generally help it in the search engine results, if those 300 links are from cooking sites, trading card collector sites, etc., they can hurt you. You can't control who links to your site, but if you're creating your own links, be sure they're coming from relevant sources and using relevant link text (i.e., "click herefor my content" is not a relevant bit of link text).
- Duplicate your content. While it's true that having 20 short stories on your web site will help it rank higher for the term "short story", putting 20 copies of a single short story on your site will hurt you. This is a trick used by a lot of search engine spammers, and will quickly get you blacklisted.
Google's rules change frequently, primarily because people try to "game" or abuse the system. It is recommended that you regularly check Google's recommendations to ensure that you don't run afoul of them.
SEO for Authors/Writers
I would encourage you to worry first about your content. Write the blog post, short story, novella, etc., in the manner you normally would. Don't think about SEO. When you're ready to post the material online, walk through the following steps.
- Brainstorm the phrases and terms that readers might search for when seeking the content you've just written. For works of fiction, you probably can't do much with the actual text. But you can incorporate an introduction or "about the author" section on the same page which does include key words and phrases.
- Where appropriate, bold or italicize important words and phrases. Again, within a work of fiction this may not be appropriate. But within the introduction or other text, it is.
- Where appropriate, link to other pages on your site from within your text. For example, at the first mention of a character name, you might link to a description of that character or a list of other stories you've written which include that character.
- Provide "hub" or "index" pages that gather similar content together on your site. A bulleted list linking to all your short stores, or all your mystery stories, etc., will help the search engine recognize the importance of those terms on your site. It will also help readers find your other works.
- If your work contains related photos or graphics, make sure the image tags contain descriptive text that includes relevant keywords.
- Where appropriate, add HTML heading tags that contain keywords.
- Include encouragement for others to link to your content. For works of fiction, you might include a paragraph at the end which says "I hope you've enjoyed this story. If you have, please support my work by sharing a link to this page with others who might appreciate it."
- Promote your content. Do this with Twitter posts, Facebook posts, links in appropriate online forums, and comments posted on other sites.
Remember that SEO is part art, and part science. It is also not something that works instantaneously. Over time, though, a well-written, properly-optimized page will tend to rank well in search engines.
Other SEO References for Authors
Following are some of the sites I've found helpful in learning to optimize my content for search engine ranking:
- Google's Search Engine Optimization (SEO) page
- SEOmoz's Web Developer's SEO Cheat Sheet
- Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide
- SEOmoz's Beginner's Guide to SEO