How to master SEO as an author

Self-publishing usually involves self-promoting, and that doesn’t just mean getting the word out to anyone who’ll listen. Perhaps the most critical aspect of self-promotion is making sure that people who are looking for your book can find it. That happens almost entirely on the web these days, and every search is guided by search engines—meaning they’ll need to be able to find your book, too.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is all about understanding and harnessing some of the hundreds of data points the search algorithms use to direct searches for any given words towards relevant pages. You want to be at the top of their page lists to make discovery as foolproof as possible.

No matter how interesting your book is to humans, it’ll be hard to find unless you catch the eye of the robots, that’s where SEO for authors comes in. Here, we’ll cover the most important steps you’ll need to take to boost your book’s web prominence—or, as they call it in the SEO business, its “authority.” So, with that first lesson down…

Self-published author working on her web presence using SEO

1. Take stock of your web presence

For starters, you’ll want to identify which website(s) you want to steer searches towards. If you’re already an active blogger with a following of readers, you’ve got a head start. Post about your latest book with all the tips and tricks below, and the search engines should start updating the results favorably the next time they crawl and categorize your site.

If you’re a first-time publisher, you’ll want to consider creating a new website for your book, (or yourself and your book). Plenty of web hosts offer quick and easy templates to make this process fairly simple. The site itself can be as complicated and flashy as you like—but keep in mind that most of the visual and interactive bells and whistles will have no impact on search results. 

Whatever primary destination you’re planning to use, if your book doesn’t have a presence on Goodreads yet, now’s the time to set that up. You’ll also likely have an external e-commerce page where readers can buy your book, so you’ll want to apply some of the keyword tips below to that as well.

2. Identify your keywords

Think about what words readers would use to search for your book. Those are your SEO keywords, and you’ll want to use them prominently wherever the book can be found online so that the search engines start associating those words with your title.

As an author, choosing the best SEO keywords can be tricky if your book covers much-discussed topics, as there’s a lot of noise out there that the search engines have to account for. On the other end of the spectrum, if hard-to-spell places and character names or little-known terms are a big part of your book, that’s good news and bad news; you won’t be competing with as many other pages when people search for those exact words—but you can’t necessarily count on users inputting the right search terms in the first place.

So the balancing act here is to choose keywords that set your book apart from other search results while also keeping in mind how and what people know to search for. If you need help getting started (or you really want to dive into some data and understand the best possible keywords for your book), services like Google Keyword Planner and Moz can help with keyword discovery. Find five to seven words that fit the bill, and carry them with you as you continue on your SEO journey as an author.

Person holding a hashtag sign

3. Use your keywords

Next, you’ll be writing and developing content that puts those SEO keywords to use. Depending on your platform, that’ll happen in a lot of different places, or a whole lot of different places.

Whatever content you’re producing, write copy that surrounds and supports your book’s keywords. For instance, while the promotional blurb for your book on third-party ecommerce sites shouldn’t give away any plot twists or spoil any surprises, the more relevant (and hopefully unique) keywords it contains, the better the search engines will connect those words to your book.

Don’t be shy about using the keywords prominently on your own site, but don’t just repeat them out of context. Search engines detect and ignore keyword abuse, so every time you use a keyword, it should be relevant and on-topic. The engines also rank pages with deeper content more favorably, so it’s better to have one page that goes into detail (500+ words) than multiple pages and posts with short, keyword-heavy snippets. In short: don’t try to trick the robots.

Apply your book’s keywords wherever they belong and don’t miss an opportunity to use them in things like headlines. For instance, while you may have thought up a heading for your book description that’s attention-grabbing and mysteriously vague, if it doesn’t include any of your keywords, you’ve missed an SEO opportunity.

Images on webpages offer another chance to maximize your keywords. Include yours in image captions whenever applicable. You should also work keywords into the alt text for your images. This is data used to describe content when it can’t be displayed properly (and to help visually-impaired users). You’ll usually only encounter it if you hover over an image in your browser, but the search engines see it all the time, and they apply it to the algorithms.

Every web page also uses metadata which, in addition to telling browsers how the page should look, includes a description to the content on the page. You’ll usually notice metadata as the text directly beneath blue-link search result in a search engine. This factors into page ranking, so if you’re in charge of your site’s metadata, keep your keywords front and center in this description.

SEO isn’t just about your own site’s popularity—it accounts for the sites that link to you, and the sites you link out to as well. Building hyperlinks into your content helps connect your site to other proven search destinations. So if you’re referencing another author or source of inspiration in a blog post, include a link to their site or the work. And of course, be sure to link to any and all sites that are selling your book. It doesn’t just drive sales. It tells search engines that your site, and by extension your book, is connected to high-authority websites of established retailers.

Once you’ve published any external link, you’ll want to check back regularly to make sure that address is still live, and still contains the content you intended. Links to dead pages are a strike against your site in SEO, and links to irrelevant content can confuse the algorithm.

5. Optimize your optimization

Another important step in your SEO journey as an author is building your search authority by enabling a sitemap. This is a listing of all your site’s pages, which the search engines use to better understand its structure. Submit a sitemap to each search engine you want to crawl your site. They’ll take notice of any updates you make, and it increases the likelihood of your pages being indexed in the first place.

You’ll also want to be sure your site is mobile-friendly. Any visitor that can’t view the site properly won’t spend time there and won’t link to it, so it’s important to make sure it’s working well on whatever device any user might encounter it on. Quite a few factors and features apply here, but most DIY web templates these days will guide you in the right direction. And you can always use an online tool to quickly test the mobile-friendliness of any site.

You don’t have to be a coder to take advantage of these and other richer website features to support your book’s SEO. Services and software like Yoast can help automate and improve various SEO-relevant aspects of your site, and help you understand how search engines are using what they find there.

6. Be patient. Be persistent.

SEO for authors is not easy or fast, and it will require patience and persistence. Even the best search engine optimization doesn’t guarantee results overnight. Search algorithms measure interest and relevance cumulatively, so while just getting your SEO right is an important step, the search engines may take some time to move your book up in the rankings.

The SEO process also isn’t entirely in your hands. For a certain result to rise to the top of search results quickly, other people will have to be talking about it too—and ideally linking to your site and anywhere else your book is being mentioned. You can help nudge that along by promoting your book however and wherever you can. The more chatter the book generates, the more authority it’ll have in the search engines.

The big takeaway here: it’s important to keep adding and updating content about your book. This can mean making new blog posts with author insights and musings, or adding new sections to your website with announcements, reader responses, and press coverage of your book.

It’s a big internet, and it’s always getting bigger, so a steady cadence of new (and SEO-friendly) content is essential to your self-publishing effort. But if you’ve already written a book, you’re more than up the task!

Stack of photo books

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