Sunday, July 11, 2010

Writer Promotion - SEO for Author Websites

We're taking author promotion old-school and starting with setting up your author website. For the purposes of these brief write ups, I'm going to assume that you're creating your own website, and I'm going to offer some very basic tips on SEO. This is for those who have little experience in web design.

Your author site is the foundation of all the other online promotion you're going to be doing. It's the place where you'll send potential readers, agents and publishers who are interested in you and your work. It's the place where you'll link to in your announcements, newsletters, publication notices and posts on the various social networks. You need a stable home base where you have control of the content and layout.

Many of the agents and publishers who have an online presence have stated that they DO 'Google' up authors who's work they may be interested in repping or publishing and some of them have stated outright that they expect you to have an author website. So, it pays to create one, and make it content rich, attractive and representative of you in the most professional light.

SEO. If you've been online for a while, you've seen this term. It means "Search Engine Optimization". This is the science and art of coding your website so it is picked up and indexed by search engines and gets good return results from web searches. Search engine crawlers don't look at aesthetics, so you need to incorporate both good design and SEO in your website design.


You want to spend your time writing, not coding, so I'll keep it as simple as possible. There are a handful of simple things that you can do when creating your website that will improve your search ranking. If you plan ahead and take the time to code the site well as it's being created, you shouldn't have to do much more except keep it updated. That's tip number one.

1) Fresh content. When we first started publishing The Battered Suitcase online, many of our contributing authors were confused about why we insisted on submissions that were previously unpublished online and insisted that if they had posted it at their own website, that it be removed during an exclusivity period. That's because search engines down-rank websites that contain duplicate content. And that's the ONLY reason. When search engines crawl websites looking for content to index, they will 'demerit' websites that have the same content as other sites. So, you must insist that content on your author site is fresh and unpublished elsewhere. If you are featuring excerpts of your work, make sure that you've removed them from the critique section at your favorite author forum, or from your facebook notes, or where ever else they may be online. Even better is to feature excerpts that have never appeared online, and to leave those other excerpts up where they stand, especially if you have placed a back link to your website from that location (more about that later). BTW-as the publishers have begun to realize the selling power of the web, they have quite loosened their stance about online presentation of written work. Although putting something online IS 'Publishing" it, most of even the stodgiest old publishers have finally realized that it's good marketing and not 'self-publishing'. Search engines like it when your content is refreshed periodically, so you'll have to keep your site updated on a periodic basis. You don't want to put the whole of your recent WIP online, though, so coming up with new content can be difficult. Consider adding well-written scenes that were deleted from the current draft. You know, those "darlings" that everyone is telling you to kill. Coming up with fresh content can be a chore, especially when you're in the middle of revisions, or feeling down from a query rejection, but do try to add new content to your website on a regular basis.

2) Tags and Titles:  I've been looking around online at some of the author websites and found a distressing amount of them titled "Home Page". The very first element in your site that the search engines base your ranking on is your page title. If yours says "Home Page" it means that you haven't set up your titles and meta tags. Each and every page of your website should have a specific descriptive title, and your "home page" should be your author name and your genre(s). If you have more than one 'page' (and you should), each of them should be titled distinctly and descriptively.

If you're really new to website structure, a web "site" is like a book, with a number of pages all under one domain (title). A "page" is literally that - one single page in the whole book. You might have several pages in your "site". Your home page (which you will title correctly with your name and genre) might be something catchy and attractive with a quick blurb about who you are and what you do. Many authors feature their current publication or upcoming WIP on the home page. Other pages might be a biography, a bibliography, an FAQ, perhaps a page about your favorite charity, a contact page (with your 'safe' address or contact info for your agent, publicist or publisher), your tour schedule, whether a RL tour or a blog tour, maybe a shopping page with links to your books on Amazon (especially if you're self-pubbed although that's something that could be done on your bibliography). Some authors like to have contests to give away swag or copies of their books - that should have it's own page as well. You'll probably want to do an individual page for each of your books - where you can describe it, show a great picture of the cover, give your 250 word setup, etc. One page might in fact be your 'blog' - which you'll update periodically. Each of these pages need to be titled individually. For example:

Home Page: "Fawn Neun, Paranormal Romance Books for Teens"
FAQ Page: "Q&A for Teen Readers of Romance Fiction"
Bibliography: "Bibliography for Fawn Neun, author of young adult love stories"
Contest: "Win a Free Copy of "Love on The Run", the New Teen Romance Novel by Fawn Neun"
Etc., ad nauseum

Along with title tags, each page needs meta tags. Meta tags are coding that tell search engines how to index and deal with your site. You'll put keywords in these tags, your page titles, your name, suggestions on how often the crawler should index, etc. It looks complicated but if you go to http://www.submitexpress.com/ there's a meta tag generator there that will help you 'write' a basic set of tags for your website. Each and every "page" of your site should have separate meta tags with their own keywords and title.

Keywords are important and it pays to be clever when choosing them.  You don't want to go crazy and use every word you think will get your site some attention (for one thing, putting 'kinky wild sex' in the keywords will cause some firewalls and net nannies to block your website, even if the actual content is about 'fluffy mild socks'). What pays off is to use several different versions of terms that basically mean the same thing throughout the whole website. See the example above. You'll notice I used "teen" and "young adult" interchangeably, as well as using "stories", "books", "fiction", "novels", "romance" and "love stories".

Think about your keywords carefully and remember that people like to shorten words, sometimes misspell them, etc. If you write young adult fiction, remember that your audience is more likely to search on "books for teens" instead of "young adult fiction". Science fiction fans might use "sci fi" or "sci-fi" instead of spelling it out. Romance readers might be searching on "love stories". If you forget your audience and get too technical, you might find your site visited more by other authors sizing up the competition by looking up "Authors of paranormal romance for young adults" than actual readers who are looking up "hot vamp love stories for teens" -- so keep your mind with the audience when choosing keywords.

3) Keyword Density: Along with the keywords in your page titles and meta tags, you should reflect these keywords in the actual content of your website. It's easiest if you do so in the stable elements of your website: title blocks, subtitles for sections, navigation links, etc. For example, you could put a text block with the website description from the meta tag - a brief description of you and your work - and use it in your pages as a design element. You could use the term "My Books for Teens" or "Romance Novels" to click to navigate to your list of books, instead of the more generic "Bibliography" or "Books".

You should also use these keywords in subtitles for entries, part of the text and even as image tags. Image tags are descriptive text that is coded inside the placement of a picture on your website. Instead of throwing up an author photo of yourself called "TNG00056.jpg" (or whatever your camera calls it), rename your author photo "Fawn_Neun_Books_for_Teens.jpg" before using it. You can also add an alt tag to it, and if you are using a website building tool, you'll use the images properties menu to add the alt tag. Along with naming the photo something keyword rich, you can add an alt tag "alt tag="paranormal romance for young adults by fawn neun". This adds two more uses of my keywords to the page coding without the reader being aware of the redundancy. All of these keywords will be picked up by search engines and used to rate the content of your website. You can also do the same with pictures of your book covers - both changing the title and adding an alt tag. And if the image is clickable to a page with similar tags and keywords - even better.

Remember to keep a balance between coding and design. You don't want to pepper your website with keywords so heavily that it looks amateurish or silly, especially if they are visible to the reader, but do take advantage of opportunities when they seem appropriate. It's a subtle art.

4) Link Backs: This is the last of the really important elements you need for a high ranking website. Link backs are one of the top ways that search engines rank the importance and relevance of your website. These are links on other websites that link back to yours. The engines assume that if other websites think you're important enough to link to, you must be. There are several ways to cultivate links back to your site.

However, before slamming the internet with links to your website, it's important to know a few things. First, the higher the ranking of the site your link is on, the more 'respect' the link will earn.  (You can find the page rank of any site by using IE and utilizing the page rank feature in the Google tool bar, or by searching for it here: http://www.prchecker.info/check_page_rank.php) The second is to remember that links on sites that have nothing in common with yours are basically useless for SEO.

a) Link exchanges - many websites feature 'link' pages where you swap links to other, similar sites as a way of supporting them and increasing both of your page ranks. Remember item 2 above. If you're a sci-fi writer, a link exchange at a health and beauty site isn't much use.

b) Links at social networking sites. THIS is where the homebase concept comes in. If you're on social networking sites and sharing your work, link from your twitter or facebook page back to the full info at your website. Especially on facebook, it's nice to have a vivid image to show a thumb for on the page your linking to. So, make your pages visually interesting so the images appear on your facebook posts - they get attention. I understand the search engines are trolling twitter and facebook. Make sure the URL for your author site is in your SN profiles, favorites, etc. Make sure it's in your signature block in every forum you regularly visit - especially if it's a forum about books, writing, publishing, etc. And make sure it's an ACTIVE link. Just having the URL in text only doesn't work for search engines. It needs to be set up as an active, clickable link to be followed. Each forum is different, but it pays to take the time to learn how to make an active link in your signature block. Putting it in your signature blocks keeps you from having to type it in every time you post or comment. However, do be aware of any restrictions about links in each forums guidelines. Some of them have very particular rules about back links.

c) Blog/Forum commenting. If you're visiting popular blogs, forums, etc., make sure you utilize that great little function where it lets you put in your website when you comment. Even if the address doesn't show to the readers - the link will be there actively, linked to your user name. Don't be an arse about it like some people and comment randomly and irrelevantly on every high ranked writing/book/publishing blog you can find. The search engines don't care, but real people find it off-putting. Make sure you have an intelligent response and take advantage of the situation to present a good front to both the author and readers of the blog as well as providing a link for the search engines.

Once you have your website built and coded for SEO - you can use a submission tool to get the search engines to take a look at it. Links on other sites will be picked up when the crawlers hit those sites - but you can, in fact, submit the pages you've linked from to the search engines. It can take a couple of days, even weeks, for the search engines to pick up all your pages and all your links. The trick is to keep things happening and giving them a reason to reindex your site. So, keep your content fresh, keep it keyword oriented and get your links in the best web 'neighborhoods' for your purpose.

Without going into the technicalities here - if you're interested in learning more, consider creating and uploading a sitemap for your site and submitting it to Google. There's a similar key file for Yahoo. This isn't exactly high-level SEO, but it's the next step up from simple tagging and linking. I can see some eyes glazing now, so I'll stop, but those of you who have the interest and determination to do so should consider sitemapping and keyfile your next step after coding your site properly.

I hope these tips were useful for helping to optimize your self-made author site for search engines. Promotion budgets at the publishers are low, advances rarely cover the cost of a publicist, and hey - it never hurts to learn something new and become self-sufficient in unexpected areas of life. Besides, it's something to play with between writing projects and will distract you from your inbox when waiting for feedback from a query or a submission.

There are several tools online that can make the job a little easier. I do recommend Submit Express for some of the most basic services - it will submit your site to search engines, give you an idea of how many back links you have, it will help you create meta tags, etc. It's a good basic site of web tools to start with. Have fun and good luck !

Next - sticking to Old School Author Promotions - Press Releases; what they are, how to write one, where to send them...