Search, discoverability and metadata

Discoverability — making sure a book stands out and can be found online  — is one of the biggest challenges facing digital publishers. A technique borrowed from the web, search engine optimization (SEO), is arguably the single most important skill for digital publishers to acquire. We’ll take a look at SEO and its close partner, metadata, and at how search engines work, to see how it can be applied to online book marketing.

Search and metadata

As we’ve seen, search engines are often the biggest source of website traffic so understanding how to optimize your website to attract searchers is a vital skill.

But for  publishers, the importance of being easily discovered online goes well beyond their own websites to the many other places readers seek out their next book — including online ebookstores, library catalogues, and review sites like blogs and social networks.

Publishers can influence the search results on other websites by optimizing book metadata.

Search engine optimization (SEO) — the process of ensuring your content ranks highly on search query results pages — is perhaps the single most important skill for a digital publisher today.

Search engines in a nutshell

Let’s first look at how search engines work and see how this determines the kinds of things we can do to help our pages pop up early in search results. Wallnut shell

It all starts with keywords and search terms

Search engines match the terms people key into the search box with what they know about billions of pages on the web. They rank those pages around search terms. So your starting point for any search marketing is: Which words and phrases will potential customers use to find me?

Those algorithms, again

Search engines send out automated programs called ‘spiders’ or ‘web crawlers’ to examine every website and page, and index them in their search databases. They apply secret algorithms to give each page a rank against those search terms. Its page rank determines where it appears on the search results pages – near the top, or buried many pages deep.

The visible and the invisible

When a spider examines your web pages, it looks at what is both visible and invisible as it searches for clues to what the page is about. The invisible clues are buried in the HTML code that makes up the web page. If a page includes the visible phrase, ‘the secret life of spiders’ it might pop up on Google when someone is searching for ‘life of spiders’. It will pop up much higher on the search page if that phrase appears in a Heading 1 tag. That’s a style tag you apply in the HTML code to make the letters bigger and bolder on the page. Its prominence means it’s reasonable for a search engine, just like a visitor to the site, to take this as clue that the page talks a lot about spiders.

Link popularity

To return the best search results, a search engine has to figure out what a page is about and how good it is. One of the most powerful ways of doing the latter is to look at how many websites and social networks have linked back to it. So when a search engine examines your website, it looks beyond what’s on the actual pages to its connections to the rest of the web. Those spiders it sends out follow links to see where they lead. The more places that link to you, and the more important those sites — or more influential those social network users are — the higher your pages are likely to rank.

Getting to the top

Being in the top three or four results on the first page of search results makes a huge difference to whether your page will be clicked on. There are two ways you can get to the top: by optimizing your web pages and by paying.  The first is referred to as organic search; the second, logically enough, is paid search. Organic search results appear in the search pages, and paid results appear above and beside those results as ads.

Measuring and analyzing

Everything is recorded and measured. Successful search engine marketing is very analytical. This is quite alien to a lot of authors and publishers but the most successful digital practitioners roll up their sleeves and dig into the data.

Here’s a short video from Google that shows some of these things in action.


VIDEO: How Google's search engine works

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Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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