SEO for books and ebooks is the key to ‘discoverability’ — making sure online searchers can find them. A technique borrowed from the web, search engine optimization (SEO), is arguably the single most important skill to acquire to sell books online. We’ll look at how to address this problem by applying  SEO to books and ebooks.

SEO for books: Why it’s important

Search engines are often the biggest source of website traffic, so understanding how to optimize your website to attract searchers is a vital skill.

SEO for books: Hitting the bullseyeBut for book and ebook publishers, the value of being easily found by searching online goes well beyond their own websites. It extends to the many other places readers seek out their next book — including online ebookstores, library catalogs, and review sites like blogs and social networks.

Publishers can influence these results by optimizing book metadata so their books can be found in all of these places online.

SEO for books is arguably the single most important skill for a publisher today. In fact, a surprising number of successful online bookstores were started by search engine marketers, not booksellers.

How search engines work: Search in a nutshell

Let’s first look at how search engines work. Once we understand this, we’ll better understand what we should do to improve the chances of our pages popping up early on the results pages.In a nutshell

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 and, in the code behind the scenes, it’s written as ‘<h1>’. 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 (sorry, search engines like Google will not let you buy a better ranking in organic results).

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.

Two essential tools for search engine optimization

A the heart of search optimisation are keywords. You optimize a web page for specific keywords and phrases that searchers use in their queries. Note that it’s the page, not the site, that you optimize for, so each new piece of content should be optimized for relevant terms. (There are site-wide things the web developer can do. Most of the key ones are set at the time the site is built.) There are two essential tools SEO experts use when optimising pages.

  • Keyword research tools to help identify terms to optimize for
  • Analytics reports to monitor how the page is performing against these terms and other criteria

Two of the most widely-used tools are supplied by Google which makes available a vast amount of information about what people are searching for and where they’re finding it. The best part about it is that the services are free. Google provides them to help its paid advertising (AdWords) customers develop and track advertising campaigns but they’re great for any optimisation project.

Google AdWords Keyword Tool Good SEO practice starts with putting yourself in your readers’ shoes and trying to guess which words and phrases they’ll use to search for you or your book.

A pencil, paper and a brainstorming session is a great place to start, but Google helps by providing a keyword research tool which you can use to find, refine and test, likely words and phrases.

Using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, you can either enter your own keywords to test; or enter a link to a web page (such as a high-ranking competitor) which Google’s tool will analyse for keywords. This tool will show you how many search queries use the terms, suggest new phrases, and show you how much demand there is for these terms by other marketers.

A phrase with high searches and low demand, for instance, might be a good one to optimize for if it’s relevant to your page. You should optimize for exact phrases and you should use longer phrases, often quite narrow, not just one or two words.

Google Analytics The real power of digital marketing comes from the ability to measure almost every aspect of online performance. This opens the door to testing alternatives and fine-tuning your marketing to generate sustained sales success.

Once again, Google provides us with one of the best services and it’s free. Google Analytics works by adding an invisible, unique tracking code to each of the web pages you want to track. It matches this against the vast amount of data it captures from users and other websites, to provide analysis of your online performance including

  • How many visitors found the page
  • Where they came from — which sites, which countries
  • Which search terms or referrers (links from other sites or social networks) led them here
  • Whether they purchased products or viewed other pages
  • Where they went when they left the page or site
  • How different groups of users compare
Google Analytics goes further by letting you track the effectiveness of ad campaigns you might be running, or by letting you set up tests to compare performance of different page elements such as headlines (or titles and subtitles), blurb copy, cover images, offers, and placement.

In line with the increasing importance of social media, Google has also added social reporting to Analytics. This tracks visits from social media such as Twitter and Facebook to your site’s pages.

How to boost your search results

Now that you’ve seen how search engines work, we’ll show you some specific things you can do that will improve your search engine rankings.

1. Use keyword tools to test search terms

Once you’ve researched words and phrases your readers might use to find you, you should test them using one of the keyword checking tools available online. A good place to start, as we’ve noted, is the free Google AdWords Keyword Tool.


Using a CMS editor (WordPress) to create search-friendly pages (Click to enlarge image).

2. Use keywords in the page title and headings

There are two HTML tags that search engines rate very highly: Title and Heading 1. So one of the biggest SEO paybacks comes from adding keywords to these tags.

How do you put them there? A web designer can add the tags but a content management system (CMS) like WordPress makes it easy. WordPress places the title you give the post into the Title tag. And its editor includes a Paragraph style button you can use to apply the Heading 1.

The most important tag is the Title. It’s the link you click on in the Google search results; it’s also what you see in the top blue bar of your web browser when you’re on the page.

As well as the Heading 1 paragraph style, you might also use Heading 2, 3 and so on, in diminishing order of importance.

3. Add keywords in the first 50-100 words of copy

Google and other search engines place higher importance on copy that’s closer to the top of the page.

4. Use categories and tags

If you’re using a content management system like WordPress, don’t post your story until you’ve added categories and tags. These are used to classify your stories. As well as making it easier for visitors to find related stories on your site, search engines love them as keyword matches.

5. Get in-bound links from other sites

Google’s search algorithm, called Page Rank, counts the number and quality of links coming into your site from other sites. So getting more in-bound links is one of the best ways to improve your rankings. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Add your site to public directories. There are quite a few sites that index various parts of the web so ensuring your site is known by them will help. One of the most important is the Open Directory Project (, the largest human-edited directory of the Web and one that search engines such as Google reference. Many countries will have local directories, too. Directories have online submission forms you can use to get your sites considered.
  • Submit stories to sites. There are many sites that accept press releases. They often require registration first but submission is free and the best ones, like BusinessWire, also distribute stories to a network of other sites and media. For non-fiction, you might offer excerpts in exchange for a link back to a relevant page on your site.
  • Guest post for a blog. Some bloggers will run guest posts from other writers. These should be personalised to the blog (you can pitch the story idea before writing it). This will also be useful as part of building a relationship.
  • Distribute your links through social networks and encourage their re-posting by other users
  • Negotiate reciprocal links. If you have a blog, see if bloggers you like will list you on their blogroll and to do the same with their blog on your own site.
  • Testimonials. You can offer testimonials for authors, publishers, speakers, suppliers, etc that will be linked back to your site.
  • Comment on articles on other sites with a link back to your article or site. But use with care and be respectful.
  • But don’t seek links from dubious sites, including sites that sell or ‘swap’ links. Search engines will actually mark you down for these — sometimes fatally by blacklisting your site.

6. Use keywords in links

Search engines follow links, whether they’re on your site or in-bound from an external site. Where you can control the text, make sure your links are rich with relevant keywords. This should include internal links (that is, links to pages within your site). So instead of writing: ‘Click here to buy my book’, you should write: ‘Here’s where to buy The Secret Life of Spiders’. Internal links serve another purpose: They help the search engine spiders to find important pages on your site. They’re also good for human visitors, giving them more opportunities to stay on your site and view more of its content.

7. Have lots of fresh, unique copy

Search engines like new content. And they don’t like duplicated content: They’ll mark you down if they find that a lot of your content is on, or from, other sites.

8. Optimize your website design

While we’ve emphasised that SEO is about optimising pages, there are several things your web designer can do at the site design stage, affecting the overall site, that will improve your search rankings. Here are some examples:

  • Use a domain name which includes keywords.
  • Set up your site’s pages to use search engine friendly URLs. The URL is the address that appears in the browser address bar. Search engine friendly URLs use human-readable keywords, rather than obscure combinations of letters, numbers and symbols.
  • Use keyword-rich text navigation to pages within your site. If you use must use an image to link to a page, add a title and alternate text to the image tag.
  • Add a site map which provides text links to every page on your site.
  • Use keywords in the menu items and use text links rather than graphic links in menus.
  • Improve your site speed. Search engines mark you down for a slow site (as do human visitors).
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