Ok, so there’s this thing you’ve maybe heard about before called search engine optimization. It has something to do with… Google? SERPs are a thing? There are… blue links?
A search engine is any piece of software that takes your input, searches through a database, and pulls up a result or a series of results that it thinks you want. The search engine you’re probably most familiar with is Google, or possibly its main competitors Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo. These search engines are designed to crawl and index the entire web, or at least the parts of it that haven’t been deliberately blocked from search engines’ view. Their purpose is taking your keywords and guessing as accurately as possible which page, out of all the billions on the internet, you wanted to see.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes when it comes to making how these search engines work. Each has a proprietary and carefully guarded algorithm that weighs websites based on criteria like how long the text of the page is, how fast it loads, how many other reputable sites linked to that site, whether the keyword you searched for appears on the page, whether the keyword you searched for appears too many times on the page, whether users who visited the page immediately clicked away, and many, many other considerations. All of this happens in a matter of microseconds, and then, voila, your search results are displayed.
But not all search engines cover the entire web. Some are only designed for one specific site. When you type the name of a book into the search bar on Amazon or Goodreads, you’re using that site’s search engine. When you Facebook stalk the cute guy you met at a bar using his last name + high school combo to figure out his full name, you’re using a search engine. When it’s 3 a.m. and you’re frantically typing keywords into JSTOR to find that one citation that will tie your whole thesis together, you’re using a (really shitty) search engine.
As an author, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about search engines, even if you use one every day to find answers to queries like, “what’s the minimum length for a novel” and “how long does it take to bleed out from a stab wound” and “cheap lounge pants for short people” and “itchy butt is it cancer.” But if you’re thinking seriously about publication, it doesn’t matter if you’re publishing through a traditional press, working with a self-publishing service, or slapping up posts on your own site: search engines are about to make or break your career.
Your Name (Or Your Pseudonym)
Ok, so this part’s easy. You put your name on your books, people search for your name, they find your books. Right?
Sort of right. The name that’s attached to your publications is your brand; you need one that’s unique, or at least impossible to mix up with someone else’s brand. You may have noticed that trendy tech companies often don’t use common nouns and verbs as words, but deliberately mash them together, misspell them, or shorten them: Lyft, Tumblr, Instagram, Netflix, Wikipedia, and so forth. That’s because it’s easiest to rank in a search engine for your own name–sometimes called a branded search term–if no one else is using it.
It takes a whole lot of clout to redefine the concept of Amazon or Apple. Those companies show up on the first page when you Google them because they’re marketing powerhouses. If you’re reading SEO 101 articles on a random self-published author’s website, sorry, you’re probably not a marketing powerhouse.
If you know your first and last name combo is completely unique in this world, congratulations! That’s your brand. Make extra sure to scour Google and Facebook to make absolutely sure that you’re the only person in the world who has an active online presence under your own name. If someone else had your name in the past but died, and that person was famous and got talked about in a lot of publications that are available digitally, or if they published any works that are still available, you may have a problem.
If you’re writing under a pseudonym, search Amazon and Goodreads to make sure that no one else is publishing work under that name. Check Google and Facebook and scope out anyone else who has an online presence under that name. Are they unlikely to publish a book in the near future? Fine, use that pseudonym. Is another author using that name already? Sorry–you’re going to need to choose a different name, especially if that author’s publishing in a genre close to yours.
If there are multiple people in the world with your first and last name combination, use Google to check that no one with your name seems to have any celebrity status that might edge you out of the rankings when fans try to search for you. Check Amazon and Goodreads to make sure no other author is using that name. If you truly don’t have any competition for that name as an author, or if you’re 100% confident that you won’t be mixed up with your doppelgänger, go ahead and use it! But if you’re the second James Doe to write middle-grade speculative fiction, you’re going to create needless mix-ups if you try to publish under a name another author is using. This sounds like a silly misunderstanding, but it can have major, possibly even career- and life-derailing implications if you’re mistaken for another author. (Content warning: that link contains some frank descriptions of suicidal ideation)
If your name is unique, but similar at a glance to another published author’s name, you can do what you want, but I’d strongly advise you to pick a pseudonym. Sorry to all the J.R.R. Tolkens, Neil Gamans, and Terry Patchetts of the world: any fans who type your name into a search engine are going to find it suggesting the other guy.
Your Book and Series Names
So I have some devastating news for you. That potential book name you’re completely attached to? The one that’s referencing a Shakespeare quote? Dozens of people are already using it, and your chances of outranking them are not great.
If someone’s searching for the name of your book or your series, you’ve already done the hardest part of marketing: getting them interested enough to check your work out. But if they can’t find your book in an ocean of identically named books, they may just give up, especially if they can’t remember your name (this happens A LOT) or if you didn’t follow my advice about names in the last section.
Fortunately, this is an easy fix for an unknown author: give your stuff a unique name. If your series has a unique name, maybe you can get away with sharing a book name with someone else. If you’ve got enough name recognition as an author that you’re confident that people will be searching for your name, or you’ve got a big marketing budget to back your book up, you can also play fast and loose with this rule. As a matter of fact, if you’re working with a traditional publishing house and they’ve got a team of book marketers and publicists, ask the people you’re working with with what to do.
Use a proper noun or a first and last name combination that’s unique to your story. The Lies of Locke Lamora. Gunnerkrigg Court. The Rats of Nimh. Redwall. Malazan Book of the Fallen. Karen Memory. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Discworld. Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. Dragonriders of Pern. Eragon. Gormenghast. The Hobbit. A Wizard of Earthsea. Mockingjay. The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Use the good old fantasy series trick to combine two interesting-sounding nouns that are rarely paired. The Wheel of Time. The Sword of Truth. Gentleman Bastard. The Dresden Files. The Laundry Files. The Black Company. The Magpie Lord. Lord of the Rings. Prince of Nothing. The Dark is Rising. Half a King. The Hunger Games. Girl Genius. Jurassic Park. American Gods.
Use a phrase with common words in an unlikely combination. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The Girl With All the Gifts. Life After Life. Full Dark, No Stars. Vampire Academy.
So I’m going to level with you here: I kinda sorta didn’t take my own advice here. I did make a list of potential series names when I was working on Astra Nullius, and I crossed off a bunch when it turned out I was competing with another book series, a video game, or a movie. But I didn’t come up with the phrase astra nullius; as a matter of fact, it’s been discussed in some scientific papers hosted on sites that Google trusts a whole lot. I’m banking on the fact that if I stick with it long enough, enough people will search for my work using that keyword that search engines will learn that people using that keyword don’t want scientific papers.
So, here’s some good news: as an author, you don’t have to care as much about search engine optimization for your own homepage as most business owners do. You’re not going to have to sweat about whether your business shows up in the Map Pack or whether it’s ranking first for “buy cheap books online.” That’s just not how people search for individual authors.
You should have your own website. Don’t tie your entire online presence to a social media account. Of course, you should be on social media too, but that’s a whole different article and we’re not going to get into that right now.
Where you choose to host your website and what you choose to do with it is up to you. There are easy options like Wix and Squarespace that let you pretty much drag and drop your way to a decent-looking site. There are easy-ish options like WordPress.com that come with certain tradeoffs in flexibility and arbitrarily withholding features. You can also go ahead and purchase your own domain name and hosting and build your own site, trading the occasional technical headache for much more flexibility. If you’re happy with your layout options, your content management system, and your analytics, that’s good enough.
And then, use common sense. Don’t:
- Build a site that’s really difficult to read or navigate, or that discourages people from getting to the place where they can give you money.
- Take tips from the kind of people who cold email you saying things like, “Greetings of the day, I can get your site to #1 on Google.”
- Deliberately spam keywords, hide text full of spammy keywords, pay for spammy links, or pay for “traffic” that does nothing but move a hit counter.
- Start and then abandon dozens of blogs with your name on different hosts, littering your search results with their desiccated corpses.
- Leave a bunch of broken links all over your site.
- Delete a post without redirecting that address somewhere.
- Forget to renew your own domain name (I am totally guilty of this).
- Let a torrent of spam pour forth unchecked in your comments.
- Start a blog, then leave it inactive for years. If you’re going to blog, then you gotta keep adding that fresh content.
- Forget to block your own IP address in Google Analytics, visit your live page dozens of times while you’re editing it, and then get excited about all those sweet hits (also guilty).
- Make every image on your site as gigantic a file as it could possibly be.
- Accidentally hit a button that prevents search engines from indexing your page (I’m hopefully not guilty of this, but it’s easier than you might think to screw this up in many content management systems).
- Post the same content over and over.
- Put up short blog posts many times a day, unless you’re Seth Godin, then you can do what you want.
- Host your blog on a different domain than the rest of the website–unless, again, you are Seth Godin or you’ve got a really great following on a different blogging platform already.
- Steal content from other people.
One slip-up won’t destroy your entire site’s rankings forever–unless it’s the spam thing, so don’t do the spam thing. When in doubt, think about the kind of site you want to see: one that’s easy to navigate, pleasant to look at, quick to load, and regularly updated with new content if there’s a blog or newsfeed. Then make that site. If you’re feeling bold, you can get into manually editing your title tags and meta descriptions and using the Google Search Console, but you don’t have to sweat those things as an author. Getting into those technical details is only necessary if you’re a business trying to outrank your competitors–and if you followed my advice about your name and title, you won’t have anyone else competing for your search terms.
The newer and less well-known you are as an author, the more you have to care about search engine optimization. Unless you’re hand-selling all your books at a table at a con, or you’ve got big marketing bucks securing you a prime spot in brick-and-mortar bookstores, you need SEO. Search engines are how people who’ve heard of you once will find you a second time, and a third time, and that time they want to recommend you to their friend, and that time they remember a funny post you wrote two years ago, and the time when your name pops into their head at just the right moment and they decide to look you up on Amazon at long last.