The short answer is you should definitely worry about it. The question is what can you commit to consistently providing data about your pages and products that can be picked up by search engines? If you commit to doing as much as you can early in your career, it will pay dividends throughout your career. If you wait until you are several articles in or several books in, going back to catch up becomes a large project that most people don’t want to tackle.
Because I tend to teach about the technical side of being an author, I get more questions about SEO than anything else. Authors complain to me that they just “don’t get it.” The whole concept of Search Engine Optimization is complex and the list of things we are expected to do sounds both difficult and time-consuming. As with all things relating to marketing, visibility, networking, you do what you can and put in place a consistent process that will make it easier and more efficient.
SEO is essentially a way to provide useful information to search engines so that they can read it quickly and index it. Done well, it will send you the right kind of readers for what you write.
It used to be website managers had to hand-code all of that information. But today there are plugins and apps and forms that anyone can use to help them without having to code a thing.
If you are a consistent blogger here on Medium, you are probably already doing many parts of content SEO: good titles, formatting titles and subtitles, including images and providing captions, selecting the best keywords, and linking to other articles. Medium provides not only formatting standards with step-by-step instructions, but also fairly easy selection of keywords and how popular they are.
If you are an author writing and selling books you have help in SEO through distributors, publishers, and any social media you are using because those organizations already have systems in place for categorization, keywords, and links. However, you will have to do it yourself for your own website and the content you maintain there, as well as any blogs, guest posts, or articles you also write.
Throw Away Most Advice on SEO More Than Five Years Old
It used to be all you had to understand about page-based SEO was to create good content, select some relevant keywords, and think up a good title that represented the content. All of that is still important. What has changed is the importance of ranking, relevancy, and site usability.
When I first started down the SEO path, back in the late 1990’s before Google existed and the term SEO was barely on the lips of Bob Leyman and Leland Harden (1997), search was all about generating traffic to the site. Ranking was based on how many times you used the keyword(s) within the content.
There was no focus on quality or relevant content. In fact, most search algorithms used a pretty basic keyword comparison of strings of characters and counts of how often that same keyword appeared to determine ranking in the results displayed. Naturally, everyone wanted to get traffic to their site, and webmasters soon realized that if they put in whatever was popular that week or month, whether it was relevant to the content or not, they would get clicks to their website.
In 1997 I didn’t have to write a blog about the movie Titanic to get clicks. I could write about hiking a trail in the Cascades, but list the word “Titanic” as a keyword and get clicks to my website. I never did that, by the way, because I’ve always been obsessive about keywords, titles, and content all matching in relevancy. However, many people did use those tactics. It was a way to get thousands of hits to the website which made it look like the website was more popular.
The problem is, people who did that may have gained traffic but they weren’t necessarily converting it to consumers. In fact, many users were frustrated to click on a link that purportedly had something to do with the Titanic but instead finding someone trying to sell shoes — and not even deck shoes.
As search algorithms became more complex and compared more variables to get better relevancy, people gaming the system tried the same tricks in other ways: placing keywords within the description, in the title, as a hidden string that users wouldn’t see but bots would pick up. I still see these old-fashioned scams being taught by SEO gurus and being used by some authors. Again, they may bring traffic but not necessarily convert to buyers.
Those tricks no longer work in the big search engines like Google. Even Amazon has been constantly adapting to make sure keyword stuffing isn’t effective. In the end, SEO is still about relevancy.
AI Now Drives Search
Today, with the exponential use of voice queries to do search, instead of readers typing keywords on a computer, consumers are asking questions in sentence form and they are not all using the exact same words, nor in the same sequence. For the search engine to be able to take that question, parse it, and provide a response that will make the reader happy, they must use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
Even in the past year, I’ve seen huge leaps in how AI is reshaping the way users engage with my website, my brand, and my products. Whereas I used to be content with having even one link to my website or my books show up somewhere on the first page in a Google search; now a voice query attempts to find the one best answer that will provide the person a direct link to what they want. That means it is critical to be in the first-position ranking.
For example, if I say: “Show me the latest romance book by Maggie Lynch,” a perfect match would be for my book Heart Strings to show up as the first position. The book was published in 2018. It is the third in a series but published later than three other short titles in the series. In other words, it’s not an easy query.
While writing this article I said exactly that statement above into my phone. The first thing to appear at the top of the page had nothing to do with me. It was an Amazon ad for Audible bestsellers. There is nothing I can do about that, as I’ll never compete with the kind of spending Amazon can bring to get their products at the top.
However, the next item on the page was my website homepage where I have a graphic of the audiobook version of Heart Strings in my recent releases section. I admit I’m pleasantly surprised Google found that and knew it was a match.
If you went to my website, you would see that the text on my home page does not mention Heart Strings. In fact, the only thing that has the word is the book cover captured inside an image of a phone with attached earbuds. So how did Google find it and why did it choose to link to the Home Page instead of the product page?
First, Google gives the highest authority to the home page of a website. When given two equal matches in a domain, it will always give precedence to linking to the home page first. Though Google does not read text in an image. It does read the alt-tag. That is a piece of data unseen by the user that describes the image as “the cover for the Heart Strings audiobook by Maggie Lynch.” In addition, that image is linked to a product page for Heart Strings. The product page describes the book with options to purchase it in ebook, print, or audio and provides links to the many places the consumer can buy them. As a side note, none of my keywords associated with that book had any of the words in the query.
In other words, search has progressed and it is looking for the closest match to the question in terms of relevancy, which is an amalgamation of several different criteria. It didn’t look for only the word “romance” or the word “book” as it used to do only five years ago. It did something more complex in a matter of less than a second. It narrowed the query by my name (associated with author) and the word “book” part of a structured data set on my site. It looked for the book title, was able to discern “latest” by looking at publish dates on the website and/or other metadata indicating order and come up with the best response.
Google did not magically know all of that by reading my description of the book. I helped it to get it right by doing the work to create that information — descriptions, publish dates, alt tags, titles, keywords, and links — in the proper format so Google could find it and use it most effectively to make a match.
What Is Important in SEO?
At its core, search engine optimization (SEO) is about increasing your visibility in the organic search results of major search engines. To get that visibility, you must understand three core components:
- Create Good Content. What types of content do your readers need to find your products? Once you know the answer, you must focus on quality, beneficial content that users love to read, watch, listen to, and share. This is the most time consuming and ongoing part of SEO because it deals with your brand and your products at the core of your business.
- Content Optimization. This includes creating meaningful titles and subtitles; adhering to a specific format; using alt tags for images; providing the best categorization and targeted keywords to help readers navigate to your product in a variety of ways; linking to other relevant content both on your website and other websites; and including the metadata for snippets displayed in the search engine.
- Backend Technical Optimization. Strategies to improve a site’s backend structure and foundation. Technical optimization improves a site’s readability (which makes it easy for search engines to crawl and understand the site) and provides a good user experience, including: site speed; mobile-friendliness, security, site architecture, and structured data. All of these things help search engines to trust the site and mark it as high quality.
Though all of these parts are important, not all of them are necessarily under your control. If you own and manage the website, all of these things are under your control. But what if you are using a third party site to distribute your content or your books? These include blog sites like Medium, WordPress.com, and Blogger. Also any book distributor like Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Google are third party sites that have your content.
All of these sites provide options for feeding data about your content into that optimization process. They all have a way for you to categorize your posts, to select keywords, to identify titles, to create structured data about products, and to provide links to other similar content. If you complete all of those parts it will help search engines crawl your content more effectively.
None of these third-party sites require you to do this with your posts, articles, or product pages. Medium certainly doesn’t require you to do it. Though book distributors have a certain amount of required content, you have the option of whether to choose one category or more, no keywords, or to put in only a one-line description. But, if you don’t take the time to maximize all the options, you are hurting yourself and your ability to be found. In the end you are making sure the majority of readers will never find you.
For People Who Manage Their Own Website
If you have your own website and domain then you need to look for apps or widgets to help you provide the SEO page information more effectively. I use WordPress for all the websites I manage. And my favorite SEO plugin is Yoast SEO. It provides a space to enter all of the things I mentioned above and reminders for things you might forget. There is a free version that is quite robust for most authors. Once you have the hang of doing SEO regularly for your pages, you might want to invest in the Premium Version which is $89 yearly. Though they do have regular sales.
The key with Yoast is not to be too slavishly tied to making everything perfect. It has a system of rating your SEO efforts from yellow to orange to green. I’ve known far too many authors who lose sleep if they don’t have everything green. I would suggest just making sure you have something to turn it yellow on every page. Then take time in updates to work toward making it better.
Weebly, Wix, Square all have SEO options built into their platforms similar to WordPress.com and Blogger. You would need to look at their documentation to use it most effectively.
For those who may be Drupal fans, there are numerous modules you can add to your installation. To my knowledge, however, there is not a single plugin like Yoast SEO for WordPress that does everything. Instead, you add a module for redirects, another for metatags, another for the XML sitemap, etc. I haven’t worked in Drupal for nearly a decade so it’s possible that something comprehensive has been developed. I didn’t find one in a Google search.
SEO for Guest Posts On Someone Else’s Blog or Website
Often, when asked to do a guest post, the writer has no control over SEO at all. In fact, my experience is that most bloggers in the author world have no idea how blogs and SEO work together. They are more focused on getting up a lot of content and linking to book products as affiliate marketers. However, there are still things you can do to help yourself even if the owner knows nothing about SEO.
First, remember how things tend to be indexed in search engines: Titles, subtitles, descriptions, and links become the most critical. Titles should be in a header font. Most bloggers do this, though not necessarily H1. If you send it that way, there is a good chance it will be posted that way. If you don’t provide an optimized snippet, Google will take the first two lines of a post and use that as the snippet. Therefore, make sure the first two lines of your post (after the title) are exactly what you would want in that snippet. Then start the main post below that.
Always be sure to include any links you are allowed. Most bloggers will let guests link to their website and to some social media. Some will let you provide one or more product links as well. Just be aware it is likely they will apply their own affiliate codes to the end. That’s okay. It’s what keeps bloggers in business. You are still getting exposure.
Whenever I submit my blog post to a blog owner, I make sure that all links are embedded. I will also put at the bottom of the article any hashtags or keywords I believe are most relevant. About eighty percent of the time they will use at least a few of them.
You know your audience best. You know your content best. Therefore, you really are the best person to manage your SEO. You can pay someone to do the technical things like making your site run faster, make sure it is mobile-ready, and getting good security installed so that Google thinks your site is safe and trustworthy. But, when it comes to optimizing your pages and content, I personally don’t believe that paying someone else to do that will be the best use of your money. It is expensive and, again, unlikely to be satisfactory.