As a serious nonfiction author, you already understand the importance of a strong author website to serve as mission control for all of your marketing efforts.
And regardless of your area of expertise, you’d probably love to grow your impact with free website traffic from Google and other search engines. While your primary goal should always be to serve your audience, you can increase the chances of your website appearing in search results by paying attention to SEO.
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and in my experience, it’s a blend of science, art, and even a bit of luck. This is so-called “organic” traffic, and does not include the myriad ways of paying to appear in (sponsored) search results.
So, how can you begin to get Google on your side? Here are 6 ways you can dramatically improve the your ranking in search results. You can work through this list yourself, or talk to your website designer or an SEO expert if you’d like assistance.
1) Make sure your website passes essential technical checks
a) Is your site functional and easy to use on a mobile device?
These days, there’s a good chance your website visitor will view your pages on their phone. Not only do you want them to have a good experience, but Google penalizes you if your website doesn’t display and work well on a small screen.
b) Does your website have an SSL certificate in place?
SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and it’s not a useful acronym! However, it’s the standard technology for a secure internet connection, and safeguards the data that could travel from your visitor to your website tool. If SSL is in place, your site will show up as https and not http in the browser window. Without one, many modern browsers now block your website and refuse to display it to a visitor.
The good news is, if your website is relatively modern, SSL should be taken care of for you. And reputable website companies don’t charge you extra to have it, since it’s now an essential part of being online. However, if your site is older, you may be falling at this hurdle.
c) Make sure there are no broken links on your website
Just as a human visitor will be frustrated by broken links on your pages, the search robots hate these too. Run a free broken link checker like Dead Link Checker, then fix or remove any dead links. (Don’t panic, however, if Amazon and Instagram links are falsely flagged as broken: this tends to happen where the destination site wants a visitor to log in.)
2) Do some keyword research for your topic
Next, you’ll need to identify some important words – or more likely, short phrases – that your ideal reader is searching for. There are different ways of doing this, but keep in mind, it’s easier to achieve search engine placement for a specific phrase like “yoga for runners” than the more general “yoga”. So don’t worry that your choices need to be single words: it’s much better to be precise. For example, when I checked, “yoga” gets 1.8 million searches per month, but you’ll struggle to show up there. “Yoga for runners” is a more realistic niche, with a healthy 6,600 searches per month.
To find these, my first recommendation is that you begin typing in Google, and see what suggestions are offered to you. In the example above, you’d type “yoga for…” and see what Google thinks you mean. For the best insights here, do this in an incognito or “private” browsing window, so your previous interests and search history don’t influence Google’s suggestions.
As an ongoing habit, you should also pay attention to the words your audience uses to describe your area of expertise. These may be quite different from the “expert jargon” that you yourself use! Equally, make a list of every question they ask you, and use this helpful guide from Stephanie Chandler for desk research into the questions your readers have.
There are many tools available to help you find keywords. Some of them can be expensive; my favorite low cost option is Keywords Everywhere that sits on top of your browser and simply enhances the standard search results with metrics and keyword suggestions. For this tool, you buy search credits, and I find $10 worth easily lasts a year.
Make a list of promising keywords, and if your research tool shows data for monthly search volume, note this too. You can also pay attention to how competitive a term is, (how hard it is to rank for) and even the trend of whether this is a hot topic.
3) Include keywords in important locations
Having identified good keywords for your industry, make sure you place these in the:
– Title of your website (in HTML, this is the “title” tag)
– Titles of your main pages (like your Home page, Book page, and Bio page)
– Most important heading on each page (in HTML, this is tagged with the “h1” heading)
– Your subheadings and text
– Alternative text (“alt”) tag for each image, to help the search robots know what the image contains.
For the primary pages of your website, target words with a reasonably high search volume. But don’t necessarily chase after a term with massive volume, as it will be harder for you to get noticed in a crowded space.
4) Produce ongoing, useful content
This is the marathon part of boosting your search efforts! You’ll need to create and publish informative, helpful content on your website, with each piece targeting the lower volume, niche keywords you identified in Step 2. Sometimes, these are called long tail keywords.
As an author, it’s likely that you’ll blog to achieve this, but the same principles apply if you choose YouTube or podcast show notes as your primary content method.
Staying with our yoga example, you might write a seasonal blog post titled “Yoga for Thanksgiving”, which, although “only” getting 320 searches per month, can still establish you as an expert in your niche. When you research this term, you might also feel the creative spark to write about yoga for gratitude and include this as a key phrase in your article (210 searches per month). It’s much better to land on page one of the search results for a term with modest volume, than to be buried on page seventeen of the results for a high volume word.
In the articles you write, aim to use your keywords in the title, url slug, image alt tags and subheadings. But you still need to write for humans, so do avoid the (now outdated) trick of stuffing as many keywords into your article as possible.
5) Continue to engage with your audience
Data can only take you so far. There really is no substitute for knowing your audience and paying attention to what’s on their mind, where your expertise can help.
At the time of writing, the best performing blog post on my own website is one I wrote on a whim after a client asked me a question, not because my keyword analysis told me it was a promising topic. If you’re curious, it’s about Substack, and specifically how you embed a Substack sign up form in your author website.
So, if the analytical and technical side of SEO leaves you cold, be encouraged that knowing your audience and listening to them can yield great results from the content you produce.
6) Be patient
Steps 1-3 listed above will improve your website visibility quickly, however, SEO is generally a long game and you’ll need to see the time you spend as an investment. The Google search algorithm is a closely guarded secret, however, we know there are over 200 factors at play. These include how long you’ve had your website, how often you update it with new content, whether other trusted websites link to yours, and how competitive your industry and niche are.
While you wait for your SEO seeds to flourish, keep in mind you can also use your keyword research as guidance for topics in social media posts, in your newsletter, in speaker pitches, and as topics in your next book.
Additionally, I personally believe you should never try an SEO tactic that tries to “game” the search engines. Not only do Google and the other big players have entire teams of smart people (and, increasingly, AI capabilities) to weed out these attempts, but your long term impact as an author will be determined by your integrity and authentic approach to marketing.
And despite the spammy email solicitations you probably receive from time to time, nobody can guarantee you strong placement in search results.
If you’re daunted by the topic of SEO, the most important thing to remember is that Google’s primary mission is to show content that is useful. So don’t think too hard about impressing a robot: think about how you can genuinely provide relevant, informative, helpful information to your audience.
Pauline Wiles is a website designer who builds attractive, high earning sites for authors and writers. As an author herself, she noticed others were often overwhelmed by this task. Now, she’s aiming to dispel the myths around how difficult a web project should be. Pauline’s professional resume includes teaching computing to adults on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as entrepreneurship education and marketing analysis. British by birth, Pauline is now a contented resident of California, although she admits to occasional yearnings for afternoon tea and historic homes. Find her at paulinewiles.com, and download your free website starter kit.