SEO for Writers – Magic Bullet or Hokum?

By | August 24, 2013

If you’ve been looking for ways to get noticed on the web, you’ve probably run into the term SEO. It stands for Search Engine Optimization.

So . . . how important is it to understand and use? Is it a real game-changer?

Or is it mostly hocus-pocus, a bit of internet trickery, a fake magic charm, like the “ohwa tagu siam” chant from scout camp, something to trip up the uninitiated?

Perhaps you can tell that I’m not enamored of SEO; at least, I don’t think it’s as valuable as those claiming it’s “essential” make it out to be. Mostly, I just think that writers need to adopt a common-sense approach to being found online. SEO techniques at their core are just that: common sense.

SEO means you do some things on your website or social-media page to encourage search engines (Google, etc.) to point people to you when they search online for something (a term, a topic, a phrase) that they want to know more about.

For me, the techniques of SEO are about 3rd on my list of things to do. First: write good stuff that’s useful, clear, interesting. Second, share it directly with everyone you can, by linking to it on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, email, etc.). This draws the most immediate hits to my posts.

Third, I try to use some basic, common-sense SEO techniques. This does help some people who don’t know me from Adam discover one of my posts . . . if it’s about something they want to learn about. They enter a phrase in a search engine and voilà, they see a link to one of my posts! (Okay, that’s sort of magical.)

For me, the hits I get at first for a new post are mostly from direct connections, people I’ve shared my posts with pretty directly (and their networks, if they re-share it). But as time passes, more of the hits I get for a post are from search-engine referrals.

I’ll give a few quick tips here.

1. In your post, use terms that your audience will use if they’re searching for info on that topic.

This may seem obvious, but like a lot of common sense, it’s sometimes absent.

Personally, I often come close to slipping up. I sometimes realize I’ve drafted a post in which, although I’ve told a good story or touched on an important theme, I’ve nearly missed actually naming the core thematic terms or phrases that it’s all about.

What I do: after I write a post, I go back and think about what terms people might be using when searching for this info.

If I write a post on finding an agent, for instance . . . I might try to incorporate the phrase “how do I get my book published” in the post. That’s a common starting-point question for a lot of writers, which then leads them to want to learn more about how to find a literary agent.

What about similar terms for the same thing? For instance, I used the term “writers” in the title. But what about the word “authors”? And have I used other key terms for the web: web, internet, online?

This simple bit of brainstorming just takes a minute or two; for a writer, it’s similar to identifying a theme in your story or article . . . and naming it.

Then, think about other common terms that real people might often use. Think beyond jargon; think outside of your own mindset . . . into the thought process of a person looking for help with the subject at hand. Someone wanting to read this post, for instance, may not search for “SEO optimization.” They may just search for “how do I get more hits on my author website.”

Whatever you’re writing about, you can be sure there are other things people may call it. If you’re writing about dogs, are you also writing about pets, canines, specific breeds,  animal companions . . . ? Probably yes, yes, yes, and yes. Try not to get locked into one term only; sprinkle some common varieties of terms or phrases in the article.

You can do it. You’re a writer!

2. Look for a narrow, niche-y subset of that core topic.

Let’s face it, the web increasingly has a zillion posts; hundreds, probably thousands, are out there that relate to any given post of yours.

But you might have a good specific little niche that can help you show up on a least a few more searches.

For example, if you search for “fantasy author,” Google returns about 250 million results. That’s a lot. Hard to get noticed.

Search for “fantasy author in Wisconsin” – this yields about 18 million results. Top of the list: the über-popular (& deservedly so) Patrick Rothfuss. But on the first page are some other lesser-known Wisconsin-based writers. They pop up because the online item about them includes the key terms: “fantasy, author, Wisconsin.”

TIP: Include your location (state & town) on a number of your posts. This helps libraries, book festivals, book groups, etc. to find local or state authors. Many states have lists of authors connected to that state; these lists are posted and often include links to author websites, mention titles of books, and so on.

It’s an excellent example of how SEO works: you include the right terms, and people find you online via those terms.

TIP: Include subtitles (or make up subtitles), location, and genres for your books. Why? Because these are rich in important terms. If a book doesn’t have an official subtitle (a lot of fiction doesn’t), I make one up. For instance, when talking about a novel by Sylvia Dickey Smith titled A War of Her Own, I might include a subtitle: A World War II homefront novel set in Orange, Texas in 1943. Or writing about a novel I’ve been working with recently to re-publish in a new edition, Goliath Catfish, I could add a subtitle: An action/adventure historical novel for young readers set in Memphis in the 1940s. Remember to keep noting the topic, setting, genre, etc. somewhere in your post.

A good subtitle (official or not) spells out a set of keywords that are SEO rich; use it and you’ll place a lot of hooks out there on the web, hooks that are likely to draw relevant search-engine attention.

3. Refine & expand your SEO terms.

Of course, for an author, you also want to use all the genre terms for your work. Are you writing dark fantasy, stories about the supernatural, ghost stories, scary stories, speculative fiction . . . ? In fact, a number of similar, nearly interchangeable terms may relate to you and your work. You can’t guess which will be used most often in a web search.

Or can you?

Although you can’t guess which terms will be used, you can go to places online to find what people are looking for when they search.

Search for a (free) “KeyWord Tool.” Put in a term . . . say, “speculative fiction.” A web-tool like Google AdWords Keyword Tool does a quick search and returns a list of terms . . . and tells you how many people used that term in the last month. When I look at the list, I see that “speculative fiction novels” was searched for 210 times.

Hmmm . . . but “horror novels” was searched for 90,000 times in that month. Seems that “horror novels” is a more popular term than “speculative fiction.” If I was writing dark scary fantasy . . . I’d be sure to use the “horror” label.

4. Want to know more?

One book I’ve been recommending to friends and fellow authors is Sexy, Smart, and Search Engine Friendly by Lela Davidson. The subtitle: Get Found Online without Losing Your Mind or Wasting Your Time. In 50 pages, it offers a clear explanation of SEO and how to use it, suitable for us writers . . . and does so in a way that’s fun to read. Your eyes won’t glaze over, and you’ll learn some easy tips and simple-to-use practices.

So . . . give it a whirl. There are plenty more tips and techniques that you’ll learn over time. But you don’t have to be an expert to attract a few more hits on your website or other social media account. Go ahead. Add a little SEO punch to your next post.

And repeat after me . . . “ohwa tagu siam” . . . . for not having used these simple ideas consistently till now.

5 thoughts on “SEO for Writers – Magic Bullet or Hokum?

  1. Roelant Dewerse

    Thanks for the tips, Philip! Do you know if search engines “weight” key words that are located in the titles or subtitles of posts or websites, more than those in the body text?

    Reply
    1. Philip Martin Post author

      Roelant: Each search engine is different and they change over time. I believe that yes, search engines “weight” keywords found in titles or subtitles higher, but that just makes good sense, as the titles and subtitles should signify what the post is about. Plain old-fashioned good clear writing is the key, and the trend in increasingly sophisticated search-engines is to get more accurate at figuring out what your post is really about. So write well, make it clear & about something useful or interesting, and SEO will tend to like it.

      It is also said that “search engines generally give more weight to the first 200 words within a page.” [http://www.bruceclay.com/seo/usekeywords.htm] But also: “This [optimization] typically does not prove to be a difficult process if the keywords you are trying to optimize have been chosen correctly, as they already reflect the theme and intent of the page and will lend themselves to natural use in the text.”

      I.e., I recommend just having clear post titles (I often use a 2-part structure: “SEO for Writers – Magic Bullet or Hokum” with one (probably the first) of the phrases being a clear indication of what the post is about. Or I do a single phrase, like “How Authors Can Help a Publisher Promote a Book.”)

      I do advise not getting too cute in post titles or subheads (“Magic Bullet or Hokum” on its own wouldn’t work well), just as I recommend avoiding cuteness in website navigational-tab names, book chapters in a nonfiction book, etc. We want a title that tells us why to click & look, not a title like: “Guess What I Discovered Today!”

      So just write well, and SEO will work better naturally. That said, you can read any number of guides or posts that try to help you beat the system or do better than your competitors.

      Finally, remember that a lot of SEO technical advice is based on thinking that you want to compete in a crowded field . . . so you want to beat the competition. Instead, if you can write original stuff, and develop your own following, you don’t have to play the SEO game. Your fans will find you and follow you; that might be a better path to success than throwing what you write out to the web and hoping the galactic search engines will make you popular.

      Reply
  2. Teresa Crumpton

    Thanks, Philip for such a clear write-up about SEO. It feels like the time I take trying to sort out things like SEO makes a big dent in my writing day. So I really appreciate you laying it out clearly. I’ll add, from a tech writer’s pov, I think using a good number of subheads to reveal the organization of your post information works well with SEO, too.

    Reply
    1. Philip Martin Post author

      Teresa, yes, I definitely agree that good and informative subheads also help SEO. And it follows my argument that a lot of SEO technique is built into good, clear, user-friendly writing.

      Another good practice, as you probably know, is to use photos where possible, and to give them good file names (that identify the subject matter), good alt-tags, descriptions. It a great place to use important keywords. But it just makes sense that search engines give good weight to photos and their tags . . . because a photo is indeed a significant element of a post when used. So again, it’s less surprising, more common sense. It does take an extra moment when you import a photo to give it an informative nametag and meta data, but I always try to do it.

      Reply

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