The Key to Selling More Books: Book Optimization Simplified

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There was a time when the internet highway wasn't clogged the way it is now. These days everyone has a website; even the family dog has a social media account to showcase his latest, greatest, doggy accomplishment. But years ago before the millions (and millions) of websites, there were just a few. Back then we weren't talking about keywords, title tags, image tags, etc. Now, however, things have changed. If you want to get any kind of attention for your website, you'd better know your keywords and make sure your site has some great searchability in Google otherwise no one will ever see or find you. The key to this is found in metadata but the problem with that term is that it's used frequently without any real explanation of how it works or what it is.

So how does this relate to books? Well everyone talks about the "Big D" - discoverability but no one seems to know exactly how to really achieve it. We share ideas on Goodreads, Wattpad, Facebook and wonder which one of these will lead us to the promise land of more readers and more sales. And while these sites do matter - a great deal in fact - it's still hard to move the needle on a book that isn't optimized. By optimized I mean: metadata and by metadata I mean: SEO.

Why does this matter? Because at the end of the day your book needs to come up high in search rankings - specifically on Google and Amazon. If it's not then you're missing out on a huge piece of discovery.

Metadata Explained

Several years ago, publishers started throwing out the term "metadata" as though it was a shiny, new object but the truth is, it's been around for a long time. Metadata, in its most basic sense, is the granular data that helps your book become more searchable. In an ideal world, your metadata is a string of keywords that helps your book become more searchable. But the problem is that this is where most metadata falls short, using keywords instead of keyword strings and, in rare cases, when keyword strings are used, they are often wrong.

How We Find Stuff

We all know that word-of-mouth is a huge asset to any book campaign. Readers who want to talk about the book, share it with their friends and encourage them to read it is a writer's dream come true. But most of us don't publish a book one day and find that happening to us right away, if ever. First, we have to get readers to find it - or to discover it.

And where do we discover new things?

Well, two places: Amazon and Google. Mostly Amazon, of course, if you're an author, but even then, let's say you're a non-fiction author writing about great camping sites for families, wouldn't it make sense for you to come up in Google under that search string? Now, in large part your website will do that but these days, your book must do that, too.

The Optimized Book

I was at Book Expo America this year where everyone talked about the "Big D" - in fact a whole slew of new companies arrived on the scene to help writers and publishers accomplish just that: get noticed and get discovered. Though all of these companies are great, I feel that most of us still miss the one, crucial component to getting found online: Optimization.

So how do you optimize your book?

Well a true optimization process always starts with knowing your market and while I know that sounds fairly elementary we're going to take this a step deeper: it's not just about knowing your market but how they surf. Or to take this a step further, what keywords they use to surf. In most cases, it's not at all what you think. By optimizing your book you aren't just optimizing your Amazon page (though that's important, too) you are creating pathways of discovery so that when a potential new reader plugs in a search term into Google or Amazon, they find you and your book.

Keywords Demystified

Let's start here: the term "keyword" or even "keywords" is wrong. You should never, ever use a single keyword in anything. Why? Because consumers don't surf that way. We don't hop onto Google or Amazon and type in "mystery" and hope for the best. We type in specific keyword strings that we feel closest resemble what we are looking for and though the keywords that we choose are specific to our own search criteria, we often see trends in particular genres in terms of keyword strings used in searches.

How to Find Great Keywords

There is a lot written out there about finding great keywords. If you're a true geek head on over to SEO Moz and dig through some of their article archives and you'll soon find yourself immersed in keyword instruction. But you don't have to become a keyword expert overnight in order to do this, what you do need is to step back from whatever you believe your consumer is searching on and let Google and Amazon help you define those keyword strings instead.

There's a great keyword tool that I just love called Ubersuggest (ubersuggest.org) and while it's not a pretty site, it's massively powerful. If you're lost in the keyword jungle and aren't even sure what keywords to associate with your book, start there and just plug in a simple, single word search term and watch what pops up. Ubersuggest is a site that scrapes Google daily for search trends, when you pop in a single keyword (or, if you're brave, a keyword string) it'll return back to you a string of recent searches from A-Z. Here's an example of a search I did using the term: romance eBooks:

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I've just highlighted the "B" because I felt it turned up the most interesting results. Not all of the results that Ubersuggest turns out will be ones you want to use, however there's a lot here to start with and some, I'm sure, might surprise you. For example: best friends falling in love or romance novels by black authors. You should never underestimate the various aspects of your book that may be appealing to your reader. You see that Romance novels bad boy good girl ranks pretty high, too.

Once you have a handful of keyword strings you think could work (I'd get about 10) head on over to Amazon and see what you find there. Start popping in a single word, like romance for example, and take a look at what pops up. Then, do a search based on the terms you found on Ubersuggest and compare these. You may be wondering why you don't just go with whatever you found on Google, right? Well keep in mind that Amazon is a search engine and much like Google, searches are plugged in using keyword strings. The takeaway is this: Amazon is a search engine and you should never attempt to optimize your book without consulting the Amazon machine.

As you do these searches, the things you want to look for are:
  • The books that come up, are they related to your book?
  • How cluttered is the category? Are there millions of books under that search string or just a few thousand? Generally I recommend staying somewhere around 5,000 books per search string. That number used to be a lot lower but with 4,500 books coming online every day and many of them being posted to Amazon, these numbers have grown considerably.
  • What's the sales rank of the first few titles? This is important because you don't want to associate keyword strings with a sales rank that's too high. It means that this particular keyword string isn't being sold well on Amazon.

Keep enough keyword strings to satisfy whatever databases you are trying to populate but also make sure you have some in reserve, too.

Once you have your keyword strings, you'll want to use them everywhere. Any place that lets you use metadata will be where you want to put these search strings. You can use them in anything you upload onto your site, even in blog posts on your site. You can use them when creating social media accounts for you, the author, and for your book (such as accounts on Goodreads, Wattpad, Facebook, etc.).

Perfection is a Myth

There is no such thing as a perfect search every time. What I mean by this is that you may experiment with keywords and decide that they aren't working or aren't driving traffic or getting the kind of visibility you were hoping for. That's ok. You have enough keywords now that you can play around with this and swap them out. Keywords are not an exact science all of the time, and sometimes they'll change - meaning that if you've got a topic that's subject to trends or something relevant to pop culture or a news items then your keywords may fluctuate. Keep an eye on new searches and potential new trends that could alter how your book is searched. For example if there is something in the news that relates to your topic, consider including that in your search term. An example of this might be the escaped prisoners in New York. Let's say your book is fiction and features this, you could incorporate that into your keywords, perhaps the name of the prison: prison escape at Clinton or something along those lines.

Your Path to the Big D

Even with keywords, discovery won't happen overnight but without this, the road will be much harder. If used correctly, keywords can do magical things and help your book land up into more readers hands and in the end, isn't that what we all want?