The Two Sides of SEO for Book Publishers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

SEO book publishers ebooks direct-to-consumerHere’s a scenario: A reader hears about a book you publish from someone they trust. They decide they want to buy it and read it. So how do they find it? It’s possible they go directly to their favorite bookseller (let’s assume this is all happening online), find it there and buy it. Awesome, you just sold a book.

However, many other readers will go to their favorite search engine and search for the title, the author’s name or both. The question I have for you is this: Where does your book page show up in the search results when that happens?

Go ahead and search for a couple of your books before reading any further. I’ll wait.

Does your book page show up in the search results at all? What about your author’s page, assuming you have one on your site? Any other pages from your site? If they do show up, how high do they rank? Are they on the first page of the search results?

If links to your pages aren’t in the first couple of positions on the first page of the search results, the chances of someone clicking on them are pretty slim. And if you’re not on the first page, you have basically zero chance of getting the click. (Remember the old joke: Where’s the best place to hide a dead body? On the second page of the search results, because nobody ever looks there.)

I’ve heard publishers say it’s impossible to compete with the bigger sites whose pages come up at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) in book searches—like those belonging to Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes & Noble. I’ve heard that they are just too big and popular. I’ve heard that their search engine optimization (SEO) is just too good, if not perfect. And I’ve heard these things lots of times.

But none of that is true. You can compete with the bigger sites. They are not too big or too popular. And contrary to perhaps the biggest misconception of all, their SEO is far from perfect. (In fact, I’ve yet to find any site in the publishing industry that couldn’t use a little improvement.)

So let’s talk about SEO a little.

SEO has two sides to it: what I call the ‘mechanicals’—on-site elements that search engines look for—and the ‘content envelope’—all the available off-site content about your site and your products, like book reviews, blog posts, videos, social media posts and all the other content that envelopes your site.

You don’t have full control of the content envelope. If you had a really outstanding content generation and social media program you might gain a little more. But you really can’t control everything that happens outside of your site.

On the other hand, you have complete control over your site—after all, it’s yours.

That means you can shape the mechanicals entirely as you wish. Search engines are fairly explicit about what they are looking for when they crawl and index your site. Of course, they don’t tell us everything, but we know enough to be able to ensure your site itself is highly optimized. And just by focusing a little effort on the mechanicals you can start showing up at the top of the search results. Above Amazon, above Goodreads and above Barnes & Noble.

By adding in a great content generation program and creating a real content envelope around your site, you can then own the SERPs—which happens to be a key component in the first step of a direct-to-consumer program that makes books “easy to find and easy to buy.” As I’ve written before, that can be achieved even by the smallest of publishers. You just need to understand a little bit more about what the search engines are looking for and, at a minimum, adjust your site appropriately. You will probably need to get your web developer involved, but I promise you, it will be worth it.

In future posts I’ll going to go into more specifics about both optimizing your site’s mechanicals and creating a great content envelope.

In the meantime, let me know in the comments below how well your books showed up when you searched for them by their titles.

(And by the way, if you’re reading this and work for Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble or one of the other big sites out there in the book world, disregard all of this—your site is perfect, please don’t change a thing!)

16 thoughts on “The Two Sides of SEO for Book Publishers

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Ah, if search engine optimization were the only problem, a publisher’s life would be an easy one. But a publisher’s real problem doesn’t lie with Google, Yahoo, or Bing. When it comes to book sales, they have no monetary axes to grind. They’ll give a publisher a fair shake.

    No, the real problem lies with online book retailers such as Amazon. For them, all books aren’t created equal. Some are more profitable than others. That creates an incentive to push them up the search rankings and perhaps even push other, less expensive books off that critical first page of search results.

    Take a book from the 1890s that I republished in a new and enhanced edition, Across Asia on a Bicycle. It’s about the first people to circle the world on modern bicycles, the first to do so through the difficult Central Asian route, and the second to do so at all. It’s a great read made all the better by the additional material I located and added.

    It’s so good, in fact, that it has been the very tip-top listing on Google for most of the eleven years it has been available. That’s no doubt because of all the bicycling and book review sites that recommend it. I spent many hours making it a top-quality book.

    But for several years after it came out, Amazon treated it badly. There were times, I kid you not, when it disappeared from the search results altogether. At other times, it was merely pushed off that critical first page by, again I again kid you not, by listing of unavailable, long-ago editions. Yes, Amazon was preferring to give space on their first page of results to editions that they couldn’t even sell. Their own search optimization engine didn’t like the fact that my paperback edition was the least expensive. In fact, at the time my hardback edition sold for less than a paperback replica edition that Amazon was featuring prominently. Amazon wanted its customers to pay twice as much for a poor quality replica than for a modern, newly typeset edition.

    And that was despite the fact that, despite what I could tell from the search rankings, my book constituted about 70% of the book’s sales on Amazon. That’s testimony to the benefit I was getting from outside recommendations and from Google’s search results.If you search for it now in advanced search, you’ll find that it comes up second at $11.06, just after a free Kindle edition that also provides Amazon with a hook to hang a hideous overpriced $33.56 replica edition. So the situation is a little better.

    Now Amazon is up to a different set of dirty tricks. My Across Asia is listed as \usually ships within 2 to 3 weeks.\ That hurts sales and that’s because it’s printed by Lightning Source rather than Createspace. Lightning Source could ship it for Amazon within a couple of days. It did that in the past. But Amazon, not nearly as interested in their customers as they claim, would rather push people toward those more more expensive or flawed replica editions, one so dreadful, it comes with a disclaimer: \This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc.\ That bit of trash ships without any delay.

    No, the real problem for publishers is the double blow: the share of the market that Amazon occupies and the distortions Amazon introduces into its search results to favor its profitability over customers. Nor is that surmise. When I lived in Seattle, I had a phone conversation with an Amazon lawyer who not only didn’t deny that Amazon tilts search result to favor more expensive titles, she defended the practice. I also talked with an Amazon programmer who told me rather bluntly \Never trust Amazon search results.\

    I’m not sure if other retailers, such as Barnes and Noble, engage in similar practices, but it’s certainly something that both the press and federal agencies need to look into. A case can be made, for instance, that a retailer’s search results can be so deceptive that they’re worse than banned practices such as bait-and-switch advertising. All that’d take would be for the courts to regard search results as a form of advertising.

    Unfortunately, given the Obama administration’s heavy tilt toward Amazon, we’re not likely to see that until there’s a Republican in the White House and probably a Republican who isn’t the sort to regard rich businessmen with undeserved awe. That may prove a long wait.

  2. Ernie Zelinski

    I agree with you that a very small self-publisher can do well in SEO on Google and even pulverize the competition of big publishers.

    I think that my books do very well in search engine results. For example, I have a book called “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free.”

    First, I did not even use the title of the book. I used the generic “retirement book”. Out of 211 million webpages, the first four items on the Google search involved “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free.” Then toward the bottom of the page, there were another three webpages that involved the book. So, for “retirement book”, my book is in 7 of the top 10 listings on Google. Not too bad, for a guy from Edmonton, Canada, wouldn’t you say.

    Needless to say, I don’t have to mention what the Google search results show for “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free.”

    Incidentally, years ago I developed a few websites relating to “retirement quotes” and “retirement poems” since people searching for these terms were an ideal target market for my two retirement books. At one time I had five different websites show up in the top 10 on Google for “retirement quotes.” When I just checked, two of my websites were still in the top 10 out of 13 million websites vying for the term.

    These quotations have been part of my “secret sauce”, the inspiration that has helped me become quite successful at self-publishing (over 850,000 copies of my books sold worldwide).

    “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
    — Norman Vincent Peale

    “If you see in any given situation only what everybody else can see, you can be said to be so much a representative of your culture that you are a victim of it.”
    — S. I. Hayakawa

    “When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing, not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”
    — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

    “The law of floatation was not discovered by contemplating the sinking of things.”
    — Thomas Troward

    “The fishing is best where the fewest go and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone is aiming for base hits.”
    — Timothy Ferriss

    Incidentally, I have zero interest in marketing directly to the consumer. I developed my websites to channel the sales to Amazon and B&N. In 2014, I had the best year ever with “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” with my American distributor shipping out over 40,000 copies of the print edition. Ebook sales were over 5,000 copies. Plain and simple, it would be a waste of my time to have to deal directly with the buyer.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  3. Al Gomez

    First, I want to say that I agree with you on independent authors smashing it on their own. I’ve seen others do it using alternatives means outside big names like Amazon (most focused on social media, while several turned to the power of book reviews and private blogs). I’m sorry to hear about Michael’s experience about the company; but let’s face it, Amazon is a business – and businesses need to sell. Like Google, they would prioritize their products first.

    Second, I’d like to suggest to aspiring independent authors and publishers to try your hand at basic SEO. And no, it’s larger than building links and all that stuff. Think outside the box. Ernie’s story is a good example. Making your own website and marketing from there gives you more control than if you relied on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Social media is also a huge factor nowadays. Friends and family and help spread the word. Really, there’s a lot of online marketing potential that book authors are not taking advantage of.

    It’s good to read articles that remind us NOT to feel intimidated by big brands. At the end of the day, what matters is if we met our goals, right? Whether it’s 40,000 or 4,000,000 copies, if you achieved that, you already won.

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Thanks for the comment Al. Doing some basic SEO, is a great place to start. And I agree with your last sentence, wholeheartedly. It’s all about meeting goals, and selling books. As long as they get sold, somewhere, somehow, that’s what it’s all about.

  4. Murray Izenwasser

    Hi Ernie,

    Thanks for the comment. Contrary to what you are saying in your comment, your most definitely marketing to your readers. And doing a very good job it seems. You are just choosing to have the final step (sales and fulfillment) through someone else. Which is a good alternative – it doesn’t matter where it’s bought/sold, as long as it’s bought/sold.

  5. Kristen Steele

    Unless you have a very common name, your website should be appearing prominently especially if the title of your book was also used in the search. Even just basic SEO knowledge can help. Optimizing title tags is one of the easiest and most important things to start with.

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Kristen, you are absolutely correct. There are some very easy things that can be done that will have a big impact on SEO – I’m going to be doing a post about this very topic very soon – so stay tuned!

  6. Travis Ford

    When I search for my books at various sites they are listed at the top of the page.
    At Kobo my books do not have their seperate page which makes me think they will be more difficult selling versus having a seperate page; without competition.

  7. Dan Kern

    This is an important article, and something close to my vest. Having worked for F+W as Director of SEO not too long ago, and having led an internal project to rewrite product pages on three of the company’s top eCommerce sites, I can confidently say that the #1 thing that authors and publishers should do on their websites is ensure that their book descriptions (and review content) are robust and unique on their own website. Protect them like your career depends on it…because it might. When you feed your descriptions to Amazon, B&N, etc…you give sites with enormous Domain Authority the keys to 100% outrank you in Google, Bing, etc…and you’re likely to end up on page 2 or deeper. The key here is unique content. Granted, if your site has very low Domain Authority (caused by no quality links pointing to it), it still may not crack page 1 of Google.

    The Domain Authority (aka link equity) of your site is also extremely important, and I beg differ on the notion that you can’t control offline signals. You can certainly influence link attraction via tactics like contests and giveaways (give away your book and promote the giveaway to related websites/bloggers), PR outreach, getting book reviews from bloggers, doing image-based link building for anyone using your book’s cover image but not linking to you, general brand mentions (websites mentioning your name/book title, but missing links to your site), being highly active on social to attract links indirectly, etc. There are tons of ways, but it takes time.

    Great article and topic.

    1. Murray Izenwasser

      Thanks for the comment Dan. And I agree that you have less control offsite than on-site, but on-site is still the only thing that you have full control over. Everything else you are ‘just’ influencing.

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