Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.
~ John Irving
For those who read the rest of my blog, and not just the posts about writing, you know that I have a
anally obsessively compulsive rigorous process for setting goals and tracking them — think of it as like setting New Year’s resolutions but on steroids. But there are some areas where “goals” are great, yet they only work if you can break them down in to digestible — and achievable — smaller chunks.
So let’s assume you have a big goal of being an author. Under traditional publishing, the ultimate end was outside your control — in theory, you could hammer away at agents and editors with proposal after proposal and never “succeed”. Your digestible “bits” were process stuff, not a measure of your ultimate outcome. With e-publishing, and self-publishing more specifically, coming of age in recent years (if not months), you can change your goal into something that is actually achievable i.e. even if no one “accepts” your MS for traditional publishing, you can bypass them and publish yourself.
Yet, you might still want to have larger writing goals. Konrath’s website, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, included a sample of his writer’s resolutions from 2006 to 2012, and I wanted to highlight a bunch that I think are worthy of emulation because they are not all about process…note, with apologies to the master, that the headings are mine, as are the groupings:
- I will start/finish the damn book
- I will finish every story I start
- I’ll quit procrastinating in the form of research, outlines, synopses, taking classes, reading how-to books, talking about writing, and actually write something
- I will listen to criticism
- I will always remember where I came from
- If you’re a writer, you must be a reader. I don’t care if you read on your Kindle, or on stone tablets. Reading, and giving the gift of reading to others, is essential.
- I Won’t Self-Publish Crap. Just because it’s easier than ever before to reach an audience doesn’t mean you should.
- I will create/update my website
- I will keep up with my blog and social networks
- I will send out a newsletter, emphasizing what I have to offer rather than what I have for sale, and I won’t send out more than four a year
- I will do one thing every day to self-promote
- Look Inward. We tend to write for ourselves. But for some reason we don’t market for ourselves. Figure out what sort of marketing works on you; that’s the type of marketing you should be trying. You should always know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what results are acceptable to you.
- Being a professional means you’re prolific, with many titles for sale, and that you diversify, exploiting all possible places to sell your work.
- I will help out other writers
- Self-publishing is an open source project. Add to the database.
- Find Your Own Way. Advice is cheap, and the Internet abounds with people telling you how to do things. Question everything. The only advice you should take is the advice that makes sense to you. And if it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to ditch it.
- DO NOT take any deal that’s less than what you believe you could earn in six years. If you’re selling 1000 ebooks a month, that means $144,000 is the minimum advance you should be offered before you consider signing.
- Ebooks are global. Doing poorly in the USA? That’s okay. There are plenty of other countries where you can make money.
- Sales fluctuate. Always. And there is often no logical or discernible reason why. Riding high in April, shot down in May, that’s life.
You can find the full post available at A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing: Konrath’s Resolutions for Writers 2012.
I can definitely incorporate a lot of these in my personal business model, which is why I’m happy to highlight them.
Ebook Friendly did a list of the 50 most inspiring quotes about books and reading — here’s an excerpt of my favorites from their list.
Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. — Author Unknown
If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him. — Maya Angelou
The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business. — John Steinbeck
There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. — Marcel Proust
Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore? — Henry Ward Beecher
There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. — Joseph Brodsky
You can find the full list at 50 most inspiring quotes about books and reading | Ebook Friendly [* Source page expired as of March 16, 2017].
Hi, my name is PolyWogg and I’m an ‘writing RSS/newsletter’ addict.
There, I’ve admitted it. My first step in, umm, a 12-step program for sharing? Oh wait, I’m not planning to change. Particularly when I get golden nuggets of information like I did earlier this week.
One of the feeds I read is C.J. Lyon’s site called “No Rules, Just Write”. I don’t always agree with everything she writes, or find it completely applicable to me, but it is always interesting. This week’s freebie was a link to an ebook called “20 Creative Blocks And How To Break Through Them” by Mark McGuinness and Marelisa Fábrega.
It’s interesting to wander around the web looking at various writer’s sites and see what they have to say about writer’s block. There are decidely three camps — first there’s the group that says there’s no such thing as writer’s block. I call this the Nike group — they say you should just sit your butt down and write. It may not be fantastic writing, but you’ll write. Something. Dean Wesley Smith is definitely of this variety — arguing that professional writers write, only amateurs get something called writer’s block. By contrast, there are the members of the Passion group at the other end of the spectrum — the group that argues that if you are blocked, it’s because you are not really following your passion. For this crew, you get lots of little maxims like “do what you love”, “don’t worry about the quality”, “just let go and let it flow”, etc.
Mark and Marelisa are in the middle ground. They argue that creative blocks (i.e. writer’s block for writers) really have 20 different varieties, describe what they look like, estimate what causes them, and provide tips on how to overcome them.
Some of it I found interesting, and I’ll cover those first, before I get to one that I am really passionate about personally:
- I really like chapter 2, “Fear of Getting It Wrong”. Interestingly, Dean Wesley Smith would probably agree that the fear of being wrong stops people from writing, and the solution is not to be perfect but to actually be wrong (noting that you are also your own worst judge for your own work). Accept it, embrace it, move on. In fact, Mark suggests doing that as one of the solutions — try writing something wrong, i.e. the wrong version, the wrong tone, the wrong voice, the wrong PoV, etc. Cuz that might just open things up for you. Mark includes a section too in Chapter 15 on “Accept[ing] that it will never be perfect”, the more traditional approach;
- Chapter 4, “Creativity vs. Cash” is almost like “commercial vs. non-commercial” work but what I found interesting was an item from a reader who notes that they waste a lot of time doing things that are “unproductive” but which “feel like work”. Like checking social media sites. Lots of writers claim that they have wasted too much time trying to keep up on FB, Twitter, etc. I do so myself through my RSS feeds about writing and publishing. Yet most of the solutions ignore the fact that is not just that the writer enjoys it nor simply procrastinating nor being seduced by the social media, but rather that when they do it, they feel like they are working still, even though they’re not. It FEELS productive, although there’s no output, so long as what they were reading was related to writing, publishing, etc. That kind of “time suck” won’t go away easily because it feels like working; and,
- Chapter 6 includes tips on how to overcome the Inner Critic, including self-affirmation ideas such as printing YES! on post-it notes around your workspace, something I could probably benefit from more often, rather than holding back on my blog about some things.
But as I said, there is one thing I feel passionate about in this area and that is the claim by some writers that they just don’t have the TIME. And while there is a lot of value in what Mark has written, I completely disagree with one of his examples on page 18 about getting up early as a way to “make more time”. And I think it is a unicorn that only exists amongst those who had some success but don’t really understand how or why. Let me give some upfront context why…
There is a Harvard Business School legend about a professor who demonstrates time management to his students with the aid of a glass pitcher, some rocks, a bucket of gravel, a small pail of sand, and some water. He starts by filling the glass pitcher with the rocks and asking the students if it is full. They all answer in the affirmative. So he pours in some gravel, and asks them again if it is full. Again, they swear it is. So he moves on to add sand, watching it slowly fill in all the little gaps. This time, when asked, the students answer that there’s still room. And so there is, with the water filling the pitcher right up to the brim. When asked what this teaches them about time management, the students reply “No matter how full your schedule is, there’s always room for more!” He replies, “No, it teaches us that the rocks have to go in first or they won’t fit in at all.”
Interviews with newly discovered authors frequently stress that time management was key to their success. Which they illustrate by saying how they decided that writing was one of their rocks, and focused on it by getting up at 4:00 a.m. every day to write until they went to their day job (Mark notes the same himself).
This is no more an example of effective time management than an employee in an office who says they are really productive because they work fourteen hour days. Anyone can be productive if you can add hours to your day. But, unless you’re a natural insomniac, why would you decide that an adequate amount of sleep wasn’t one of your rocks? These people have added a rock to their pitcher by getting a bigger pitcher, not by managing their finite resource of time.
Depriving oneself of sleep is also one of the worst things a writer can do (perhaps rule #2 after “Show, don’t tell”), except perhaps in a rare short-term situation to meet a deadline. Long-term sleep deficits can result not only in changes in one’s behaviour or degradation in the cerebral cortex (something you might need if you’re plotting a complicated mystery!), but also impair the frontal lobe’s abilities for speech and creative thinking. The sleep-deprived individual (including writers) may have difficulty thinking of imaginative words or ideas, and instead default to repetitive words or phrases. This is totally separate from the effects on the rest of your day where your ability to multi-task will be weakened, even further reducing your time management skills and productivity.
The only trick to effective time management is (a) prioritising your rocks and (b) putting your rocks into your schedule first. If the author followed the success of those like Stephen King who say they write every morning until noon, for example, that could indeed be effective time management. But for those of us who are still earning a living through other means, it probably means we have to find another way to put our writing time into our schedule. Some authors have found ways to use their commute to focus on their writing, scribbling away on the subway or train (one of Mark’s examples for himself). Others will get up early, but also make an equal time shift in their schedule to go to bed early too so they are still getting sleep – they’re not adding hours, they’re just time-shifting their sleep a bit, giving them time in the morning uninterrupted when they are most creative. But this probably won’t work for the rebellious creative type — if they could easily restructure their day, they would have already. Instead, what they need to do is find time at various parts of their day (i.e. maybe Monday nights, Tuesday morning, Thursday afternoon, etc.) — flexible scheduling, not rigid scheduling. Otherwise they’ll rebel against the structure rather than seeing it as “creative scheduling”.
However even that one and only trick can be made more effective if you first find out what you waste time on when you’re supposed to be writing. In essence, finding where there is some soft sand that isn’t needed in the pitcher. For some it is social media; for Dilbert it was meetings with time-wasting morons. One successful author in Writer’s Digest swore the secret to her success was limiting herself to only three games of Spider Solitaire per writing period. Others have been more draconian and sanitized their writing computer (assuming that you’re lucky enough to be able to have two separate ones) by removing all games, disconnecting the phone, eliminating e-mail and internet connections except in the research stage, putting blackberries and smart phones in another room while writing, and locking themselves in a closet where their families couldn’t find them. The popular cliché is that the difference between those who aspire to being a writer and those who actually are writers is that real writers write, preferably every day, even if only for a few minutes. But you can’t write if you don’t make time for it.
Another way to make your attempts more effective is to examine your other rocks, perhaps the hardest review of all. Assuming that your life is already full, and that you are getting your 6-8 hours of sleep per night and it’s inviolate, the only way to put a rock into your schedule is to take another one out. There are a lot of website out there on how to simplify your life and a host of others on how to let technology solve it for you. You can decide which one(s) work for you. A single friend of mine was feeling a real time crunch when her ADHD-diagnosed son was around four years old. Her solution? She decided that she didn’t have time to wash all the dishes by hand every day so she went for a dishwasher. She also decided that she didn’t have time to cook fresh veggie meals every night, and so twice a week she went for more packaged stuff. While I hate the phrase “quality time”, one of her rocks was to spend more quality time with her son and the rock she had to drop was the time required to be “Super Healthy and Environmentally-Perfect Mom”. If you’re a fan of Dr. Laura, save your tar and feathers – the kid loved those nights most of all because Mom wasn’t as stressed or distracted.
Don’t get me wrong, I think most of Mark’s tips (time management, page 28; setting a regular daily routine, page 57; deciding on your priorities, page 62) have some validity. But there is a danger for many writers to think, “Oh, okay, I can solve my time management problem by just sleeping less”. That’s not time management, that’s avoiding setting priorities. I don’t think it is what Mark would normally advise, but I find it disturbing that he did it consciously himself as a solution.
My advice? Decide on your rocks and schedule them first (not necessarily at the same time every day), eliminate distractions, and figure out what you can drop from your to-do list to free up some time. But make sure you get plenty of sleep first.
On a discussion forum that I’m on, someone was noting a pet peeve of theirs was people who commit to doing a guest blog for their site and then flaking out with little or no warning.
I find the thread really interesting as it combines a bit of “professionalism” with “netiquette” with “marketing” with “writing”. In my day job, I deal with a lot of young professionals / millennials who have very different expectations of professionalism than some of us old fogies, and while this wasn’t specifically the sub-theme, in some ways it relates, at least in my mind.
We have a mental model of how people interact, and a lot of it is still stuck in the world of the tactile. Face to face, shaking hands, etc. And yet as the world globalized, we came to realize as business people that other cultures do NOT have the same expectations / roles in their rituals as a lot of us westerners. We even have a bunch of racist stereotypes hidden in business guides that resulted from these culture wars about how the “japanese” or the “chinese” do business, written as offensively to some business people in those cultures as some of the “poor blacks who find solace through music” stereotypes that permeated America for some time. Yet the reality was that our perceptions of how to do business changed — maybe not shaking hands is not a sign of disrespect, for example.
Like with globalization, the net opened up the world but this time to virtual commerce, and if we stop for a second, we’ll realize that if we offer guest blogs, then our blog is essentially an e-commerce site in that we’re offering to “sell” a guest some blog space in barter exchange for them writing a blog entry (plus some extra bits). What do the hosts get out of it? Content for our site, more visitors, an enhanced community network experience, and the knowledge / satisfaction we helped another author. What does the guest get? Visibility on our site, potentially more visitors back to their site, networking, and, umm, the satisfaction of writing an interesting blog on someone else’s site perhaps plus hopefully (!) some sales.
Now, if we look at netiquette (which is the reality of our online transactions, NOT the ethereal protocols we have in tactile world), we realize that on average overall relationships tend to be vastly more anonymous, more transactional than long-term, and most important of all? Far less secured — and I don’t mean in terms of access to credit cards. (And please, I’m talking about overall relationships, please don’t e-mail me to tell me how you met this really interesting person in Sweden 10 years ago on the net or your husband or your wife or found your long-lost 12th cousin).
If you offer me your book through Amazon, and I buy it, that’s pretty “firm”/secure because it is a simple transaction. If you offer me a spot on your blog, and I accept, that’s pretty soft. I know, I know, if you’re being professional, it shouldn’t be, but this is the online world. It’s more like an “option to buy” than a firm “purchase order”. Why?
Because if I’m the guest, I still have to do something to make the transaction happen. If we go back to the Mad Men world of hard advertising, “always be closing”, “telling isn’t selling”, etc., the transaction is still “pending”. We haven’t closed the deal, we just have an agreement in principle. In the real tactile world, people pretend that is pretty firm most of the time. Yet, as with say FutureShop or a car dealership, the minute that “customer” walks out the door without signing in blood, the reliability of that “deal” drops to the level of “possible lead” or maybe even “dead wood”. And after tons of conversations, dealers at both stores know that an agreement in principle is not the same as a sale.
The virtual world is full of people making commitments / over commitments / disorganization / websites launching with great fanfare by individuals and after ten posts going silent. Ask yourself — are you updating your own blog as often as you thought you would? Are you even keeping your commitment to yourself????
Add in the fact that your faceless entity on the other end who agrees to write a blog for your site may be (a) fully employed on the side, (b) busy, (c) afraid of failure, (d) deep in writing, (e) dead, (f) a complete flake, (g) changed their mind, (h) broke and can’t fix their laptop to access the net to read your e-mails, etc. and is too embarrassed to tell you any of those explanations. And then add in the fact that you have an agreement in principle, not an actual sale, it is not surprising when they don’t all deliver.
But a lot of that is our upfront expectation. At work, I obviously shouldn’t be expecting our millennials to be jumping up and down at the thought of last-minute overtime but I equally shouldn’t be expecting them to even accept it at all — some won’t. And that isn’t unprofessional, it is just a very different view of the employment relationship. One that differs from my “traditional” one. Not better, not worse, different. Because they are a completely different “customer” / “transaction partner” than I’m expecting / wishing they were, and I shouldn’t rely on them as if they were of the same “mental culture”.
What does this mean for those running sites asking / offering other people the chance to provide content in exchange for providing that content? Or dealing with businesses that offer e-services to us? Assume that not 100% of all “pending transactions” will close when you want them to, or at all. And have backup options ready to go in case they don’t.
For the writing world, magazines and publishers do it all the time — if the writer doesn’t deliver that front cover story or final chapter on time, they go with another cover story or fill the window with another author’s book. They’re prepared for their partners to perhaps not deliver, and have deadlines far enough in advance that they can substitute other material if needed.
Why aren’t we prepared like that? After all, we’re the ones that didn’t close the deal. And isn’t THAT unprofessional of us?
And for those of us hoping to participate as guests, the advice is simple — honour your commitments as if the deal has already closed, and you’ll stand out from the crowd of netiquette slackers whose commitment is more net-ready than world-ready.
Further to my two earlier posts about Search Engine Optimization and authors, I found an interesting article over on “The Book Designer” by Joel Friedlander that has six tips for SEO improvements. Of the six, four of them are a bit unusual (first two and last two) and worthy of consideration.
The first (anchor text) is actually helpful for others to use for you — get them to use some text and the name of your sitedomain in their actual link (i.e. click on “this great site about books at mybooksite.com” rather than click “here”). However, you can use it in your own in-site links too. The second (link juice) is also about how other, more popular sites link to you.
The third and fourth (title tag, first paragraph) are standard fare and I’ve covered in more detail earlier.
The last two (link out, link deep) are about giving links to more information or resources on the topic. You have to be a bit careful with those as you start to look like a link farm if you don’t have a lot of other text to go with it, but some good information.
Check out his article (linked above) for much more detail…
About three weeks ago, I posted my entry about search engine optimization (SEO), with a focus on how it was applicable to writers’ sites. I typed it up, proof-read, hit “Publish”. And less than a day later, good old Google lit up the tech blogs with confirmation of their implementation of tweaks to their Search Engine algorithm. The update, nicknamed Panda, is basically a result of a lot of “bad” things I talked about in my earlier post — spammers figuring out enough of the previous algorithm that they could fake their way to better rankings. Google’s goal is still the same — the most relevant, quality sites should rank first. However, if outsiders figure out the way to game that search, then Google starts to lose relevancy and market share (anyone remember Alta Vista search engine?). So Google monitors what sites do. And then adjust their algorithm to fight the tricksters.
In this case, the analysis available on the web of the changes is pretty extensive. CNET, for example, ran 2000 of the most popular searches before and after the change. And compiled an analysis of which sites’ rankings were affected.
Generally speaking, content farms were reduced in rank. These are sites that basically scrape their content from elsewhere on the web and just replicate it on their site — unlike news aggregators that credit the original source, a lot of scrapers don’t. And often they just mirror their sites in different forms (or scrape each other!) to boost their rankings — essentially trying to get more points by having more content on their site. However, the Panda changes basically take those types of sites and reduce the number of points they get from having multiple, low-quality articles that nobody wants (the sites make money by giving you a little bit of content on a lot of topics and a lot of ads when you visit).
But the tweaks are not perfect — some legitimate sites (i.e. non-scrapers) also got caught by the changes. Like the British Medical Journal, for example. Does this matter to them? Probably not — if someone searches for the BMJ, they’ll find it real fast. On the other hand, if the latest article about dermatitis doesn’t show up first on a general search related to dermatitis, BMJ isn’t going to stay awake at night worrying they slipped in the rankings.
By contrast, if the people who sell ads for scraper sites see their rankings slip, then the number of visitors to their site will slip, the click-through rates for the ads on the pages slip, and their commissions slip. So they need to update their tricks to make sure people are finding their sites, and that WILL keep them awake.
What does it mean for you as a writer? Almost nothing. You still need original content on your site and the right keywords. What MAY affect you though is if you have a lot of material on your site that is just a link to another site, or is a reposting of other material, even videos or news items…your site may start to look to Google’s spider bots like an aggregator, and you could lose relevancy points.
But do you care? Oddly enough, the answer may be no. While that seems counter-intuitive, think about how people get to your site. Most likely they clicked on an URL from another blog, or they searched for your name, or they searched for a phrase like “Books by Jane Author”. As with the British Medical Journal example above, you’re still going to come up pretty high (probably first if your URL is your name).
Rankings are therefore only relevant if you have a lot of other content on your site that you want people to find — like, for example, if you write a lot of blog posts about forensic studies. If you see this as a key marketing hook (i.e. “Come for the knowledge, stay for my books!”), then you should care somewhat. But unless you are the foremost expert, it’s going to be hard to crack those first few pages. For example, if you search for the term “mystery book”, you get a whole lot of sites that sell mystery books. But the rankings don’t produce an individual author’s site until #15 or #16 — http://www.robertburtonrobinson.com — and it looks like one of the reasons he ranks so high is that he has posted a lot of short stories online (i.e. original content). [** Note that I just repeated the search, this time logged into iGoogle so it knows how to “localize” my results, and RBR came up a whopping third this time! Wow!]
For the rest of the Panda algorithm, you may be interested to know that Amazon came in third in CNET’s test, no real change — just further confirming, if you’re selling books, that Amazon is the first stop on a global search engine train, regardless of what Apple, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords tell you. There is a small caveat to that great Amazon ranking though — Amazon ranks higher on the CNET search as it now sells almost everything from soup to nuts, which means it has more products to match searches. B&N or Smashwords are only going to rank in that global search on items that had to do with books. So not really a fair comparison (as a writer, you don’t really care if people can find TVs at Amazon, just your book, but well, that’s the way the cyber marketplace works. Think of it as “diversification on steroids”. It also improves Amazon’s diversified revenue streams and ensures their longevity, plus their ability to leverage resources for advertising (reportedly $135M last year. And with Amazon announcing this week that they will soon start selling Kindles in Walmart stores (i.e. people won’t have to order it online anymore), expect Kindle and Amazon’s sales to grow even more!). In non-localized findings for “mystery book”, Amazon shows up 4th, GoodReads 6th, Barnes and Nobel not until about 27/28th.
So what else do you need to know about SEO? In my previous post, I neglected two areas of the algorithm.
One area is “registration” and “hosting” data. This essentially means you get more points if you are a registered owner of your domain rather than using a generic hoster like MySpace, Facebook, or on a blog spot. Technically though this is mostly covered by having your own domain name, it just ups the ante a bit to make sure you’re also the registrar for the site (think of it like your ISBN for your books — are you the publisher? or did you publish through Smashwords or Amazon and THEY’RE listed as your publisher? The former gets you more points for your URL.) So if you have your own domain, register it yourself and feel free (where possible) to stuff your registration details with your keywords. Not a huge issue, but take the points if you can; if you’ve registered elsewhere, don’t sweat it.
A second area is more about style. When you write a title for a book or a magazine article, you often try to be a bit quirky or unique — which works in print because when people see it, they already have the context. So an article entitled “What we can expect in 2012” in an article in Business Week is very different from a book with the same title in the Paranormal section of the bookstore or an article with the same title in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. But as a reader you don’t care, it’s easy to tell those three apart. But on the web, particularly in a search engine, the context is often lost — those three titles would be considered equally relevant to a search on that phrase. As a result, SEO gurus refer to a related area as microcontent, and suggest making your page titles more explicit. As a practical example, if your site has pages with books on it for sale, don’t call the page “My books”. Call it “Books by John Doe” instead — give the Search Engine the context of what is on the page if it only looks at that page. You also get more points if the page title STARTS with your keyword rather than just appears in the title — so if your key word is “murder”, then “Murder and Mayhem” gets more points than “Mayhem and Murder”.
Looking at the title for this blog entry, I had originally just written it as “SEO update”, as the context was clear. However, applying the microcontent rule to be more explicit, and to help my rankings in search engines, I’ve changed the title to be “SEO Update on the Panda algorithm and microcontent”. Now, technically I should say just SEO techniques or Panda algorithm or microcontent as the first word. But, microcontent is one aspect of content management, and I’m more comfortable with the title I’ve chosen — you balance editorial concerns against SEO each time you write anything for your site. This just makes that balancing more explicit.
For anyone running their own website, one of the terms that comes at you fairly early on is “Search Engine Optimization”. This is a lovely term to basically say, “How do I get my website to show up higher in Google’s rankings?”. There are commercial companies that offer packages, individuals who offer tweaking services, etc…everyone wants to sell you tricks and tips on SEO.
Most of them are, umm, well, worthless. While some are outright scammers, some are just worthless because most of what they do is something you end up doing for yourself (my day boss’ regular comment is if you hire a consultant to tell you the time, they’ll borrow your watch first — as you’ll see below, a SEO consultant will quickly ask you for info to do the job for you). And it is a bit of a competitive crapshoot anyone. Certainly if anyone tries to GUARANTEE you a specific SEO result, run the other way — they’re scammers. No one can guarantee a result, they can only offer ways to LIKELY improve your results — your actual mileage will vary. And most of those suggestions fall into the categories below.
For quick background, here’s what you need to know about how Google works. Google’s search engine process is not one giant element, it is actually made up of a lot of little pieces.
The first big piece to know about is that Google likes to crawl around the Web, sending out little robot searchers that jump from link to link to link, searching out text. These are called spiders (get it? Web, crawling, spiders? Who says giant companies can’t be whimsical?). The spiders don’t care how pretty your site is, they just look for text. And while they are constantly out there 24/7, they can’t read the entire internet in a single day. In fact, if your site doesn’t already have a lot of traffic, they might only visit it every couple of months to see what’s new. And since the spiders can only read text, your fantastic trailer, image, etc. are all lost on the bot. It comes, it reads, it leaves.
Well, actually, it comes, it reads, it creates an index of your content, and then it leaves. Google takes that indexed page and puts it into their massive database from which search results are generated. (No, Virginia, Google does not search the entire web every time you press Search…When you ask for a search, Google runs its algorithm against the database and tries to calculate which pages are the most relevant to your request. In other words, Virginia, it compares your search string against the INDEX it created of millions of pages. Including the index of your own webpage.)
If a page has the exact same search string that Virginia looked for, it gets some points. If it has similar keywords embedded in it, more points. If it is a popular site, more points. If it is a highly rich content site with lots of articles, more points. If it has a LOT of pages that match that search, more points. And so on — points for this, points for that, points for something else, all added up into a nice little relevancy score. Those pages with the highest relevancy score are presented first (note that Google also offers paid advertising at the top of the page — one of the ways they do that is give those paid advertisers a huge relevancy score so they appear first!). I’ll expand below on the various parts that can get you more points, these are just the basics for introduction.
Now, if you’re jumping ahead in you’re thinking, you’ll quickly come to a realization — “If I know the algorithm, I can ensure that I get the most points! Ka-ching!”. No kidding, Sherlock…that’s why Google doesn’t tell anyone what the algorithm is. Which, going back to the scammers at the top, if anyone tells you they know how to guarantee a “first-page score” for example, they don’t — they have educated guesses, but your site is still going to be ranked in comparison with other sites. And while you may think you have the best fan page ever on Lindsay Lohan, the thousands of other LiLo sites may outrank you with their content. Oh, and just an aside — Google, Yahoo, Buzz, etc.? They don’t all use the same algorithms. That would be too easy. 🙂
Time for a Royal Wedding
The bride and groom of SEO are keywords and content. And the secret is they eloped long before April 29th!
In the grand old days of the internet, keywords were the most important thing ever. If you got your keywords right (and embedded them in your web page as “META TAGS” or hidden keywords that described what your page is about), you could get a lot of points and show up nice and high. Now, there are more and more sites out there. So the keyword is still important but it doesn’t go by the META TAG anymore. It also doesn’t necessarily narrow things down much if your keyword phrase is more common — if one of your sets of keywords is “Lindsay Lohan”, note that there are 49M hits for that phrase in Google’s database. Not all of those have LiLo as a formal keyword, but it doesn’t necessarily help you if everyone else gets the same points as you do for having a LiLo reference. But keywords are still really important — if you provide keywords to the crawlers, they’ll read those first, and generally follow your suggestion by adding them to the index they create. In other words, you’re helping the index ACCURATELY reflect what’s on your page — increasing the likelihood of the right people coming to your page. So, telling the spiders which keywords to use can take computerized guesswork out of the equation. And, FYI, with the volume of sites and content out there, three-word phrases tend to be more unique than more common two- or one-word phrases (for example, “Lindsay” has 110M hits, “Lindsay Lohan” has 49M hits, “Lindsay Lohan’s awards” only 22 — not 22M, just 22…obviously that number would be higher if you included traffic citations as an award!!). A small trick related to this too is to put a sitemap on your site — like keywords, it tells the spider bots how to navigate your site properly, and makes their job easier (thus improving the chances of them properly indexing your content).
I’ll digress for a moment to bring up two things. First, what is missing from this story though is a lot of old-style web design and how things have changed. As noted above, early on you could “goose” your rankings higher by really using a LOT of keywords. Now, most of the engines will see a really long list of keywords as indications of lack of focus more so than helping it target your index, potentially diluting the impact on the spiders of your suggested keywords. Yes you need them, but don’t assume that if 5 keywords are good that 300 is even better. Second, if you are running your own site or blog, there are lots of plugins that you can use that basically automate your SEO somewhat…for example, I run WordPress on my site. I could add extra keywords to each and every post, but that is REALLY time-consuming — after all, I’m already adding relevant tags and categories to every post (in a sense, those ARE my keywords). So, one of the things I have is an auto-SEO plugin that adds the tags and categories as my main keywords for every post that I write and publish. I don’t add 100 tags per post, I keep it manageable, and usually only add one category too. If, in addition to blog posts, you also have a few static pages where the content doesn’t change very often, you can probably spend a bit more time focusing your attention on what exactly the best keywords are to describe those pages and put those into the keywords. After that, unless you have a major update, you may not need to change them. And fyi, Yahoo and Bing really put a lot of emphasis on keywords — meaning on this element alone, they might give you more “points” than Google or others.
Going back to the most important pieces, the second element (the “groom”) is your actual content on your page. If all you do is throw up pictures, and very little text, then guess what? The spiders come by, they have nothing to read, and they move on. Nothing to see here, folks, and likely low relevancy in search results. You need content, and preferably original content. If all you do is repost the same things as everyone else, kind of like sharing stuff on Facebook, then the spiders will yawn at you, as there is nothing “unique” to index. Yep, your page will go in the index, but not with a lot of “oomph” behind it. One of the best examples out there for SEO on content is the Huffington Post. Ignoring their actual content, their approach to generating that content is hugely successful — lots of people writing short little articles highlighting the best and the latest news, often repackaged from elsewhere but appearing unique, and they use the top search terms from Google as their keywords. If Google shows that people are searching for “jennifer aniston’s fight with brad”, the Huffington Post is really good at creating an article on that subject by someone and using that search term as keywords. So, HP often shows up as one of the top news aggregator sites in Google’s results. With the bot visiting regularly to grab new content. Not necessarily the “best” content, but the most “relevant”.
The Rest of the Wedding Party
Now here’s the real kicker…almost all the other possibilities for getting higher rankings in search engines are derived from those first two pieces.
For example, let’s look at one area — keyword density — that is slightly less important in recent years and is now even a double-edged sword. If you remember that the spiders don’t rate quality, they just index content, then you want to give them a lot of similar content to index. And if you use a few words over and over (like “Marketing Mystery Novels”), then the spider thinks, “Okay, that’s an important phrase” and assumes the article really is about marketing mystery novels. More so than if you used the phrases marketing cozies, marketing noir, marketing thrillers throughout your post, as the spider doesn’t know you mean the same thing. A human reader likes diversity, the spiders like repetition. However, old designers figured this out and started over-stuffing their pages with the same keywords (i.e. over and over and over). As a result, some search engines start to DEDUCT relevancy scores or even skip your site altogether if they think you’re just trying to game the algorithm with keyword stuffing. Repeat where it makes sense, but don’t overdo it.
Another feature of keywords is that the spiders like to see them in special or particular places and you can get the equivalent of bonus relevancy points if your site has them. For example, if you have them in:
- the page title (both actually on the page and in the hidden TITLE tag);
- headings (using the H1, H2, H3… HTML tags); and
- first few paragraphs,
then you will get more points than if it is buried in your last paragraph or just as tags at the end. And what gets you the MOST points? Having that phrase in your URL!
So, if someone searches for polywogg, my www.polywogg.ca domain name will get me a lot of “relevancy” points — for example, on the Cdn google site, I come up first. Great for me, if someone is looking for “polywogg” specifically. But I also write book reviews — if someone searches for that, I am nowhere near the top. You can also get extra points if it is in your page name…so if you’re running a website that has a webpage called www.joeauthor.com/marketing-mystery-novels.htm, then that will get you lots of extra relevancy points. Far more than if the same page was called MMN.htm (the spider doesn’t know what that means). This also relates to sites that have dynamic URLs (i.e. it says www.joeauthor.com/?page=index&ui=72, a spider doesn’t get any useful info out of that, and so no points for you! (As an aside, some spiders won’t even process those dynamic URLs, they’ll just skip them and move on, but more and more they do). Heck, you can even get some extra points if you use bolding and italicizing strategically to show off some keywords throughout the page.
One area that relates to your content is also a double-edged sword — links. In an ideal world, you would have a single link on your website to your books on Amazon’s store, while thousands of fans on thousands of sites would have links to your site. This would tell Google when it indexed the web that, “Hey, a lot of people find your site really useful and are linking to it.” If so, you get more relevancy points. But some unscrupulous people out there figured out how to game the algorithm — they started setting up fake websites that had nothing but links on them. So, you come to these people and say “Hey, I want to sell Gucci purses”, and they say “Great, give me $x, and I’ll get you into the top 10 searches.” And you say, “Oh, wait, I should tell you that they’re really knock-offs.” Response? “Great, give me $x and I’ll get you into the top 10 searches.” They don’t care what you’re selling, they’re just playing with spider results.
Here’s what they do — they go to all their fake sites, and link to your page with the term “Gucci purses”. Next time the spiders go by, they notice that your site is linked to a LOT and think, “Hmmm, must be popular”. So your relevancy points would go up. Except it is like stuffing the ballot box during elections — they’re not real votes.
Macy’s got dinged by Google for this recently, to which they said, “Oh we didn’t know what the advertising company was doing”, because their advertising company had sub-contracted SEO out to a third party, blah blah blah, and suddenly server farms were running fake sites with lots of links to Macy’s. In Europe, the courts are actually starting to ding companies for this behaviour, particularly if some of the links are based on references to COMPETITOR’S NAMES! And in NYC, there was a just-a-little-too-brilliant-for-his-own-good entrepreneur who had done this for his own business selling fake sunglasses. An equally-enterprising reporter found him out and got him to provide details in an interview on his SEO success — he regularly showed up AHEAD of the actual companies he was pirating! Google read the news article and basically said, “Bad dog, no search results for you!”, and the next day his ranking went from second or first, to 20 pages down. Play fair or get dinged…Google controls the algorithm — if they think you’re playing games, they’ll penalize you fast. Small sites probably don’t have to worry, but why risk it?
So, coming back to SEO, what does Google do with the legitimate LINKING info? They basically look at:
- a combination of the number of inbound links (popularity i.e. how many good sites link to you — scammers linking to you is NOT helpful!);
- number of outbound links (how many good sites you link to, or if your site is nothing but links);
- the ratio between them (i.e. are you a content originator or are you just copying what other people do?); and,
- what the HTML code looks like that actually forms the link (or rather, what the link actually says — preferably it says your keyword, but you’re not going to be happy if it is like bad tags on Amazon and linking to you with false text!).
Continuing on the content front, updated material will also attract spiders. There are lots of technical explanations for this, but the easiest way to think about it is a lot like any visitor coming to your site. If it comes the first time, looks at everything, and goes away with an index, then great. That is what it was supposed to do. If however, it comes back in a month, and nothing has changed, it isn’t going to schedule you for follow-up right away. On the other hand, if your site is DRASTICALLY different, it might bump you up to another visit in three weeks, then two, then one, then daily, then hourly (like Huffington Post). So, when the question comes, “website or blog”, the real question related to SEO is, “Yes, both, either one — just make sure you have some dynamic comments somewhere, even if it is just a news page, so that the spiders come to visit”. Equally though, don’t delete your old content unless it is reallyno longer relevant — Google spiders need something to read, they don’t like empty sites. And, just for fun? Google gives extra points the longer your site has been around.
What the heck do you do with this info?
Basically you can ensure you use keywords and dynamic, rich content on your site. After that, some tools exist out on the web in various places to “test” your setup. If you go on Google and search for a few key phrases (see below), you’ll find — surprise! — the most relevant ones that Google sees in its database:
- “keyword suggestions”– usually you will enter some keywords that you plan to use, and it will suggest others you might want to think about…this isn’t a lot different than peeking at Amazon’s top tags;
- “keyword density tool” — this is to double-check you didn’t go overboard on the keyword stuffing … it will come up as a percentage figure, where single digits (5%) are generally okay, but double (10%+) will actually hurt);
- search through web directories (different from search engines, these are more like manually created index of sites by category) like http://dmoz.org or http://dir.yahoo.com to see if you can find some quality sites that you might be able to entice to link to you, and while you’re there, add your own site to the directory … and don’t forget to have friends with quality websites link to you as well; and,
- Look at the links on other sites to see how they link to you (often your stats engine or comment page track where the links come from).
Some things you might want to avoid that may be great for humans, not so great for spiders:
- using image buttons for navigation;
- using trailers or pictures to convey content (for example, a series of picture “slides” don’t get indexed) without having a text option too;
- using “frames” in your design, as the spiders can’t handle it well, although few designers use this anymore — most websites “create” a full page instead; and,
I hope that is helpful…I freely admit that I mainly did this research for myself, trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t. But if others can pull from it and use it, more power to you! And if I missed some obvious things, happy to be let in on the secrets…