What is “Search Engine Optimization” and why would any novelist need it?
Here’s the short answer: If you have a website to promote your books, then you’d like people to visit it, right? And you’d rather not pay to get people to come to your site, right? And the reason search engines like Google exist is to help people find things on the web they’re looking for, right? So Search Engine Optimization is the process of making sure they find you.
By the way, Search Engine Optimization is normally abbreviated as “SEO,” so that’s what I’ll call it for the rest of this article.
Why Authors Need SEO
A novelist can live their whole life never thinking about SEO. After all, it’s a techie thing, and authors are creative, so why bother? The answer is simple. If you don’t bother with SEO, then your site will not work as hard for you as it should. But if you take a little time to learn SEO, your site can do amazing things for you.
What Goes Wrong When an Author has Poor SEO
And here’s the problem: Search engines don’t always get it right, if you don’t help them out a little. Twenty years ago, an author friend emailed me to ask, “why does Google hate me?” She had noticed that when she searched for her name on Google, the description Google showed in the search results was some very strange paragraph. It didn’t really explain who she was or what she wrote, and she thought that meant Google didn’t like her.
I did about three minutes of research and told her what the problem was. Whoever made her website hadn’t done anything to help Google figure out what to display in the search results. So Google’s engine came up with … something, but it wasn’t a very good something. I told her how to fix it, and ten minutes later, it was fixed. For good. (For techies: she had no meta description on any of her pages. So Google used the description it found on Alexa, and it was a very generic description.)
That’s part of what Search Engine Optimization is about—helping Google help you.
What Goes Right When an Author has Good SEO
When your website has good SEO, you get traffic to your site. Traffic to your site means more True Fans sign up for your e-mail newsletter. More True Fans on your newsletter means that the launch of your next novel goes better. This is part of the Virtuous Cycle of Marketing that I blogged about earlier this year.
As an example, when I first started this website, I put a bit of thought into how to make life easy for the search engines to find my articles. And over the years, this site has pulled in more than 10,000,000 page views. Most of those came from the search engines. That’s free traffic, coming in 24/7/365, whether I was working or at the beach or sleeping.
WordPress and the Yoast SEO Plugin
Now let’s be clear that the web has evolved a lot in twenty years. Very few people write their own code for their website anymore. Most authors use a free tool called WordPress to create their site. WordPress is great (I use it for both my websites), so in this article, I’ll focus on how to do your SEO for a WordPress site.
And the search engines have evolved a lot also. Google and Bing and all the others are vastly smarter than they used to be. I can remember all kinds of tricks people used to play to “fool” Google into sending traffic to their sites. Those tricks don’t work anymore.
Only two “tricks” actually work long-term for good sound SEO, and neither of them is a trick:
- Write clear, useful, informative content on your website.
- Give Google and the other search engines the basic info they need to understand your site.
A very popular tool for helping you do both of those things is a WordPress plugin called Yoast SEO. If you have a WordPress site and don’t know what a “WordPress plugin” is, then you didn’t create your website; you paid someone to do it, and they will know what a plugin is. In fact, they probably already installed the free Yoast SEO plugin on your site, because it’s good and you can’t beat the price of free.
How Yoast SEO Helps
If you have a WordPress website, you should at least know how to add new pages to your site (and also new blog posts, if your site includes a blog). And the point of the Yoast SEO plugin is that it looks over each page or post you write while you’re writing it, and it gives you helpful suggestions on those two things I mentioned above. So Yoast does these two things:
- Yoast SEO helps you write clear, useful, informative content
- Yoast SEO helps you give Google the info it needs about your page or post
SEO has gotten very complicated over the years. Yoast handles a lot of those complications for you, by making suggestions. But you need some basic understanding of SEO to understand what Yoast is telling you. And where will you get that basic understanding?
Your One-Stop Source for Learning SEO: Yoast Academy
The best place to learn about the Yoast SEO plugin is a section of Yoast’s website called Yoast Academy. Part of Yoast Academy is free and part of it is not free. Let me explain why.
What’s in Yoast Academy
I said above that the Yoast SEO plugin is free. So how can they afford to make an amazingly great and powerful tool and give it away free to millions of website owners? They afford it by making a second plugin called Yoast SEO Premium that is not free and has even more features than Yoast SEO. (I like Yoast SEO Premium and I pay for it on both my websites, because it’s excellent.)
Yoast Academy is a set of very good online video courses that cover most of what you need to know in SEO. They have 8 excellent free courses, and 9 even more intensive paid courses. If you own Yoast SEO Premium, then you get free access to the paid courses—they’re part of the premium package. I recommend that you start with the free courses, and only take the paid ones if you need them.
Where to Find Yoast Academy
You can find Yoast Academy here on the Yoast website, but you’ll need to create a free account first before you can log in to the Academy.
Once you log in, you’ll be overwhelmed with choices. Yoast Academy has 17 courses! They’re all good, but which should you take first?
I’ll answer that question in the rest of this article. For most novelists, you can learn the basics of SEO by taking just a couple of courses in Yoast Academy. Then as you get more advanced, you might decide to take more specialized courses that explain the fine points in more detail. Or you might decide that you know enough to do your job and never take another course again.
But First: How Well Do You Know WordPress?
Nobody is an expert in everything. It’s quite possible you don’t feel like you’re really up to speed on using WordPress yet.
That’s OK. If you don’t feel comfortable yet writing your own pages or posts on WordPress, then Yoast Academy has a free course that will teach you the basics quickly. It’s called WordPress for Beginners and it will get you rolling fast.
If you need it, start there. Don’t try to cut corners by trying to run before you can walk. You’ll be surprised how fast you learn the essentials. And after that, you’ll be off to the races.
Using the Free Yoast Plugin Effectively
I recommend that authors start by using the free Yoast SEO plugin. If that’s all you ever need, then you won’t ever pay anything, and you’ll get pretty good Search Engine Optimization on your site, and that’s a deal.
Core Courses for Yoast SEO Users
In this case, the very first course you should take in Yoast Academy is the free course SEO for Beginners. It’s quite short, but it’s packed with all the most essential info to get you using the Yoast SEO plugin quickly and well.
Once you understand how SEO works, then choose from one of these two free courses that will teach you how to use the Yoast SEO plugin effectively:
How do you decide which of these to take? That depends which WordPress editor you’re using to create your pages and posts. There are two standard editors available: 1) the new “block editor”, or 2) the older “classic editor”. I’d recommend that you use the new block editor, since the word on the street is that soon the classic editor will no longer be supported in WordPress. So you might as well start using the block editor, which is the future of WordPress. Once you decide which WordPress editor you’re using, that tells you which of the two courses above you should take.
More Advanced Courses for Yoast SEO Users
That may be all the courses you ever need. If so, that’s wonderful. However, you may also decide that you want to go deeper on some topic or another. In that case, here are a couple of other free courses you might want to take, in the most likely order that you’d want to take them:
- Structured Data for Beginners (this teaches you how to give Google the special information it needs in order to qualify your pages for those “rich results” you often see at the top of a Google search results page.
- Block Editor Training (this teaches you all the ins and outs of the WordPress block editor.
There are a couple of other free offerings in Yoast Academy, and you can check them out when you’ve taken all the courses above. And if these free courses are all you ever take, you’ll be ahead of the vast majority of other novelists.
But you might choose to go farther, in case you decide to pay for the Yoast SEO Premium plugin….
Using the Yoast SEO Premium Plugin Effectively
As I said above, the reason the Yoast SEO plugin is free is because somebody is paying the bills—the people who pay for Yoast SEO Premium. I pay for this plugin and I think it’s a bargain. In case you decide to upgrade to Yoast SEO Premium, you’ll also get access to several very intensive courses that will teach you even more about SEO than the free courses.
Core Courses for Yoast SEO Premium Users
I recommend that you start with the course All Around SEO. This will teach you quite a lot about SEO, covering the entire subject in logical order: first keyword research, then SEO copywriting, then site structure, then technical SEO, then off-page SEO, and finally the all-important user experience. This is a really good course, and you might decide it’s all you need to know about SEO.
Once you’ve taken the above course, you’ll still want to take one of the two free courses on how to use the Yoast SEO plugin. These will teach you all the ins and outs of the plugin you’re using. I mentioned them above, but here they are again:
More Advanced Courses for Yoast SEO Premium Users
If you really want to go deep, Yoast Academy has several other courses that go with Yoast SEO Premium plugin. Here is the logical order to take them in (because the later courses depend on the earlier ones):
- Keyword Research (which teaches you how to decide what keywords to target in each page or post
- SEO Copywriting (which teaches you how to write clear, useful, informative content for your website, the kind Google likes to send people to)
- Site Structure (which teaches you how to organize your site so Google can understand which pages and posts are most important and which are less so)
- Technical SEO (which teaches you all about “crawlability”)
- Understanding Structured Data (which teaches you how to make your site really attractive to users, and therefore really attractive to Google)
Yoast Academy also has several other premium courses that are of less interest to novelists, so I’ll skip over those here. But if you’re interested, you can easily find them all on the Yoast Academy main page.
Ready to Get to Work?
In conclusion, SEO has grown into a big and complicated topic. You could spend years learning it all yourself, but life is short. It’s much quicker to simply install the free Yoast SEO plugin or the payware Yoast SEO Premium plugin and then take a few courses in Yoast Academy. The people at Yoast have already done mountains of work so you won’t have to. Take advantage of their knowledge and hard work to make your website more attractive to people searching for information on the web.
Want to learn more about marketing your novels? Check out my page on Marketing Tools for Writers where I recommend the best tools I know of for all the many aspects of marketing that an author needs to know.
Emily Lo says
I have a question about WordPress and plug ins. I haven’t seemed to find a concrete answer on this and was curious if you could help me out. I currently have a free WordPress.com account. Is it possible for me to get plugins for my free sites? Or do I have to upgrade to a plan to get plugins?
Randy Ingermanson says
Hi Emily, it looks like the cheapest WordPress.com pricing plan that allows you to install WordPress plugins is the Business Plan, which currently costs $33/month. Anyway, that’s the way I read their pricing page here: https://wordpress.com/pricing/
So it looks like you’d need to upgrade to get plugins.