Once your website is up and running, the next step is to control how your site is presented in two key areas:
- search results (such as Google and Bing), and
- social network sites (such as Facebook and Google+).
In both areas, you can control how your site is presented on these external web locations. By presenting your message you can ensure that the correct details about you and your books are shown in search results and social network posts so that you maximize visits to your website/interest in your books.
How Strangers Find You
As an author, you will always be looking to find new readers—these new readers, by definition, will be strangers to you. Often, perhaps usually, you don't find readers, but instead, they find you. There are two important ways that readers find authors that are unknown to them:
- First, they find out about the author or one of the authors books as part of an internet search.
- Second, they find an author or a book on a social network, perhaps by seeing a post by one of their friends.
Clearly, there are other ways that an author can be discovered, but increasingly, these are two important routes and these two routes to the author are the focus of this piece.
Maybe some examples might help to illustrate the areas where you may be seen and where you have some control.
Being Found in Search Engine Results
First, let's look at a search engine result—here's the result (in Bing for this example) which links to the page on my website about my book Jumpstart Your Music Career.
There are three elements to the search result, the title, the descriptive text, and the link.
If you look at the title, you will see that it says: "Jumpstart Your Music Career by Simon Cann". It might seem obvious, but this was a choice—it gives the information that I think the potential reader needs to see: the book title and my name. You will notice that the title does not mention my website, give my background, or include any extraneous information. Again, these were all choices by me.
Now look at the descriptive text: "Jumpstart Your Music Career: earn a living—and sustain a long-term career—making music". These may not be the most compelling or elegantly-crafted words ever written, however, they do summarize the book's content in 86 characters. Importantly, this phrase does not appear on the website page; instead, it is a piece of text I inserted specifically for search engines to use.
Lastly, you will note that the title is a hyperlink (linking to the book's page on my Noise Sculpture website). While you can't see it—and the link in the third line may imply otherwise—this link does link to the reader to the correct page. (The link at the bottom is a shortened version of the correct link).
As a side issue, you will notice the text "Jumpstart Your Music Career" is in bold (both in the title and the descriptive text). The reason for this is that is the search term used—there's no way to control that highlighting in search results.
Being Found in Social Media
There are many social media sites, but the largest, and therefore the most important if you're interested in engaging with the broadest readership is Facebook.
You may not have a Facebook account. You may not have a dedicated author page on Facebook. However, your readers—and new potential readers—are on Facebook and if they talk about you, then you will be on Facebook. This applies equally to Google+ and other social networks. While you don't have an option about whether to be on Facebook, Google+, or other social network, but you do have the choice about how you are presented in these places.
There are two main actions that will lead to you being included on Facebook (or the other social networks). The first way is if someone "likes" you (or +1s you on Google+, or does whatever is necessary to show esteem on the other social networks).
If you go to the Jumpstart Your Music Career page on my Noise Sculpture site, you will see a row of social media buttons under the page title, including a Facebook "like" button. If someone clicks on that like button, then their liking will be recorded on their Facebook timeline. In other words, all of their Facebook friends will be able to see that one of their friends likes one of my books. Facebook doesn't simply say that the person likes something, but instead shows something like this:
In other words, simply as a result of one click, that person will show to all their Facebook friends:
- The person likes my book.
- The title of the book (in this case, noting me as the author).
- My website address (with a link to the appropriate page on my site).
- A short description about the book.
- The book's cover.
The other way people will get you onto Facebook (and the other social media) is if they post a status update with a link to a page on your site. As an example of this, if you post the URL (in other words, the web address) of Jumpstart Your Music Career into a Facebook status posting, these are the details that Facebook will pull directly from my site:
Again you can see the title, the link, the description, and the image.
The details being shown in Google and Facebook (and other search engines and social media sites) are being controlled by me.
The details that are shown—particularly for the social media sites—are shown automatically. No action and no decision is required by the person making the post. This is particularly significant with the cover images that are shown. There are many images on a website and Facebook won't know whether (for instance) the site logo or a book's cover is the more significant image which it should be displaying. By taking control, you can make that decision.
By taking control in this manner:
- You make it easier for people to share details about your book—all that is necessary is for the sharer to like your page or post your page's address.
- You ensure that the details are accurate, so for instance, you ensure that the correct title of the book is used and that your name is spelled correctly.
- You manage the message thereby ensuring that the most important details are conveyed to potential new readers.
Does This Stuff Matter?
You may be shrugging and ready to dismiss this post—Google sort their own search results, right? You're picked up whenever anyone searches for your book—that's good enough, isn't it? And if anyone wants to like you/share a link on Facebook, they can, can't they?
That is all true. However, this article is about taking control of your online presence.
Both Google and Facebook (and the other search engines/social media sites) will include you in their search results and on their user's pages. They will include you even if you do nothing to help them. However, when they include you, they will guess at the information that should be shown. If they then show the wrong information (or simply don't put your best case forward, perhaps they choose the wrong image to show) then it is you who loses out, not them.
There's another more important factor here. In essence, every author is all trying to get lucky and find a wide audience for their work. The step before a person buys a book is that people talk about it and one of the best places to talk about stuff is on Facebook. Therefore, anything that makes the sharing experience better raises the chances that if you get that first "lucky" bite it will spread. My point here is not so much that following this note will make you successful, but more that if you don't you're reducing your own chances.
How Do We Take Control Of Our Presence?
Before we do anything, it's important to get the order of priority right, and the first priority is to sort your website and get the content in good order. If you haven't done so already, you might want to read my thoughts about author websites. The work we're doing here is about amplifying the effect of your website—if your website doesn't have any information, then there's no message that can be amplified.
The main way to control the data that is presented in search engines and social media is through using meta tags on your website.
Meta tags are pieces of data which are embedded in a web page. This data gives additional information about the web page but is hidden from the user. However, search engines and social media sites are used to looking for these tags and extracting the data in a useful way.
How you implement meta tags depends on your website. If you hand-code the HTML, then all you need to do is add the meta tags into the <head> element of your page. If you use a content management system such as Drupal, Joomla!, or WordPress then you can implement meta tags by deploying a module. Once the module is deployed then the necessary fields will usually be exposed for you to enter the data directly.
Your First Meta Tag
The most common meta tag is the page title. The main function of this tag is to give a web page a title. Depending on your web browser, this title will display when your web page is viewed. Here's an example of the (top of the) page for my book Cakewalk Synthesizers: from Presets to Power User displayed in Safari on the iPad:
As you can see, the title I have specified (Cakewalk Synthesizers: from Presets to Power User by Simon Cann) displays in the top bar, under the web address but immediately above the page.
This title is controlled by adding the following tag into the <head> section of that page's HTML.
<title>Cakewalk Synthesizers: from Presets to Power User by Simon Cann</title>
However, this tag has a secondary function: it acts as the title when your search results display, so if we look at the search results (in this example, the result is in Bing) then you will see that the page title is the title of the search result:
If you don't have a page title meta tag, then the search engine will make a guess about the title—this may, or may not, give a result that you want.
As a side issue, pedants may suggest that the <title> tag is not actually a meta tag. Irrespective of this argument, you still need a title tag for your search results.
Meta Tags for Search Results
We've looked at the most important tag for search results: the <title> tag. The format of this tag is straightforward:
<title>[put the title text you want here]</title>
Ideally your title should not exceed 65 to 70 characters (including spaces), but apart from that, there are few requirements. All that is really necessary is that the text should be useful to potential viewers of search results and social network postings.
The second significant meta tag for search results is the description tag. The description tag provides the text that the search engines will consider for their description of your page in the search engine results. Here's an example of the description meta tag from the page about my book Project5 Power!:
<meta name="description" content="Project5 Power! The Comprehensive Guide: everything you need to know to use Cakewalk's Project5 software" />
When you look at the search result (this example is from Google) you will see that this description has been repeated:
As a side issue, you will notice in these results that there is some additional data and my photo. These details are included by Google because I have joined Google+ and have verified my authorship of the page. The verification of authorship is a separate issue from meta tags so I won't be mentioning it any further in this article.
The description meta tag takes this format:
<meta name="description" content="[insert description]" />
The search engines usually allow you just over 150 characters (including spaces). This is your opportunity to write some interesting and engaging text to entice potential readers.
The search engines will usually use this text as you have written it. However, they do not guarantee to do so and may extract alternative text from your page if they believe that they can give a better search result based on a specific search query.
One meta tag that people often mention is the keywords tag. This takes the following format:
<meta name="keywords" content="[insert keywords in a comma separated list]"/>
The idea behind this tag was to give the search engines a hint about the content on the page. I say "was" because this tag isn't used by any of the major search engines (for instance, Google hasn't used it since at least 2009). You might want to use these tags for other reasons, but they have no effect on your search results.
Testing Your Meta Tags
Both Google and Bing will comment on your meta tags (mostly in terms of whether the text is too long, too short, or repeated too frequently). The testing is performed through Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools, both of which will also report on how the search engine spiders found your site and suggest other improvements that you can make.
Meta Tags for Facebook
Facebook is the largest social network having something around one billion members at the time of writing. This huge mass of humanity makes Facebook worthy of special attention.
Facebook respects the <title> and the meta description tags (and do Google when presenting results in Google+). However, Facebook also has its own tagging protocol: the Open Graph Protocol or OGP. For our purposes, the OGP allows us to associate a specific web page with a specific object—most commonly you are likely to want to identify a specific web page with a specific book. Making this link allows you to establish one of your web pages as the definitive information source for one of your books.
OGP data is produced by many sites and is consumed primarily by Facebook, however, Google also recognize this data and may include it within their search results. Some of this data duplicates the meta tags' data—it should not be an onerous task for you to copy-and-paste these details.
I mentioned it earlier, but it's worth repeating—by getting your OGP tags right, whenever someone likes one of your pages or links to one of your pages, then that page (and the OGP data on that page) will be included on that person's Facebook timeline. This is particularly relevant for any of your books where you can control:
- The image that is shown, so you can be certain that the cover image is displayed (rather than your website's logo, for instance).
- The correct book title is shown.
- The description of the book that you have written is shown.
It takes one click and all of that data can be displayed.
As with meta tags, you can manually insert OGP tags into hand-crafted HTML however, you will find the implementation of this data is much easier if you use a content management system with a dedicated module.
Basic Open Graph Protocol Data
The Open Graph Protocol specifies four basic pieces of information:
- The title as should be shown within Facebook. So for a book, you would probably want to show the title. However, I like to show the title and my name; so for instance, I might set my title to be "Jumpstart Your Music Career by Simon Cann".
- The type of object that the page refers to. For authors this will usually be a book, however, you may also want to refer to movies, web pages, and other types of objects.
- The image that should represent the object you are referencing. In the case of a book this will most likely be its cover image.
- The definitive web address which will become the permanent address of the object for Facebook. Some pages have several web addresses—Facebook wants to know the definitive address (or as it's often called the canonical URL).
As a side issue, the search engines will thank you if you have (separately from your OGP tag) defined a canonical URL in the following format:
<link rel="canonical" href="[definitive web address including the http:// bit]" />
The four basic OGP tags can be implemented using the following format. For the OGP title, you will probably want to duplicate the content of the <title> meta tag in the OGP tag which takes the following form:
<meta property="og:title" content="[put the title text you want here]" />
To declare the web page as relating to a book, you would use the following OGP tag:
<meta property="og:type" content="book" />
For other content forms (such as web pages and movies, check the full Open Graph Protocol listing).
Facebook requires that images are a reasonable size (at least 200 pixels in each direction) so if (like me) you use smaller cover images on your site, you might need to refer to an image which isn't displayed and is only used for Facebook purposes. You can specify the image Facebook will show using the following OGP tag:
<meta property="og:image" content="[location of the image on your website]" />
The fourth OGP tag is the definitive web address which can be implemented using the following format:
<meta property="og:url" content="[definitive web address for the page]" />
Other OGP Tags
There are two other main OGP tags that are useful for authors. The first is the site name tag:
<meta property="og:site_name" content="[site name]" />
The other useful tag is the description tag which may duplicate the content of the meta description tag. This provides the text that Facebook uses to describe your book (or other object). This can be implemented in the following format:
<meta property="og:description" content="[insert description]" />
The Open Graph Protocol is a developing standard and there are other tags which may be useful but until these are finalized, you may want to hold off implementation.
Testing OGP Data
Once you've implemented your OGP tags, you can test theme with the Facebook OGP debugger. All you have to do is drop in the URL of the page to be tested and hit the debug button.
If you want to see how a book can work with OGP tags, then check out one of my books on my Noise Sculpture website, a good example to look at is my book Cakewalk Synthesizers.
The search engines and social networks offer a great opportunity (at no cost) to control how you are presented to potential readers—in particular, the social networks give you the opportunity to get your book cover and some enticing text in front of potential readers.
If you see the value of running your own website, then I'm sure you will see the value of taking the addition step to fine-tune the data that is presented through the search engines and the social networks. Implementing meta tags isn't the most compelling task you will ever complete but it's not difficult (and the process is far more straightforward to implement than it is to explain).