An author's website is usually the hub of their presence on the web.
Any website will always be a work-in-progress, constantly evolving and never finished. Once they are "good enough" they go live (and often they go live when they are still in need of a bit of work). This is quite reasonable: an author's career never stands still and what an author wants from their website will keep changing, with each change incrementally improving.
Different authors will have different aims and will want to stamp their individual personality on their own website. As with writing a book, there is no empirical measure of the "right" or the "wrong" way with a website. Designing a website is all about making choices—there are no wrong choices, but there are definitely some things an author can do which will not support the author's aims.
The area where author websites fall down is not the content, but the implementation. Many try to be too clever, or get obsessed by looks, or let their designers run wild. This note looks at what authors should do, and also considers some of the practices that should be avoided.
This is quite a long post, so let me start with a brief preview (with links) of the main sections:
The first area that this note looks at is the benefits that flow from—and the goals that an author can meet by—running a website.
The content section looks at the material you need and the subject matter you might also want to include. This section also considers how the content is presented since that will have a significant effect on its impact or perception.
There are many actions that you can take to drive traffic to your site in particular from search engines and from social media. This section contemplates how you can optimize your site to maximize referrals.
One aim for many authors, when setting up a website, is to foster reader (and potential reader) interaction. This section looks at how to use your site to build your community of readers and ambassadors.
For many authors, the most task when building a website is creating the content. This section looks at some of the areas where the implementation can undermine your hard work in creating and crafting your material.
As your website expands—in terms of complexity and content—you will need tools to help you manage it.
Most of this note avoids the real technical detail, but there are a few areas where you need to pay attention if you want to avoid having to deal with lawyers or having your website hijacked.
You understand what a conclusion is without me explaining it, right?
So that's what's coming. Let's start by looking at some of your goals when establishing and running a website.
Aims of a Website
An author will often want to achieve several goals with a website. Sometimes these goals may appear to pull in different directions.
The main goals that an author is likely to want to achieve with their website will probably include several of the following:
- To give some background about the author. The site could act as the definitive resource about the author and provide a platform for the author to talk about issues that matter to them.
- To act as the definitive source of information about the books published by the author. Beyond that to market the author's books and to point potential purchasers to places where the author's books can be purchased.
- To help the author find new readers and to help potential new readers find out about the author and their books.
- To provide information to existing readers and to support/enhance the author's relationships with those readers. This may extend to creating a platform for the author and readers to interact.
- To act as the contact point so that people can get in touch with the author, their agent, their publisher, their publicist, and so on.
- To provide resources for the media (such as biographical/bibliographical data and images of the author/the author's books).
- To be a place where search engines can point when people want to know more about the author.
While somewhat of a crude generalization, the purpose of a website can be summed as being a platform from which an author can disseminate information. Let's have a look at how that aim can be achieved.
Content is what it's all about. The content of your website is what matters—the content is the information that is being disseminated.
In the next section (Helping People Find You) I'll talk about how people might find your site—there is no point in encouraging people to visit your website if there is nothing to see when they arrive—but for the moment, let's think a bit about what visitor are likely to want to find.
The content of any website is going to vary according to the author, the author's genre(s), and the expectations of the readership. However, as a minimum, any author website is likely to include the following information:
- Biographical details. Readers and potential readers don't need to know everything about you, but they want some feel of who you are and what you do.
- Details about your books. This could be a summary of the content or extracts.
- A listing of your events/public appearances (with details of the time/date and location of the venue).
- Details of how people can contact/interact with you (and your publisher /agent/publicist, and so on. This could be a simple as including a contact form, but should probably also include links to each of your social media presences.
In many ways, that is all you need, but you should, of course, include more.
- So far, so much text... As a minimum, you should include images of your covers and a photograph of yourself. If you've got any other images that are useful/relevant/interesting to your readership, then include those.
- If you're actively marketing a project (such as your latest book), then that should be given prominence.
Beyond these basics, it's up to you to show some creativity and to understand what your readership/potential readers want and expect.
For instance, you might want to mention your current work-in-progress or books which will be forthcoming shortly. There is no magic formula; the purpose should be to provide some useful and interesting information to draw readers in, and to encourage them to talk about you and your books.
Navigation, Presentation, and Layout
Simply providing the right content is not enough: if your reader can't find what they are looking for, or if your site fights with your viewers, then your content might as well not be there.
When people visit a website, you've only got a limited amount of time before they get bored and go away, so make sure that you put the interesting information in front of them immediately.
Don't put everything on your front page: just put what you want people to see. So for instance, if you're promoting a recently published book, make sure that book is front and center and remove everything else.
For the rest of the site, remember that people will read a few words—maybe a sentence or two if you have really gripped them—and then they'll start to skim. Typically when they skim they will skip to the next heading and read a few words before jumping to the next heading, so if you haven't got any headings, then they'll just go away.
As well as getting bored, people get frustrated—if they can't find what they're looking for, where they expect to find it, then then will leave. And if they leave, then either you've alienated a reader or you've lost a potential new reader.
You need to guide viewers through your site, and you need to guide them in a way that is intuitive to the viewer, not to you.
The main ways you guide the reader are:
- Through the navigation. In other words, through the menus and links on your site. For instance, you will see that this site has a row of menu bars across the top of the page and then sub-menus on the right-hand side.
- Through how you present the material (in terms of layout, headings, and so on).
- By prioritizing your material so the important/recent/relevant material is separated from, and is easier to access, than any archival material.
I'll talk a bit more about some of the technical issues around links (in particular, your menu navigation) later in this piece.
Helping People Find You
One of the prime purposes for having a website is so that people can find information about your books (and you). Finding you/your books is a step to buying your books, so if your web presence is invisible there will be a correlation with your sales (in that your website will not be helping to generate sales).
In essence, people are going to come to your site in one of three ways:
- Directly. They will know your website address and will type that in to their browser. Clearly, this will happen with people who already know about you—perhaps they have bought one of your books or maybe they have read a review. Since these people know how to find you, you don't need to take any further action.
- Search. Some people will search for you or your book and some will find you when searching for a topic which relates to one or more of your books.
- Referral. The third group of people who will reach you will be referred, often by links on the internet.
Search engines (such as Google and Bing) work best if people know that they are looking for you or for one of your books. If they don't know about you, then they can't search for you, in which case a personal recommendation (perhaps through a social network or a social bookmark site) will drive potential new readers to you. Neither aspect is more important than the other: both are significant and will operate like a big net catching people and funneling them to you.
Whether or not you participate in social media, these sites represent a huge mass of readers and potential readers. You may try to engage directly with readers and potential readers through these sites. This is a worthy pursuit, however, as a marketing strategy it has limitations:
- It takes up a lot of time. Time spent marketing/participating in social media is time not spent writing.
- There are a finite number of people with whom you can interact. In order to interact with people (and drive them to your site/persuade them to buy your book) you need to find them first.
There is a more efficient approach which is to engage your readership as ambassadors. Each of your readers will have their own group of friends and they will be able to find people that you could never find. Not only this, but they will be able to cross geographical and cultural borders far more easily than you ever could.
One of the best ways you can encourage these conversations is to make your site social media-friendly. There are two ways to achieve this:
- First, give each page its own unique address. I'll discuss this later in this article.
- Second, use social media sharing buttons. If people see that all they need to do is to click a button to share your page, it will encourage sharing. There are many services such as AddThis, AddtoAny, and ShareThis which can help include the sharing buttons on your site. You should aim to have these buttons on every page.
Unlike the social media sites, these sites are dedicated to sharing (and in some cases tagging) links. This can make the links more subject-focused, and can help you tap directly into communities of interest (rather than simply groups of friends).
As with the social media sites, to encourage social bookmarking, you should ensure each page has its own unique address and should include social bookmarking buttons.
If you are linked to from other sites, then the search engines will find your site soon enough. If you are not linked to, then you can submit your site manually.
Over time, the search engine spiders will visit and your site and will munch through your content. There are only a few things you need to do to make life easy for the spiders:
- First, make sure your text is readable by the spiders. Spiders read text, not graphics. So if you have announced your new book with a picture of the cover, then the search engine spiders will not be able to read that. Keep the cover, but make sure the title of the book is repeated in text.
As long as you have text on your site, then as the spiders visit, your site will be indexed and will start to show up in search engine results.
Often new sites don't rank highly in search engine results, but after a few months you should start to rise in the rankings (once the search engines have determined that your site isn't a malicious site). The other factor which will help your site rise in the rankings is links to your site—as a really crude rule of thumb, the more links you have, the higher your site will rank.
Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization (often called SEO) is the process of enhancing a website so that it ranks more highly in search engine results.
There are many myths around SEO and equally, there are many bad practices, which often have the effect of getting sites blacklisted by the search engines.
According to Google (and they should know) the factor that affects rankings is relevant content. If you include lots of relevant content, then your site will figure more prominently in search engine rankings. And remember, content is text—not graphics or shiny presentation—and text should be comparatively straightforward for an author to create.
You should always do what is right for you and your site, but it is worth taking a moment or two to make sure that, if nothing else, your key search terms will show up. So for instance, you should ensure that your text mentions the titles of your books, key concepts discussed in your books, and any leading characters (if appropriate, for instance, if you are writing fiction or biographies).
If you want to know more about search engine optimization and how search engines work, then check out Google's search engine optimization starter guide which gives lots of information about how Google indexes and ranks websites.
Making Sure Your Site Works for the Search Engines
Once your site is up and running, it's worth taking some time to understand how the search engines view your site, and what they do with the information that they glean from their spiders and how they then present your site in search results.
While you're in a checking frame of mind, run your site through Page Speed. This analyzes your site and generates suggestions to make it load faster. A faster load time will reduce viewer frustration, which ultimately leads to potential readers not finding out about you and your books.
When your website has been running for some time, you should try to understand how effective it is being as a tool. For instance, you can try to assess:
- How many people visit your site on a daily basis, and of those people, how many are new visitors and how many returning visitors.
- How people are reaching your site, and in particular, which sites are linking to your site.
- Which are the most popular pages on your site (and which are the top landing and exit pages).
One of the most effective tools for providing this information (and much more) is Google Analytics. It's free and easy to set up, and doesn't need anything installed on your computer, so if you haven't done so already, you should get it today.
One of your key aims with a website may be to foster interaction and discussion with and between you, your readers, and your potential readers. This is an excellent way to create, nurture, and grow a community of people who will then act as your ambassadors telling their friends and social network contacts about you, and writing positive reviews about your books.
Historically, there were two main ways to encourage interaction: a blog and a forum. However, with the developments in social media, there are other places where readers congregate and you can interact with them, so these two meeting places may be less significant that they once were.
A blog is not only a great way to talk about any issue that matters to you, but it is also an opportunity to encourage readers to join a discussion. You can name the subject and then encourage readers to comment. Indeed, you can steer and suggest the area for discussion.
The challenge with a blog is that you're only one voice and, for there to be interaction, you are relying on readers to visit you site and to be aware when you have posted an article.
In order to generate critical mass, there are many author blog collectives where a group of authors blog together. For the reader, these sites offer regular fresh content. For the author, there is an immediate audience who will read the blog and are accustomed to commenting.
The difficulty for the author about this approach is that the content distracts from the author's site. Clearly this is a challenge, although the options are usually straightforward: have your own blog that no one reads or participate in a shared blog which lots of people read.
One way to bridge the gap is to "suck" an individual author's content created for the collective blog into the author's website (which you can do if you're using an RSS feed as mentioned in the next section). This is a compromise, but it can work.
Setting Up a Blog
In my opinion, the best way to set up a blog is to use a content management system (which I will discuss later).
A blog can be a series of web posting. However, to take advantage of the medium, you need to do more. In particular, you need to make your blog available in RSS format. You can follow the link if you want to read more, but the key issue with an RSS feed is that it is a standard format for presenting information that people can subscribe to. So instead of people coming to your website every day to check whether you have posted an article (which will get tedious very quickly), they can have a feed reader (such as Google Reader) do the checking and automatically notify them when you post new content.
Another benefit of having an RSS feed is that you can syndicate your posts to other sites. For instance, if you have an author page at Amazon, that page can automatically include your RSS feed articles—in other words, you post something on your website, and it will automatically show on Amazon.
Each blog post will still be shown on your web page—the RSS feed is just an additional feature. If you use any of the content management systems, then they will help you create the RSS feed without needing to get into any of the technicalities.
There are several blogging services—some free, some paid. Most of these services are high quality and would help you get a blog up-and-running very quickly. However, if you can avoid it, I recommend you do not go with these options. There are three main reasons why I advocate that you set up your own blog (rather than use a third party):
- First, the blog will be an integral part of your site. If people find your blog, then they've found your site. If people search your site, then that search will include your blog postings (and vice versa).
- You can keep control. You can present articles in the way you want to (in terms of layout, images, fonts, and so on). The URL of the page will be specified by you. If you want to change the address of any page or to change the feed in any way, then you can automatically redirect people to the new destinations. By contrast, if your blog is managed by a third party, then you can't make these changes.
- You get direct access to your own statistics.
With a blog, you can publish and that post will remain as a self-standing piece irrespective of whether there are any comments. However, with a forum, if there are no comments, then the medium is fairly uninteresting. Worse than that, you have been uninteresting in public, and an under-utilized forum will positively discourage interaction.
It is hard to create and sustain momentum with a forum unless you have a critical mass of followers from the start. Accordingly, I think you're likely to find Facebook and the other social media sites are a better place to interact with your readership, even if this means you are not driving traffic directly to your site.
However, if you do decide to set up a forum—or if you want the flexibility to set one up at the click of a button—then I suggest you build your website using (or migrate your website to) a content management system, so that the functionality will be available. Using a content management system gives an additional advantage of integrating the forum into your site so, for instance, the site-wide search will include the forum as well as the content you post (including any blog posts, if you blog).
Blog and Forum Moderation
If you're going to run your own blog or forum and allow active participation, then before too long you're going to come across spam and hate-speak. This means that you (or someone you trust) are going have to monitor comments.
There are several reason for making sure these unwanted comments are dealt with. Obviously, you don't want adverts, self-promotion, and potentially libelous comments on your site, but beyond that there is a serious issue: the search engines. If your site starts linking heavily to spam and malware sites, then the search engines will regard your site unfavorably, and so your search results will start plummeting.
Moderation is a manual job and will take a lot of your time. There are also some tools that can help you: two examples are Mollom and Akismet (which can be integrated seamlessly into many of the current content management systems). These tools are particularly focused on comment spam—in other words comments placed on blogs and forums which are intended to look like real comments, but which, in reality are links to less desirable sites. They work in real-time and will help to greatly reduce unwanted postings.
Lots of people trip up when they try to implement their website. It's not uncommon to start with some great ideas, develop those into some excellent content, and then throw it all away with a poorly realized site.
Here are some of the main areas where simple issues can cause big problems for your viewers.
People like pictures, and I would encourage you to include as many images as possible on your site. However, you need to be cautious. You need to be especially cautious if you're using a designer helping you to implement your site since they tend to focus heavily on using graphics as this is a great way to make a site "look" good.
The first challenge with graphics is the file size—larger file sizes take longer to download, and graphics files are disproportionately large when compared to the size of text files. If you want your readers to access your website anything close to instantaneously (and you should—slow websites turn readers away), then you need to manage your graphics. There are two approaches here, both of which should be implemented:
- First, the graphics should be web-optimized.
- Second, use fewer graphics (in other words, you need to redesign your site to be less reliant on graphics).
Web-optimization of graphics is an art and a science.
It is possible to reduce the size of any graphic file—in essence, all you have to do is to reduce its size and/or its quality and the size will drop. Indeed, if you want, you can make graphics files tiny. However, as the file size drops, the quality of any graphics will also drop, and as the quality of your graphics degrades, then so does the visual impact of your website, and the whole reason for having graphics in the first place becomes questionable.
This is where the optimization comes in—you need to balance the quality of the output with the file size, generally reducing the file size, but stopping just before effect of the compression becomes noticeable. In reducing the file size, there are many options (and you may want to use a graphic artist to help you here). These options include: changing the format of the graphic, changing the compression algorithm, reducing the selection of colors, reducing the complexity of the source graphic, and changing the physical size of the image.
This approach is very different to the approach with print where you strive to keep the very highest quality image at all times and where there is little concern about file sizes. At times there will be conflicts between the two approaches and you may feel uncomfortable with the compromises (for instance, you may not want to reduce the quality of your books' covers).
In this instance one approach is to include a smaller/highly compressed image so that the page will load quickly, but to have the option to open up a higher quality image (when the reader can be expected to wait for a second or two, plus the wait won't be too long since they're only opening one large file). Another alternative (which again moves traffic away from your website) is to offload the larger files onto a photo sharing website such as Flickr, which will be better able to handle the requirements of serving up large images.
Many sites use Flash or similar technology. This can help implement video and visual effects (for instance moving background images, complex layouts, and highly interactive menu and navigation elements). While the results can be impressive, I would suggest avoiding this sort of approach for a number of reasons:
- It slows down websites and is likely to frustrate your readers (especially those on a slow internet connection).
- The technology is not universally compatible, so will not work with many browsers (especially mobile browsers, for instance, Flash does not work on iPhones or iPads).
- It hides content from search engines.
And to expand that last point, remember that all graphics are not searchable and so will not be indexed by the search engines. If you have something important that you want the search engines to find—such as your name or a book's title—then make sure that is included as text in addition to any images you might include.
Each page on your website should have its own address (often called a URL or uniform resource locator). Without a URL, people cannot link to a specific page, so for instance, if your book does not have its own URL, then people cannot tell their friends about it.
There are many ways a URL can be obscured, including by cloaking, and by using frames (where the relevant content is a "pane" within the frame—the pane changes, but not the frame which shows the URL).
Each URL should be human-friendly. In other words, it should include words to suggest what the page is about—it shouldn't look like a string of computer code. There are two reasons for this approach. First, it helps viewers understand that they have found the right page, and second, the search engines like this approach (not least since it helps people see where search engines will be directing them).
Once a page has been given a URL, then it shouldn't be changed. If it is changed, then all external links to the page (including from search engines) will be broken, so if you do need to make a change then you should include a permanent redirect from the old URL to the new URL.
Visually Impaired Readers
As a matter of good practice you may want to make your site as friendly as possible to visually impaired individuals. There are a number of things you can do to help:
- First, choose a reasonable size for your font—small text is harder to read. A clean font will also be easier to read than decorative fonts (such as cartoon script, gothic-looking characters, or "Olde Englishe" text).
- Use text, not graphics. Some visually impaired individuals use screen readers (which will read what is on the screen and re-present it to the viewer in an appropriate form, for instance, as speech). These tools cannot read text in graphics.
- As well as choosing clean fonts at a reasonable size, also pay attention to the contrast between the font and the background (although for some people, white on black is preferable). Black text on a white background generally gives a good contrast which is easy to read. Other color combinations work less well, and it can be particularly hard to read text when it is laid on top of a background image.
We all have our favorite internet browsers, however, just because you like a browser, that doesn't mean that other people will use that same browser, and more importantly, it doesn't mean that what you see will render in other browsers in the same way that it renders in your browser.
Before your site goes live and whenever you make significant changes to your site, you should preview it in all the major browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera) and as many of the mobile browsers as you can access.
Browsers get updated from time-to-time, so you should periodically review your site to monitor continued compatibility.
Video and Audio
I've already mentioned graphics. Now let's move on another step: video and audio.
Some sites will automatically start playing music (to give "atmosphere"... or will automatically run videos). This is almost always hugely annoying (especially when the sound can't be switched off) and will slow down the site.
If you need audio, then think again, you don't. If you need video, then put the clip on YouTube (and either link to it or embed the clip on a web page so that your viewer has the option as to whether they watch the video).
Content Management System
When it comes to building your website, there are several options.
One choice is to hand-code the HTML. In many ways this is a good choice since you get clean code that you understand, and nothing unexpected is added. However, the downside of this approach is that you need to understand HTML, and while the basics are fairly straightforward, that learning still represents an investment of your time. Also, once your site reaches a certain size, then the complexity of managing a hand-cranked site can be overwhelming.
In many ways, a preferable solution is to use a content management system (sometimes called a CMS). This is software where, in essence, you input text and images, and the software spits out the code to make your website run.
There are many CMS solutions available, and a significant proportion of these are open source, so are available for free. Some of the leading open source CMS solutions (which are hugely popular and power some of the most significant websites) include: Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress. Most of these services are available from web hosts and can be accessed by a "one-click" installation.
In essence, CMS systems act in a similar manner: there is the software which pulls everything together, there is a database (run through the software) to store information, and then there is layout overlay to present the information. The software is usually modular so you can add features you need (and ignore functionality you don't).
There are several benefits to using a CMS:
- First, you don't need to understand how to build a website—you just need to understand enough about the functionality of the CMS.
- The content and the layout are separate. Most CMS system use "themes"—a layout overlay (which can be customized). This allows you to change the whole look and feel of a website on the click of a button, but you can still keep your content untouched.
- Changes are simple. If you want to edit a page, there's a simple word processor-like interface to make a tweak. If you want to add something to each page (for instance sharing buttons) that usually requires a simple step like engaging a module. Equally, if you want to add a feature like a site-wide search, that's usually a case of engaging another module.
- The menu structure and organization of pages can be changed (and changed, and changed again) without affecting the content or the layout of the site.
- There's a simple interface to make most changes which can be accessed through any web browser (so you don't need access to any dedicated software or specific files to update your site).
- You can easily set page names in human-friendly format, and additional useful data (meta-data) which aids search engines can be added easily.
The benefits of using a CMS are usually quite clear, however, there are downsides, for instance, the apparent complexity (which is a side-effect of any powerful software). If you want to adopt a CMS but don't have time to learn how to use the software (which isn't an unreasonable position) there are advantages to using an external programmer to help implement the tool. However, as with any solution that involves external input, there is always the risk that your straightforward aims get over-complicated, reducing flexibility for the future.
Control and Painful Technical Stuff
I have shied away from many of the technical issues in this note, but let me just point to one aspect which can cause damage if things go wrong: control.
Your domain name, your URL, is your brand. If you can't control it, then bad things can happen. It's not enough simply to own your domain: you need control. Let me elaborate...
To get a domain name (such as simoncann.com) you need to go to a registrar. The registrar will record two crucial pieces of information (among the many details it records): who owns the domain and who has administrative control over a domain.
The key point to note here is that the person who can make changes is the person named as the administrative contact, not the domain owner. One of the key functions of a registrar is to control the DNS records (Domain Name System record) for a domain. The main function of the DNS record is to point to the location of your site on the internet—it is the DNS record that tells your computer which hosting company has my site and where that could be found when you typed in simoncann.com.
Many web hosts will give you a domain name for free when you set up your website with them. They will record you as the domain owner (which is a good thing) and will record themselves as the administrative contact. It is non-unreasonable to record themselves as the administrative contact—it means they can do all the technical bit to point the DNS record to their servers—but it could pose a problem if you want to leave that host, especially if you want to leave in a hurry.
Even if you own the legal right to the domain, unless you have the physical control, you run the risk that your website could be held hostage. While you will probably win any litigation/moral arguments, do you really want to lose your website and spent time/money taking back control of your site?
Websites are a hugely complex and broad topic and this article has skimmed the surface.
Despite their complexity, websites are a crucial part of your web presence and nearly every author needs to have one (those who don't are probably already household names). That being said, a website in only part of an author's web presence, and should be link to the authors other web presences.
There is no right and no wrong when it comes to setting up a website, but there are better and worse choices, and there is feedback. If you haven't done so already, you should get a website up and running and should then ensure it evolves. Monitor its performance, seek feedback, and keep improving it. Then improve it some more.
Once you have your website running, you should then check out my article Controlling How You Are Presented by Search Engines and Social Media to ensure you are making maximum use of the information on your website.