Now that Google has launched its ebook store, it’s time for book publishers and authors to learn a little SEO (search engine optimization).
If you sell shoes or cellphones online, you already know SEO, or you’re out of business.
Until now publishers have played in a different pool — more Amazon/Barnes & Noble than Google — but Google eBookstore suddenly gives booksellers a reason to at least wade into SEO.
Because now if Google can find your book, it can sell your book, a few different ways: via its online eBookstore, or in apps for the Apple and Android platforms, or through one of its independent bookstore partners. (See also: How SEO relates to the Google eBookstore.)
But getting noticed by Google is not easy.
I discovered this when I tried to shelve my experimental ebook, “Ebook Publishers to Watch: 2011,” cover facing out, on the Internet. I put it on Amazon, I uploaded it to Scribd. I created a companion website, with a shopping cart. I sold a few dozen copies, pretty much right off the bat without doing much of anything. Not bad.
But I couldn’t help noticing that as far as Google was concerned I was barely visible.
No, worse than that. My ebook wasn’t even the top result on Google when I entered the exact book title into the Google search bar. It was beaten out by a mention of the book on TeleRead. That was sobering. I started thinking: Was I neglecting some obvious SEO techniques? Should I be choosing keywords? Optimizing chapter titles? Posting an ebook sitemap to Google and Bing? Are there emerging best practices for an ebook author?
Google’s book view
The good news is that even before the Google ebookstore, Google takes books very seriously. I heard this directly from Sergey Brin himself, in a conversation we had after a small press get-together last year. He told me that Google co-founder Larry Page has been interested in scanning and indexing books since the company’s early days. We also talked briefly about his footwear, although I digress.
More recently when I spoke to Matthew Gray, lead software engineer of Google Books Search Quality, he reiterated that visibility of ebooks and books is a priority for Google
“Our goal is making all the world’s information universally accessible and useful, and we believe that a lot of the world’s information is in books,” he said. “So it’s important to us to make that information available. If you need to know something about a disease, or a travel destination, there’s good chance the best information is in a book.”
For publishers who are members of Google’s free Google Books Partner Program — 35,000 publishers have joined since it launched in 2005 — every book’s content is indexed and made available in the search engine’s universal, blended search results. An Internet searcher can usually scroll through about 20 pages of text around the search result, depending on the publisher’s preference. Books that are out of copyright are 100 percent available to Internet searchers. For books with hazy copyrights — the books that are covered by the proposed Google book settlement — Google serves up much shorter snippets of text around the search result.
In all three cases, books are “discoverable” on the search service. For example, during the financial meltdown of late 2008, Internet users searching for “economic crash” discovered “The Great Crash of 1929” by John Kenneth Galbraith, first published in 1955, one of thousands of books on the backlist of Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Normally, Galbraith’s book would have faded from public attention, but the book’s contents were a good match for the search query, and it benefited from the visibility on Google.
Ebook tools and best practices will be examined at the next Tools of Change for Publishing conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011). Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.
Metadata and market signals
But what about new books and ebooks? How does Google determine which new titles, and the more than 15 million books that have been scanned, float to the top of its search results pages: in the web search box and in the ebookstore.
The challenge, for Gray and other Google engineers on the Books project, is that the best known component of Google’s algorithm for determining the the value of a web resource — the number of links to it by others — does not apply to books and ebooks. Although it is possible to link to a selection in certain books on Google Books (here’s a hyperlink into the aforementioned Galbraith title) people don’t generally create links to the contents of a book or ebook. So linking is not a reliable indicator of quality.
My conversation with Gray took place before the launch of the eBookstore,
but it safe to assume the approach has not changed.
One strategy that Google employs is to tap into the book industry’s “rich tradition of metadata.” Gray mentioned that Google considers author blurbs, subtitles, synopses, reviews, and author biographies to be valuable sources of information about a book or ebook.
Today, much of this metadata travels with books in an ONIX file. ONIX, which stands for ONline Information eXchange, is the XML-based standard that contains more than 200 data elements: from author name and title, to book reviews, author photos, and excerpts. Google allows its book partners to provide ONIX feeds, Gray said.
Google also looks at what Gray referred to as “market signals:” how often a book has been reprinted, web searches, recent book sales, the number of libraries that hold the book, etc.
Google’s book search algorithm incorporates more than 100 “signals,” and those signals change constantly. The goal is that all these signals add up to a single, simple result: “That the best way to get a book ranked high on Google Books is to write a really good book,” Gray said
And when the signals point to an obvious target of a book search, Google Books now confidently displays one extra-large result: a super-sized book cover of the title. For example, if Google thinks your search terms indicate that you’re looking for Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” it will feature that at the top of the page rather than any of the half-dozen other books with the same, or very similar, title.
Google uses signals to push obvious results to the top of its listings. In this case, Google assumes a query for “tipping point” means the searcher is looking for Malcolm Gladwell’s book rather than other books with the same title.
3 best practices for getting Google to notice your book
Despite all this signal sniffing, Gray said there are a few practices that authors and publishers can follow to increase the likelihood that a book or ebook comes to Google’s attention.
1. Use descriptive titles and chapter headings — Gray said an approach that favors “cleanliness of information” will make it easy for Google to find relevant content in a book and serve it up to the inquiring mind on the other side of the Google search box.
For example, if a book on the Internet has a chapter on the history of the web, it would be much better to use the title “History of the Web” than simply, “History.”
“We’re going to do the best we can,” he said, “but more complete chapters titles will help us out.”
2. Create quality content outside the book — The content you create around a book can also make a difference. As an example Gray cited the bestseller “Freakonomics,” by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, pointing out that the first result from a search for the title is not the book, but the New York Times “Freakonomics Blog.” That comes ahead of the book’s web page, and the Amazon listing.
Presumably the frequency of the blog updates, the authority of the New York Times, and the number of inbound links to the column on the Times’ website boost the newspaper site’s ranking over the original book.
Yet the column’s prominence also helps the book’s ranking on Google.
As more book publishers use the web to augment the content between the covers, this kind of synergy is likely to become more common. “This blurring of the line between books and other content is something that I expect to happen more and more,” Gray said.
3. Book covers matter — One significant piece of metadata that Google has discovered, Gray noted with wry irony, is the book cover.
“A book cover is actually very rich metadata,” he said. “People associate a cover style with a particular author, or a particular series, and they respond to that. They recognize the cover and say, ‘That’s what I’m looking for’.”
Gray’s advice to book and ebook publishers: pay attention to the covers.
“We have observed,” he said, “that people actually do judge a book by its cover.”