Keywords: What they are and how to choose them

by Simon Collinson on

What are keywords?

Although search engines are very good at sifting through millions of pages, they’re still not very good at parsing bundles of text or images to work out what they’re really about.

Consequently, search engines rely on human-entered keywords to know what a website or book is about, and what it’s related to. This applies to both external search engines, like Google, and internal ones, like Amazon’s search function.

Keywords are simply a collection of words, such as “novel,” “history,” "Paris," and "World War II France," which might bring up your book when someone searches for “historical fiction.”

Don’t be number 58,356.

Why keywords are important

Unless your customers know the exact details of your book, they will almost certainly use a search engine to find it, so your book needs to be as easy as possible for search engines to find.

All other things being equal, a book with great keywords will be much easier for customers to find than one with no keywords at all—and will therefore see much higher sales.

Who uses them—and who should

The process of making websites easy for search engines to process is called “search engine optimization,” or SEO, and is a very common marketing technique. All large publishers and media companies use these techniques to improve their search rankings—and you should too.

Unfortunately, many authors don’t take advantage of the power of keywords. Titles don’t always make the subject of the book clear, so potential readers might miss your novel about the Civil War entirely if you don’t optimise your keywords so Amazon knows what it’s about.

In fact, small publishers and self-published authors need to use keywords most of all. Well-crafted keywords can go a long way towards making up for the smaller marketing budgets available to boutique publishers and individual writers, since you know that everyone looking for your book will find what they want—and you might even attract a few who didn’t know they wanted it!

Above: some of the keywords we chose for a business book about thriving in competitive, chaotic environments. Notice the differing levels of specificity, which reflect possible related search queries.

How to choose keywords

  • The easiest way to choose keywords is to try and look at your book from a reader’s perspective. Start with the basics: your name, the title of the book, and maybe the publisher.
  • Next, decide what general subject area your book falls under. Is it fiction? Memoir? Biography? Poetry? Put this in as a general keyword, along with variants like “novel,” “autobiography,” and so on. Include areas which your book touches on in less detail, too.
  • Think a little deeper about your text. Is there some specialized subject which is central to your work? This doesn’t have to be an academic subject—it can be a theme, or a place, or a time. If you’re writing fiction, think outside the square and try to describe your characters in general terms: Pride and Prejudice might warrant keywords like “stubborn” and “haughty” as well as “Victorian” and “England.”
  • Learn from your competition. Unless you’re writing in an extremely specialized field, chances are you’ll be facing some competition. Look at their blurbs and marketing material, their tags on Amazon, and even what customer reviews say their books are about. Readers of those other books will probably be interested in your book, too—but they have to be able to find it.

  • Above: keyword ideas from Google’s keyword suggestion tool.

  • Use online tools to determine the most popular searches. Google has a great tool, designed for its AdWords service, which allows you to enter a search term or phrase and see related searches, their popularity per month, and the relative level of competition for advertising. It’s a great way to gather keyword ideas, and even better when combined with Google Trends, which can show you changes in searches’ popularity over time.
  • Another tool is Netspeak. This provides complex search functionality, including wildcards, searches for synonyms, and comparisons of popularity between particular words. It can give you great insight into the exact phrases people use to search for your topic.

Getting help with marketing

If keywords still seem complex and confusing, don’t worry. Here at Vook, we specialize in helping authors and publishers like you deal with technical matters like this, so you can worry about your content and leave the rest to us. Visit today for a free consultation.

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