CRAFT: You’re Writing for Search Engines, Too: SEO Tips for Writers by Donna Talarico

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Last month I came across a Facebook post from a local used book store, Read Rose Books (a play off of Lancaster’s nickname, the Red Rose City). I wasn’t looking for a book event to attend on First Friday, but the title of the book intrigued me: In Search of the Old Ones: An Odyssey Among Ancient Trees.

interior of book store with owner introducing an author, anthony d fredericks author of in search of the old ones

Co-owner Teddy Boucard (left) introducing author Anthony D. Fredericks

(Sidebar: First Friday is a monthly tradition in Lancaster, and it’s a fantastic event where stores and galleries are open later, where there’s music and artists in the streets, and usually lots of other fun stuff. Many other communities around the country have monthly celebrations like this, and it’s one of the reasons I love my town!)

Anyway, back to those trees.

Oh boy, do I love trees. And, in a day of urban sprawl, I often think about what’s happening to forests (read: where are the birds and squirrels and chipmunks and other woodland creatures going to live?) I feel the habitat loss in my bones: I’m an empath, and those characteristics seemingly extend beyond humanity. So, coming across that book title via the Facebook posting intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more. I realized that this would also be a chance to support a local author I had not yet heard of (a retired education professor from nearby York College of Pennsylvania).

anthony d fredericks reading from in search of the old ones at read rose books in lancaster pa

Anthony D. Fredericks reading from In Search of the Old Ones in Lancaster, PA, on Nov. 3, 2023.

The reading and discussion was fascinating, but one key takeaway for me was not about the book itself: It was the first time in a very long time that I was at a book event with no personal ties to the author. It was a true blue instance of me, a reader, discovering a book on my own.

“It was the first time in a very long time that I was at a book event with no personal ties to the author. It was a true blue instance of me, a reader, discovering a book on my own.” — Donna Talarico

This act of discovery reinforced for me that people can and do still stumble upon authors and books that are outside their own writing circles. And, more important, that not all voracious readers are writers themselves. In a day of information overload, it’s important to make ourselves known beyond our friends, family members, classmates, colleagues, and folks we know from conferences and online writing communities.

Enter organic search.

Now, the book event I referred to at the start of this column was the result of social scrolling, which is another form of discovery. But let’s pretend for a moment that I, as a reader and human—not a writer or publisher— was looking for books that celebrate nature. I might have Googled “books about trees” or “pop sci books about nature” or “nonfiction books about really old trees.” I probably wouldn’t have searched out this author by name, or by title.

Kind of reminds you of the old card catalog, right? You could open a drawer of index cards and peruse by author name, title, or—you guessed it—subject. A familiar frame of reference for many folks who learned this way of browsing (of course, there’s always just looking at the stacks, too!).

When you think of the internet as one giant card catalog, it becomes more clear that searchers find things when they’re cataloged and organized thoughtfully. As writers, and especially as writers of creative nonfiction who have some sort of subject matter expertise, we can help users along by being intentional with the type of content we create, from blog post titles to our bios to book descriptions.

“When you approach all of your content decisions with SEO in mind, you can really take your content marketing to the next level.” — Donna Talarico

If you’re working on a book project and/or are pitching essays and aren’t yet familiar with search engine optimization—often referred to as simply SEO—it’s a good time to start. When you approach all of your content decisions with SEO in mind, you can really take your content marketing to the next level. I’ll share a few SEO tips for authors in a moment, but here are some kinds of searchable (findable) online content—content types you might already be producing in support of your work—that could benefit from SEO:

  • Blog post titles, subheadings, and content
  • Author bios, on your website and ones shown in other publications
  • Products and services page on your website
  • Other pages throughout your website
  • Book description (in all shapes and sizes and locations)
  • Podcast or video descriptions
  • LinkedIn profiles
  • Articles you write for publications (including guest blog posts)

Google (and other search engines) want users to be happy with the search results delivered to users; this means they want to return content that’s relevant, useful, meaningful, and authoritative. In a day of AI, that last point—authoritative—is becoming more vital.

There’s so much to discuss when it comes to SEO in general and how it can help your content marketing plan, whether you’re promoting a book, trying to land an agent/publisher for your book project, or marketing yourself as a subject matter expert or job candidate. I’ll leave you with just a few things to think about, most which involve words but some that address the more technical aspects:

  • What keywords are people likely to use when searching for work like yours? How can you incorporate that into a piece of existing content or how can it inspire new content?
  • Is any of your work highly technical or does it contain industry jargon? Realize that the everyday person might not be searching those “internal” terms; how can you rephrase it? (For example, a budding writer might want to write true stories, but might not yet know to search for “magazines that accept creative nonfiction.)
  • Remember that YouTube itself is a giant search engine and that Google will very often display related video entries on its search engine results page. If you post videos, are you maximizing those titles and descriptions?
  • The same goes for images; are you optimizing the alt text option on any images used throughout your content. This is a good practice for accessibility anyway, and it also can help with search engine optimization.
  • Along with image alt text, image size is also a huge factor; if a site takes too long to load, Google might prioritize other sites over it. Be sure to never upload raw image files and instead, use a lower, web-friendly resolution.
  • Finally, does your website or blog work well on mobile? Google prioritizes sites that do. Most modern content management systems and website buildings (like WordPress or SquareSpace) are built with responsiveness (meaning that it recognizes a user’s device type and displays content accordingly) in mind, but certain plug-ins and customizations might not always render well on a smartphone.

“Writers are wordsmiths; but, there’s a distinction between writing for a literary audience and writing for the web.” — Donna Talarico

Writers are wordsmiths; but, there’s a distinction between writing for a literary audience and writing for the web—key differences between being creative and clever vs. being clear. That’s one of the things I grapple with internally in my day job in higher education content strategy—in those moments when I want to make punny headlines and write compelling ledes. There’s a balancing act between what we write for a living/passion (our books and articles and courses), and the web and multimedia content we produce that helps people find it.

Search engine optimization is one major tactic to add to our platform-building, marketing toolkit. Engaging and nurturing that audience once they find us—that’s a whole other topic! But being discoverable, especially in a day of evolving algorithms and information fatigue, that’s crucial.

If you want to learn more about how writers can use SEO to boost findability, Donna Talarico is hosting Hippocampus Magazine’s next How-To Tuesday on Dec. 5 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. ET. Learn more about the session, Getting Found: Discoverability & SEO for Writers in a Time of AI, Evolving Algorithms and Information Overload, here

donna talarico head shot 2019

Donna Talarico

Founder, Publisher & Managing Editor

Donna Talarico is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and Books and its conference, HippoCamp. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Superstition Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (Modern Love’s Tiny Love Stories), Wanderlust Journal, and The Writing Disorder (from which her essay “A Prequel to My Sister’s” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2022).

While running Hippocampus is a full-time effort in itself, it’s a volunteer position; her *actual* job is as an independent writer and content strategist in higher education. Donna has more than two decades of experience in marketing, communications, writing and media, and about half of that time has been in higher education. She speaks at higher education and publishing conferences, writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others.

Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in several graduate creative writing programs, including Wilkes University and Rosemont College, as well as at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (2010), and, later, she returned to Wilkes to pursue a master’s in literary publishing (2016). She also has an MBA from Elizabethtown College and a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Wilkes.

She lives Lancaster, Pa. with her husband, Kevin Beerman and their cat. She loves road trips, national parks, board games, greasy-spoon diner breakfasts, and museums.

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