OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Keywords and search engine optimization have been considered important for a long time in the online world, particularly for ranking in the search engines on the first few pages so people can actually find you.
But these principles and tools are also important for your book page on the retail stores. They make up a critical part of the meta-data which is crucial in the discoverability of your book. I also realize this might sound like gobble-de-gook so I will explain further using the example of my non-fiction book, and also my novels, because keywords can also be important for fiction authors.
Although I am wary of anecdotes, because they have no statistical value at all, I do want to share the sales figures for my non-fiction book. Written as a labor of love, it has never sold very well (like many first books) and now I focus on fiction, so I barely mention it. As my worst selling title, it is a good example to use. Here's the background.
I spent 13 years as a miserable IT consultant, unhappy with my work for many reasons and so I embarked on a journey to find work I could be passionate about. The journey of how I found it (and how you can too) is encapsulated in my book: Career Change: Stop hating your job, discover what you really want to do with your life and start doing it! That's the title that I adopted in Dec 2012 after I rewrote the book and also updated the cover. The previous title was How to enjoy your job … or get a new one, and was first published in 2008.
At a purely gut level, I hope you can see which title is better 🙂 but as we go through, you will also note the keyword shift.
What is a keyword anyway?
A keyword is a word or phrase that is associated with your book.
It's based on the words that people actually use to search online and this is a crucial aspect, because often the language you use online is not the language customers might use. For example, many of us have claimed ‘indie author' or ‘indie publishing' but to a new author who is not yet in the tribe, they would only recognize ‘publishing' or ‘self-publishing'.
Importantly a keyword is not just one word and that is critical to remember as you go through the following process. For example, my thriller novel Exodus is associated with the keyword “ark of the covenant” and my non-fiction book with “career change”.
(1) Brainstorm words and phrases
First, make a list of all the words and phrases that are associated with your book. For fiction that will include themes, places, things and anything concrete you can hang your book off.
For Exodus, I might consider keywords: thriller, action adventure, exodus, ark of the covenant, israel, freemasons – as those are the themes of the book and people searching for those things will be interested in it.
For my non-fiction book Career Change, I tried: career change, what should I do with my life, career help, hate my job, career match, career books, choosing a career
(2) Check the usage of keywords in the search engines
Google has a Keyword Search Tool that you can use to discover what search terms people are using and what is most popular. It is primarily used for people wanting to bid on advertising terms, but we can use it as an indication of interest, as well as a verification of the kind of language people use when searching.
As related to my book on Career Change, I tried the following:
* How to enjoy your job – 5400 global monthly searches
* Changing careers – 27,100 global monthly searches
* I need a career – 60,500 global monthly searches
* Choosing a career – 40,500 global monthly searches
* career change – 165,000 global monthly searches
For each search term, Google will recommend a whole load more options. Look through that list and write down anything else with a high number of searches. (Don’t worry about the Competition column as that is aimed at the advertising crowd.)
(3) Check the usage of keywords on Amazon
Amazon doesn’t have a specific tool to check keywords but it does have an auto-populate tool that enables you to see a drop-down of specific words or phrases. Just start typing something in and you’ll get a drop-down. Make sure you’re in the Books/Kindle store if you want to narrow the search down.
Go into Amazon and start typing in the word/phrase you want to check.
My example with career change is shown right.
You can see that I typed in ‘career c’ and it came up with everything that fitted with that. This can help you with deciding on topics or titles, particularly again with non-fiction.
But the principle is the same with fiction. You want the most commonly used keywords in your meta-data.
You should find that some of your keywords from Google don’t even show up in the Amazon listing, so discard those and focus on those which appear in both lists.
[I’d like to acknowledge Michael Alvear who featured this technique in ‘Make a Killing on Kindle’ which is a book I can only recommend with a caution as I definitely don’t advocate fake/bought reviews which he also includes in the book.
With any kind of marketing tactic, please be authentic, honest and consider the value to your customer.
Feel free to read his advice, but as with my own advice, please weigh it up against your own situation and don't assume the same things will work. This is a constantly shifting environment.]
(4) Add the keywords into your metadata
For non-fiction authors, you can use this technique to decide on your book title, and indeed, I changed mine based on the keyword search. This can make a huge difference to appearing in search results and significantly impact your success.
Although I don't have a full year for each title, you can see the difference between January 2012 and 2013 (a huge month for career change books). I changed the title mid Dec. I also changed the cover but not the price. Remember, this is basically a ‘write-off' book for me and not something I market in any other way at all, so any sale is a good sale!
My book sales rank rose within days after the key word changes and now the book ranks on the first page of Amazon.com for the keyword ‘career change’.
Changing a fiction title to include keywords is far more unlikely, but there are two more places to include keywords.
Description: You need a description any time you enter information about your book, so make sure it includes some of your keywords, BUT as a primary rule, ensure that it is people-friendly and not just a list of keywords. More on creating a book description that rocks in this interview with Mark Edwards on secrets of Amazon metadata.
Keywords: On every publishing site there is also a place to enter keywords. This is usually 5-7 keywords/phrases that are associated with your book. Just type in the ones you want to use based on your research.
NOTE: if you don't have control of the publishing process you won't be able to access these keywords, but you can do the research and advise your publisher of what you think is the most appropriate.
The most effective usage will be if the keywords resonate between the title, description and keywords box, ticking all three boxes of metadata.
You can also use these keywords for marketing purposes as well, for example, use them in a guest blog post title, or as part of your website.
OK, I know things like meta-data, keywords, search engine optimization, algorithms and stuff can blow people's minds, but it is an important part of being an indie author!
If you want to learn more about this, I also recommend Nick Stephenson's free video course, Your First 10,000 Readers.
Please do leave any comments or questions below. Have you done keyword research? Has it made a difference to your book?
Kari Benjamin says
Thanks you for the great article.
FYI: The link for Google’s “keyword search” takes you to a place to purchase advertising now. (Which is also an interesting idea but not what I’m looking for at the moment.)
I am going to try these ideas for my book.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks – I fixed that 🙂
Kari Benjamin says
So do you worry about your categories matching your keywords. If my keyword was, for instance “Adventure book for kids” would I also try to have it Juv fic>Adventure story?
Sherri Sand says
I don’t see the link for the Google Keyword Search Tool. Is it still possible to utilize?
Karen Mack says
It seems it is no longer available for free use, only if you are purchasing Adwords. At least I haven’t figured out how to get to it. Going to check out some other free keyword searchers that came up.
S.J. Robinson says
Thank you for your article. I discovered it as I was sifting through the plethora of book marketing information on the web. I had only come across your name recently because of an interview you did with C.J. Lyons. Both so full of down-to-earth advice. I look forward to browsing through your website.
Danie Botha says
Great suggestions on using keywords better!
I’ m working through James Scott Bell’s book, How to make a living as a writer, and he referred in his eBook to your blogpost.
And, thank you also for mentioning Nick Stephenson’s YF10kReaders course.
I signed up last week!
Jane Alawen says
Thanks, Joanna, for the advice.
I think other people take in account the competence level of keywords offered by google in researching a title for their ebooks.
Karl Beckstrand says
I’m stuck: CreateSpace says you don’t have to have your key words in your description (and KDP says use words that are NOT in your description). Not sure which is best (use words from the description or totally unique ones).