Long time readers will recall that I wrote half of a draft book about building a publishing website for authors and small publishers last summer. I didn't even get to the rough editing phase for the existing chapters before I dropped the idea, which I'll get back to in a minute. In the meantime, I stumbled across a new book listing on Amazon titled "The Author's Guide to Building an Online Platform: Leveraging the Internet to Sell More Books" by Stephanie Chandler. I don't think I'll read it when it comes out next summer because whether it's good or bad, it will give me an ulcer:-)
I recently attended my first public meeting since the Cape Cod Writer's Conference, which was the inspiration for starting the draft in the first place. Again, I ended up being Mr. Popular because the meeting was well attended with people who had websites that were in search of visitors. I find I'm slowly developing a speech about why most websites are so bad at drawing visitors, despite the best intentions of the designers and the the owners - authors and publishers in our case. It comes down to a few major points. I've written quite a bit already about why aesthetics should be way down the list for authors and publishers, but I didn't quite realize how far out of the loop serious web designers are on this until I talked to several last week.
If you hire a designer who builds websites for banks, for government agencies or nonprofits, for famous actors, writers, etc, you're probably hiring a talented and honest person who can't help you at all. None of the above entities actually care about search traffic beyond showing up at the top of Google for their proper name, which is probably integrated in their domain name. They might claim they care about search, but they don't, and they couldn't tell you if they were getting it or not. Banks want secure websites that work well for their customers, governments and nonprofits want websites that flatter their employees and save on walk-in visitors. Famous people want to create fan clubs, mailing lists, push their products, and none of them do it with search. It's the difference between building Internet versions of an existing business model (what they do) and building content websites to help new readers find you, which is what authors and publishers should be doing.
Some of the most interesting correspondences I've had in the past six months have been with people who read my draft material and contacted me about SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I've held my line that I give free advice but am unwilling to start selling my time, which generally leads them to go elsewhere, but it's entirely cleared up one point in my mind. Just like most self publishers shoot themselves in the foot before they write their first book, nearly everybody who goes about the process of building a website they hope will attract search traffic gets it wrong from the beginning. SEO cannot turn a poorly conceived publishing website into an online magnet. A website designer who builds a pretty site and then asks you for some content to "populate" the pages with has done it all backwards, even if you had a dozen meetings to get to that point. It has to start with the content, around which you can design, or grow, a website.
I've been publishing online since 1995, and can count my readers over that time in the millions, probably in the low tens of millions. It hasn't made me rich, in part because I never set out to become rich and have nothing to sell along with much of my writing, but I've had a long time to analyze what works with with both readers and search engines. And I've put enough writing online to notice that my most successful pages are those for which I spent days thinking about and writing, sometimes including illustrations or photographs. It's not that every page I put a lot of thought and work into has done well, but there are only a handful of pages that I wrote quickly that get any significant number of visitors.
I've literally had web design discussions with people who have looked at my pages and said, "But that's unfair. I can't come up with that kind of content." Well, that's the whole point. Why should people tell their friends about your site and why should search engines send you visitors if you don't have great content? Because you really want to sell some books and are willing to invest in web technology to do it? Yet I keep hearing from authors and publishers who read my draft, and still come away thinking that they can hire somebody to create a successful content based website for them. They can't. It's not about the technology, the aesthetics, the interactivity or the multimedia, it's about the content. If you're an author or a publisher, you have that content, and if people aren't interested in reading a big chunk of it for free, that should tell you something about the potential market for it.
Yes, fiction is a separate discussion, so I'll save it for another day. And while I'm not going to apologize for my tone, I'll admit that I'm proofreading a technical book for the third time before sending it to the editors, and it's making me nuts!