You can improve your chances of building a successful online business around a content based website if you learn to think like your customers. Established publishers have plenty of experience building brands around personalities and imagery, but they make a mistake by seeing the Internet as a mere extension of their pre-existing marketing techniques. Branding is traditionally synonymous with spending money on advertising, even "viral" advertising campaigns cost big dollars, especially if you amortize the failures against the small number of successes. Every new publisher's main goal for an Internet site should be attracting new readers through search. You can serve your fan base through author blogs, videos and other one-to-many broadcasts, but it's the new readers who build a new publishing business.
Quality writing and useful information will always be the main key to engaging, and perchance selling to, the readers who arrive at your website. But getting new readers to arrive at your website in the first place is the obstacle that most book publishers never overcome. You may think the best way to engage new readers is through turning a pretty phrase or drawing a clever allusion, but unless you are plagiarizing directly out of the brains of your potential readers, it's unlikely that they will be searching on your pretty phrase or clever allusion. Try to think of your website for a moment as an independent bookstore. Do you think you'll get more useful walk-in traffic if you have a sign that announces your store as a Turkish Bath with red satin curtains over the windows, or if your sign includes the word "books" and a number of books are displayed in the windows?
Useful walk-in traffic on the Internet is known as targeted traffic, visitors who are likely to be interested in what you are selling rather than the merely curious or red curtain voyeurs. The way to reach out to that targeted traffic with a content based website is to find out how they go about looking for whatever it is you have to sell them. If you publish books about architecture, you need to figure out how your target audience goes about searching for design ideas or the history of timber framing, whatever your titles may be. You don't need to draw up an FBI profile of your readers, it wouldn't help in any case. What's key is the words and phrases they use in searching for your subject matter online.
Since thinking like a reader turns the publishing concept on its head, I'll risk repeating the point to drive it home. Attracting readers through search isn't about turning a pretty phrase on your web page, it's about understanding what phrases your potential customers are likely to type into a search engine. Once you have that information, you can properly title your web pages, and write the content so that the search engine will understand that your content is a good match for their users searches. Otherwise, your quality content may never be visible in the search engine results, drowned beneath the weight of inferior pages and even keyword stuffers. It's like the old joke about the religious man who cries to heaven that he never wins the lottery, and finally the Lord speaks to him from a cloud and thunders, "Buy a ticket." You have to meet your readers halfway.
So how do honest publishers go about finding out what their readers are searching for online? Well, if you have a lot of money and time you can fool around with focus groups, paying to watch people do searches or hiring academics to put their slaves, I mean students, on the job. But for most of us, a knowledge of the field (which you better have as the publisher) and some research with online tools is the best approach. Today I'm going to stick with a couple of Google tools, Google Trends and the Adwords Keyword Tool. Google Trends is ideal for investigating the use of popular search phrases over time and is a topic I've already blogged about in the context of vampires and SciFi. The Adwords tool is less familiar to most publishers, but it delivers much more detail on less popular phrases that are likely used in searching for your books.
The main thing you need to be aware of when using the Adwords Keyword Tool is the pull down menu to the right for "match type". There are four different match types, the first three of which are different flavors of the same thing. The default match type is "broad" which means Google includes all searches that included the phrase words. The next is "phrase", which only includes searches that included the phrase words in exact order, and the last is "exact" which is limited to searches that consisted of the phrase and nothing but the phrase. The "broad" and "phrase" results will often be the same if the phrase is practically a compound word, like "Self Publishing", for which the result for the month of June is rounded to 165,000 in both cases. But the "exact' result for "Self Publishing" is about a fifth of that total at 33,000. A phrase containing words that are often used in the same sentence without being connected, like "Laptop Fan", yields 110,000 for "broad" results, 49,500 for "phrase" and just 9,900 for exact. Note that in all the cases above I'm using the U.S. numbers, the global numbers are a higher if the phrases are used outside of North America.
The most important information the keyword tool offers is not the results for the phrases you think will be popular, but the results for the related phrases that Google offers up under the heading "Additional Keywords To Consider." This is where Google politely points out to advertisers who are looking for customers that they may be targeting the wrong phrases. For example, additional keywords for self publishing include such suggestions as "book printer", "book marketing", "writing a book", phrases that contain neither of the original keywords or variations. What Google is telling us is that companies who advertise for the phrase get results from people who search on these other phrases as well.
In terms of how well the number of searches reported by Google matches up with the results I see on my website, I'll have to sit down some day and put a serious effort into working it out. The quick check suggests that for exact phases that bring readers to my website, I get somewhere between 25% and 100% of the volume reported by Google when my site comes up #1 in the Google results. The lower percentages tend to correspond with the shorter search phrases, which makes sense since it's more likely that the title and snippet displayed by Google is enough for the searcher to know that it's not what they were thinking when they typed their two word query. I'm also using my Google rankings from August to compare with search results from June (the latest available) so some of the pages that are now ranked #1 may well have been lower a month or so ago.
All this business with phrases is something you need to know about, but not anything you should obsess over to the point of spending money on SEO. In the end, a good content website will get the majority of its traffic from Long Tail phrases, as described in the video below.