Market Your Book With SEO - Keywords in Metadata

How to choose Keywords to help optimize book metadata
Keywords help optimize book metadata. chris sadowski / Getty Images

One way to effectively market your book — and sell more books — is to optimize the book's metadata for search engines. And critical components of metadata are keywords and keyword phrases.

Using the right keywords helps "book discovery" — keywords help connect the book with potential book buyers who are searching. 

What Are Keywords and What Role Do They Play in Book Metadata?

Keywords and keyword phrases are words that help describe your book for the purpose of enabling search engines to easily find it.

So it might help to think of relevant keywords as important metadata "adjectives" that can help describe the book's contents. They enable search engines - and, ultimately, the reader - more deeply understand what a book is all about.

Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) subject codes are key book metadata, which, for some subjects, can get pretty specific. For example:

But there are added details that could entice a reader to want to buy, and that's where the keywords come in. For a French cookbook, it might be "French country cooking" or, alternately, "French gourmet recipes," or "foreword by Julia Child."

For a cozy mystery, the keywords could be "Amish," or they could name an established protagonist, such as "Angela Braddock" (of Amanda Flower's Amish Quilt Shop Mystery Series) – a fan might be looking for more of her books.

But for subjects that are less popular than cookbooks or mysteries and BISAC codes are more generic, so keywords and keyword phrases are even more important.

For example, someone who is writing a book on raising chickens would likely use a BISAC code of: TEC003020  TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Agriculture / Animal Husbandry

To drill down to chicken raising specifics, he or she would use keywords and keyword phrases like, "raising chickens," "hens," "roosters," "chicken coops," and "chicken feed."

As search engines become more sophisticated, keywords can be used to give additional context and offer more specificity. In that way, search engines can determine both two critical values of the content:

  • Search relevance
  • Search authority

Keywords and Search Relevance

Search engines can pick out keywords and keyword phrases that are relevant to the search. They look for other contextual keywords to see if the book description — or other search page — fits the bill.

To use the "raising chickens" example, above: If the author is writing a book on raising chickens for eggs, the list of keywords and keyword phrases might also include "candling," "egg crates," "organic eggs," and "pricing eggs." The search engine would not only search for "raising chickens for eggs," but would also recognize these relevant keywords to see what best fits the search terms versus, say, a book on raising show chickens. A show chickens book would have a different set of keywords — such as, "best show chicken breeds," "plumage," and even specifics like  "Silkie," and "Houdan."

How Do You Choose Keywords for A Book? 

To establish keywords for your book:

1. Think Like the Readers

The first step of selecting appropriate keywords is to understand what words and phrases readers are looking for. Of course, that requires that one knows and understands the potential audience for the book.

For non-fiction, drill down into the topic and consider what specifics potential might be looking for (see the "raising show chickens" example directly above). Brainstorm words and phrases as might be applicable.

For fiction, choose keywords with reader appeal or "selling power." Some examples of what might attract a potential reader would be:

  • Type of character – an unruly dog, a recovering addict, a ballerina
  • Setting or location — Amish country, New York City, your hometown, a restaurant
  • Themes or prominent elements – lost love returned, bondage, redemption

    Also, if a book has an element of a popular topic or a current bestseller, by all means, earmark those keywords — "Swedish mystery," "unreliable narrator," "Muhammad Ali."

    2. Test the Keywords

    Google has a free and handy keyword tool – but those new to SEO can just plug your keywords and phrases into the Google or other search engine's search bar and see what comes up:

    • Check the number of results returned is a sign of topic popularity. A search for "cozy Amish mystery series" returned 223,000 results at this writing, while one for "Amish mysteries" returned 616,000. "Amish mysteries" would cast a wider net, while adding "cozy" and "series" might narrow it down. To get more insight —
    • Thoroughly review the search engine results pages (SERPs) to show exactly what the competition is for the potential keywords. If what comes up on the SERPs isn't the right "company" for the book — if it doesn't speak to the same audience — then it's best to rethink the book's keywords.

    How Do Are Keywords Used and Optimized In A Book's Metadata?

    The topline use of keywords and keyword phrases is in the book description. Embedded in the publisher's content management system (CMS), this information is fed to digital book distributors and both online and bricks-and-mortar booksellers - who have websites, as well, etc. As these descriptions (as well as the book's other metadata) is available for search, it is critically important to book discovery that descriptions are optimized. 

    For search engine optimization, book descriptions may be differently written than jacket, flap, or catalog copy of the book. This is because Google displays only the first 156 characters of a description - and it's important to have the book's keywords included in those first sentences. 

    Keywords may change

    For self-published authors and for those traditionally published authors who have a good relationship with their digital marketing departments, book descriptions are fluid and can be changed.

    And that's a good thing for SEO because, if the topic of a book is trending because of something in the news or an upcoming event, the appropriate keywords can be added at the beginning of the description to link the book to the news or the event. (The beginning because of the Google 156 character limit, as noted above).

    For example, suppose a backlist book on the history of boxing included a chapter on Muhammad Ali. When Muhammad Ali passed away, the book description might have been edited to include his name at the beginning.

    Other Keyword SEO Uses

    Other uses of keywords are on author websites, in author content marketing efforts and on social media platforms. Again, keywords are used to help build authorial subject or topic authority.  

    Beware Outdated SEO Keyword "Wisdom"

    "If keywords are important, should I just use a lot of the same ones to improve my SEO?"

    In a word: NO!

    There's a name for that kind on Internet awfulness: keyword stuffing, and these days it's a very bad idea.

    In the early days of search, when algorithms weren't nearly as sophisticated as they are now, keyword stuffing became a popular way of trying to manipulate the search engine system into giving a website or page higher rankings. But it was never a good idea because it turned readers off with awful prose like this:

    "Raising chickens is a fun and potentially profitable pastime. If you want to know how to raise chickens, read on! I'll tell you in this article all about how to raise chickens. Many people want to know how to raise hens (female chickens) specifically so they can get eggs but if you want eggs, you're also going to have to learn how to raise a male chicken (rooster) too…"

    Keyword stuffing is an obviously cheesy ploy, and creates an unpleasant user experience, as it substitutes repetitive blather for actual information.