Marketing Your Book with SEO: Book Metadata Explained

Help Your Book Get Discovered Online

SEO Doodles - Marketing your book with SEO starts with metadata and keywords.
Marketing your book with SEO starts with metadata and keywords. jamtoons / Getty Images

Search engine optimization is a critical component of marketing a book — or "making a book discoverable" — online today.

Marketing Your Book with SEO Starts with Metadata

Whatever your level and whether you're traditionally published, in partnership with a hybrid publisher, or have self-published your book through a service, the intention of this article is for you to gain understanding and actionable takeaways for marketing by optimizing your metadata for search engines.

It might sound complicated but think of it this way — as is key for every facet of book marketing — the goal is to get information about the book in front of readers who might like it.

Search engines are just the middlemen (middle-people? middle-computer?) who work with a slightly different language than we do. 

The goal of SEO for books is to be a good translator for the search engines, to make book information immediately clearer in search, so Google or Yahoo or Amazon can more efficiently get the book in front of the right reader. 

Why Book Metadata Is So Important to Selling More Books Today

SEO-optimized metadata is key for any book, but it's especially critical in the booming world of digital publishing where many self-published books and hybrid-published books are online-only.

Also, as the vast majority of self-published authors have little or no media platform, little or no traditional bookstore presence, and little or no traditional book marketing or publicity coverage, SEO-optimized metadata is the critical tool by which those books are discovered.

Tools like SEO, metadata, keywords, and BISAC codes are vitally important to traditionally published books, as well. But while digital book marketers at publishing houses do lots of the keyword thinking and metadata heavy lifting here, there are important ways in which traditionally published authors can deploy metadata knowledge as well to help optimize book discovery in search.

So first, the basics.

Metadata for Books – A Simplified Definition

"Data" is, of course, information; "meta" is from the Greek meaning "higher level."

"Metadata" can be loosely defined as "top-line information about the data." For hardcore data-driven businesses (like database marketing companies), this can get complicated. But for books and authors, we can start with one, simplifying premise:

The Book is the "Data

If you think of a book as the data, a book's metadata is the top-line information about the book. A book's basic metadata includes:

  • Book title
  • Book subtitle
  • Author
  • Book Description (aka "flap copy" and "back copy")
  • Publisher
  • ISBN
  • BISAC Code / Book Category (more about that later)
  • Page count
  • Number of Illustrations
  • Publication date
  • Etc.

How Metadata for Books Gets Circulated Online

When a book is acquired and goes to contract, the book's metadata begins to be collected onto the publisher's database, which gets updated throughout the book's development and production and is included in the publisher's sales catalogs, both print and online. Here, visual information is usually added, such as the jacket photo (note that images need to be optimized differently, you'll hear more about that in a different article).

For a self-published book, generally the author provides this metadata information to the self-publishing and distribution services.

When a book is published, its metadata is provided via computer "feed" to appropriate bookselling databases and websites its traditional or hybrid publisher, through its self-publishing service or by its self-publishing author. Examples of these databases are:

  • Wholesale and back-end book bookstore and library inventory, sales, and distribution systems, such as Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Edelweiss / Above the Treeline.
  • Book retailers, like Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound (whose system enables sales through independent bookstores).

    Again, for self-published books, which databases get the book's metadata depends on the specific self-publishing service and the agreement the individual author has with the service, and under what print and ebook retailers will distribute the book. 

    Additionally, the metadata is input manually by authors or marketing and publicity teams to online platforms:

    Brick-and-Mortar Book Discovery vs. Online Book Discovery

    In a bookstore, readers can "search" the actual "data" as well as the metadata. And, in the print book world, the basic "metadata" can be found right on the book's jacket. But reader "searching" for a printed book in a bookstore can "crawl" not only the metadata but the actual "data," as well.

    A potential buyer in a brick-and-mortar bookstore can look at the cover, read the entire flap and jacket copy, look, learn the author's bio, even read the table of contents and flip through and skim pages of the physical book. They can "discover" a book by getting a very full picture of all the data. 

    But search engines don't search the "data"…. 

    Search Engines Search the Book Metadata

    Search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing don't look through entire books or author websites (or any other web pages for information (yet).

    Instead, as a kind of shortcut, they use ever-more sophisticated and highly secret algorithms to "crawl" (scan) Internet pages for relevant metadata that fulfill reader searches. In the fraction-of-a-second search, they review about ten gazillion web pages — from databases, wiki sites, institutional websites, blogs, social media sites — of all sorts to find the information that best fulfills the query.

    Note that the proprietary algorithms also take into account other factors to more deeply assess relevance, authority, popularity, etc. but for now we're concerned about metadata.

    Online booksellers, most notably, Amazon.com, the largest online retailer, are not general search engines but contain their proprietary search engines specifically tailored to bookselling. As online booksellers and ebook sellers provide millions of potential reader eyeballs and — best of all — reader credit cards, they are critical in the discovery and sales of both print book and ebooks.

    In addition to metadata feeds from the publisher, online bookseller search engines look for pertinent book information that the bookseller has itself collected — such as reader reviews and actual sales rankings.

    Why Search Ranking Is Important to Book Discovery and Sales

    The higher up the book lands on the search engine results pages ("SERPs") — aka the higher the search engine or Amazon "ranking" — the more potential readers will see and "discover" the book, and the more possible sales the book will have.

    Being in the top three or four results is ideal; being in the first page of search results is critical to getting attention for your book. It's not an easy goal and it's very easy for a book to get lost.

    "Paid search," FYI. To complicate matters a bit, search engines and online booksellers sell valuable real estate to advertisers and retail sites (including publishers and authors) who pay money for their services and wares to appear in specific search results or on particular pages where readers are most likely to see them. (For example, as a bookseller, Amazon utilized book publishers cooperative advertising funds to include books in certain promotions).

    Search engine "paid search" or "sponsored search" results are distinguished from "organic search," which cannot be bought. However, sponsored searches take up "real estate" and leave less room on the page for organic search results.

    For that reason, it's even more important to understand how organic search ranking — the free kind that authors and publishers aim for — and that be boosted by optimizing book metadata and utilizing other good SEO practices.

    Key to Book Discovery - Optimizing Book Metadata for Search

    Again, search engine optimization has a very human goal — to give a book the best chance of connecting with as many readers as possible through the search engine "translators." 

    There are three pieces of metadata where optimization strategy can make a positive impact:

    • BISAC codes (that is subject codes for categories)
    • Book title and subtitle
    • Book description

    Optimizing Keyword Use for Book Discovery

    Both book title and book description strategies involve keywords, which are an integral part of metadata and is a topic unto itself. You should do your keyword research before creating your book title and book description metadata - learn here about choosing and using keywords for your book.

    Optimizing Book Metadata - BISAC Codes

    Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) codes are alpha-numeric codes that represent categories or subjects for books. There are 54 major BISAC book subject headings, such as Fiction, Self-Help, and Travel. Under those subject heading are approximately 3000 subjects. Amazon's browsing categories align with BISAC codes. 

    Here's an example of a BISAC code:

    • SEL000000  is for SELF-HELP / General
    • SEL030000  is for SELF-HELP / Personal Growth / Memory Improvement

    Every book published needs to have BISAC codes assigned to them; the codes help brick-and-mortar as well as online booksellers categorize their wares. As such, they're important tools.

    Technically, a publisher can use as many BISAC codes as they want, though a maximum of three is recommended for any one book. Amazon Kindle users can input two BISAC codes.

    BISAC codes are relatively general but used in combination they can call out additional subject nuances. Used strategically, they can bring additional eyes to the book. 

    For example, if you were the author of an Amazon Kindle paranormal murder mystery featuring a private detective, you might choose the following BISAC codes in the hopes of reaching the mystery readers and the paranormal readers who like P.I.  protagonists.

    • FIC009050 FICTION / Fantasy / Paranormal
    • FIC022090 FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Private Investigators

    Caution should be taken to strike a balance between book description and audience reach. If you're too narrow in your codes, you risk losing audience; if you're too broad in a popular subject, your book may get lost.

    To gain insight and get the most optimized codes for your book, search for your BISAC code text (not the alpha-numeric code, but the full subject heading and text like Fiction / Fantasy / Paranormal) on sites like Amazon, bn.com, and Goodreads and take a look at the pages of competition. If you're going to be traditionally published, discuss your book's BISAC codes with your editor and/or digital marketing team. 

    Optimizing Book Metadata - Book Title and Subtitle

    There are many critical factors that go into creating the perfect book title — metadata is just one. Others are originality, context, competition, a "hook," euphonic qualities, and more. That said, there are things to keep in mind regarding titles, especially those that are non-fiction. 

    • DO see if keywords are appropriate in the title - The Beekeeper's Bible kind of says what it is and says it all - a comprehensive, classic, indispensable book on a specific topic.
    • DO think about the very current competition... The Girl on the Train is a hugely deserving bestseller, but would it have had stratospheric sales and attention had it not also been a "Girl," which - like the bestsellers Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - maybe had an "unreliable narrator" keyword phrase? 
    • DON'T go over 60 characters in your title. Longer than that and (according to Amazon, which is in a position to know), you risk the reader skipping right by. 

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